If you work in an office every day, start preparing for changes: Your role may look entirely different or may not exist at all within a few years, according to a new study from communications software provider Unify.
More than one-third of so-called knowledge workers — defined in the study as employees who "think for a living," such as directors and business owners in a variety of fields including healthcare, financial services, public education, automotive and energy/utility — believe the roles they are in today won't be around at all within the next five years, and 65 percent think their jobs will look much different.
Fluctuating work environments, the the rise of independent workers and digital transformations will likely play roles in how knowledge-worker positions change in the coming years, the researchers said.
"The modern work environment is complex, busy and constantly changing," the study's authors wrote. "People, specifically knowledge workers, are often the most valuable resource a businesses has, but they too face the onset of change — through new technologies, new entrants into the workforce and uncertainty about the future of their roles."
One area that's already changing is work location. The research showed that although knowledge workers still value going to an office, it isn't as critical as it used to be: 70 percent of those surveyed said having a single office as a physical workplace is less important than it was in the past.
Currently, knowledge workers spend, on average, 20 percent of their time outside the traditional office work environment, and 27 percent said they want to spend between one-quarter and one-half of their time outside their office.
Despite those desires, employees still like having an office they can go to at least some of the time. Less than 10 percent of knowledge workers want to spend between three-quarters and all of their time outside the traditional office environment, according to the study.
In addition, many knowledge workers are working with a more dispersed group of co-workers. More than half of those surveyed are working in more virtual teams distributed across offices and locations than they had previously. [See Related Story: The Pros and Cons of Virtualization]
Many employees see this change as positive: More than 40 percent of knowledge workers said virtual teams are more effective than face-to-face teams, while 36 percent said creative thinking is one of the biggest benefits of working with people virtually.
Cloud-based technology is helping to support this type of working environment. Nearly 60 percent of the employees surveyed said they use on-demand tools via the Internet for teamwork, project management or virtual collaboration.
"Today, knowledge workers have an unrivaled freedom in how they connect and engage with each other," Jon Pritchard, CEO of Unify, said in a statement. "This has been provided to them, by and large, through technology."
Another shift is that, rather than being employed by one company, a growing number of employees are working independently. More than 20 percent of those surveyed already work as freelancers or contractors, and 53 percent would consider changing to a freelance or on-demand model of work if it were offered.
The research also revealed that people younger than 45 are the most likely to want to work as freelancers, and that people age 55 and older are the least likely to want to do so. In addition, directors and senior managers are the groups most likely to want to work as contractors, and junior workers and recent graduates are the groups least likely to want that.
"There is evidence to suggest that desire/willingness to work in an on-demand model decreases by age but increases by seniority," the study's authors wrote.
In addition, the study found that work-life balance is improving for many workers. Overall, 95 percent of knowledge workers said they currently have a good balance between their work and personal lives, and 50 percent said their work-life balance has improved in the past five years.
"As technology continues to proliferate in both our work and personal lives, we expect to see knowledge workers become more and more adept at integrating these two worlds," said Tim Bishop, head of strategy at Unify. "They will set their own boundaries and naturally strive to find new ways of working – especially as their own lives become more complex."
The study shows that there are some dramatic changes ahead in the ways people work, Pritchard said.
"As knowledge workers continue to construct the future of work for themselves, employers must keep up," he said. "It is up to the global business community to recognize this and provide the tools that their knowledge workers most desire — those that will enable the creativity and innovation that the workforce is demanding."
The study was based on surveys of 9,000 knowledge workers — workers whose main capital is knowledge, whose job is to "think for a living" and who have access to technology as part of their day-to-day jobs — in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.