25. November 2020

Finding opportunities in change

What do charcoal burners, coopers and typesetters have in common? They are all jobs that are almost completely extinct. Time waits for no one. That was true 100 years ago and it’s true today. Virtually every industry has jobs that are seemingly endangered thanks to digitalization and automation. But according to experts who study the future of work, these changes are more of an opportunity than a threat.

“Every job has a sell-by date”

“Every job has a sell-by date”. That’s what Raphael Gielgen, a trend scout at Vitra and expert in the future of work, believes. Throughout history, there have always been certain professions that die out. In 2018, for example, Germany’s last coal mine closed, bringing a chapter of the country’s industrial history to an end. There are now no more active coal miners in Germany. That is one side of the equation.

On the other, new jobs are created in industries that are growing. The end of coal mining did not spell the end for the German energy industry. It has continued to develop, becoming more sustainable in the process. In our recent Picavi Expert Talk, Gielgen explained how businesses should look at these shifts in the working world.


Permanent beta status

Instead of hoping to be spared by this process, companies should seek to grow with the changes in their industry. To do so, they need to recognize the current signals and interpret them correctly. That is because time is one of the most important resources we have when it comes to the future of work, as it allows us to prepare for changes. It lets us modify our established core business and move into new fields.

The trend scout sees this “permanent beta status” as the driving force behind all forward-thinking business development. Broad-based companies can react more flexibly to future challenges, whether they are the result of an immediate crisis or long-term structural change. We now see the current trend towards greater environmental protection and product sustainability as normal, for example, although there had been signs of this emerging for decades. Businesses who detect the signals early on and interpret them correctly will become pioneers in the new sectors that emerge as a result.

Continuous development for employees too

But if companies want to take this more holistic position, they need to pay greater attention to their employees. Just like the business itself, Gielgen believes that employees are also in a continuous process of development. Employees must also be able to question established ways of thinking or “unlearn” outdated methods. At the same time, they need to learn new skills in order to work more flexibly in the future. Online courses should not be the sole tool for this learning, however. Instead, there should be greater emphasis on continuous sharing of experiences with colleagues and people from other industries. This is the only way to create a permanent flow of new input for how we go about our work.

Tasks that are today seen as routine could be obsolete in ten years’ time and replaced with new ones. Think of the old pneumatic dispatch systems in big companies and the people who were responsible for them. Thanks to the rise of simpler telecommunications or web-based messaging tools, this method of communication became obsolete in the vast majority of buildings. But this in turn led to new professions that ensure smooth communications in buildings, such as IT technicians or programmers.

This change process can be brutal, especially for those who are unprepared. Companies must therefore be aware that the world of work is constantly changing. To make sure the message of this blog post sticks, here are the three most important things for you to remember:

  1. Every job has a sell-by date. No business can stop social and economic evolution.
  2. Companies must take a closer, more critical look at the areas in which they operate. How can we develop successful parts of our business over time? What expertise do these areas give us and where else can we apply these skills?
  3. Employees must be constantly developing. Employers must help them become more flexible. Only by doing so can they gradually implement the long-term changes in the business.

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