The future of work 2025: navigating workplace change

The future of work 2025: navigating workplace change

The pace and rate at which our world (and workplaces) have changed in the past three decades has been tremendous. And there’s no sign things are slowing down.

So, what does this mean for the future of work, particularly in the legal space? I think we can adopt three perspectives to see what’s on the horizon:

  • First, looking at the issues our clients (and wider markets) are grappling with
  • Second, understanding what our people want – and the shape of our firm in this future
  • Third, anticipating what future employees are looking for so we are well placed to attract, retain and motivate tomorrow’s talent

This presents many challenges – but there are also opportunities for those who can grasp them by adjusting their ways of working.

Client and market insights: adapting to the democratised workplace

Workforce activism is increasingly making headline news around the world. Companies are grappling with employees and casual workers making their feelings known – and voices heard – in any way they can, amplified by social media.

In a world where purpose is becoming increasingly important and profit is not the only key driver, employees are becoming more vocal in articulating their views about their workplace, employer or wider social issues via online platforms.

To help us better understand the rise in workforce activism – and the reasons for it – we conducted research with 375 global C-suite executives.

The resulting report, ‘Future of Work: Adapting to the democratised workplace’, foresees an unprecedented rise in workplace activism across all sectors and geographies.

It is not an issue that is going away anytime soon, with more than 80% of respondents expecting to see a rise in activism among employees and casual workers in the future.

The research shows that over half of those surveyed (55%) see workforce activism as a significant risk to corporate reputation – a risk only exceeded by cyber threats (65%) and fears of a new global economic slowdown (62%).

Employers need to be prepared for what’s ahead. The workplace is more democratic. It is a new world with different expectations.

The good news is that this expectation – that employers will provide a broader purpose that their employees can identify with and support – is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to clarify and expand the employer’s purpose and allow it to be a magnet around which people can coalesce to take the organisation forward.

For businesses, there is no one-size-fits-all response. It might mean adopting a new mind-set, changing leadership styles, or adapting established policies and procedures. Our report revealed the cost to organisations that get this wrong could be as high as 25% of annual global turnover.

It certainly means getting the people equation right: better protecting and nurturing trust between the organisation and its employees; creating a compelling vision for the future; and, above all, taking the time to listen and learn.

Employees and employers: a new dynamic

Our people have told us they would like more control over when, where and how we work. In recent years, we have made changes to encourage agile working – and home working, in particular – to help our teams balance their work and lives.

Alongside agile working, a common theme is flexibility. This applies to the way people work, as well as their career expectations more generally. A law firm job may no longer be a job for life – and that’s OK.

The rise of the gig economy is a manifestation of a broad-based desire to work differently, enabled in many cases by technology advances.

How our people tell us what they want is key. Digital technology provides a convenient way for employees to express their views. Concerns can be aired at the touch of a button. This means employers should be transparent about the channels their employees are advised to use and the manner in which they use them. It’s about having guidelines in place to create a forum for debate without simultaneously stifling it.

Hearing these voices and feedback matters in particular for engagement, but also productivity and because people want different things. Our compact with them is changing. For example, there are now different routes to partnership emerging – something that would have been hard to imagine some 30 years ago. But thankfully, things have changed. I was really proud when we made up a partner who had trained at another law firm, moved in-house and then joined us as a Professional Support Lawyer. That richness of experience benefits her clients and our partnership.

I think there are some great prospects for today’s lawyers in tomorrow’s future. Take our Design Thinking and Legal Technology Group (DTLT), which was set up a couple of years ago by some young lawyers in Australia. The DTLT has evolved into a global, grassroots and virtual network of lawyers and Business Services colleagues who are intensely future-focused. A ‘ginger group’ within a law firm. The core leadership is all under 30 and they are tremendously engaged and energised.

The team originally came together to see how they could learn high-value skills and prepare for the future of law – and shape it themselves. They’re not just focused on technology. They also work on honing and constantly developing some skills of the future: curiosity, creativity and openness.

While they are like-minded, they are not all alike. Individuals have cultivated different interests and areas of expertise (for example, some focus on blockchain, others on the development of apps, while some are more interested in culture change).

Market opportunities don't present themselves to reflect our internal organisational structure so that we can neatly pick them up – we need nimble and agile groups who can act fast, scale up and down as needed. This provides new ways of working, and for our combined teams to play, experiment and innovate in safe environments.

So, employees have made their expectations and wishes clear. What does the Future of Work look like for employers?

It’s hard to say, except it will not look the same as today, simply because no firm, business or organisation can afford to stand still. As employee preferences and expectations change, it's the job of leadership to see (and seize) the opportunities while relentlessly focusing on attracting and retaining the best people.

As agile working becomes the norm, firms may find chances to reassess office space requirements and look at how to use tech to find ways of doing things differently (and more efficiently). With the democratisation of the workplace, it could mean changing when and how businesses engage with their people and teams. And with the speed of change, it means doing all of this sooner rather than later.

A lot of people have thrown their hats in the ring with predictions about the future. One thing I know is that while the future of work is going to be new and different, we don't have all the answers yet. The coming months and years offer us a chance to explore the changes together, adapt mind-sets and look at new ways of doing things. That is the real future – and the opportunity – of work. 

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About the author:

Mark Rigotti is a Partner and Senior Adviser at Herbert Smith Freehills and sits on the Boards of the European Australian Business Council and the Australasian Korean Business Council. He recently completed his second term as Global CEO.

As CEO, he was Chair of the firm’s Global Executive, Chair of the Global Diversity & Inclusion Group and a Member of the HSF Global Partnership Council.

Mark developed and drove the firm's vision to be “a world class professional services business bringing together the best people to achieve the best results”. He spearheaded the launch of the “Beyond 2020” global strategy, focused on five key areas: clients, sectors and products; people, performance and leadership; service delivery; innovation and technology; and platform.