Some claim the pandemic is over and it's time for employees to return to the office; others argue that remote work is here to stay.
Some fear being replaced by artificial intelligence (AI); others see AI as providing help and improving productivity.
A new report starts to answer these questions. McKinsey's Global Survey, called "The state of AI in 2023: Generative AI's breakout year" (a survey of "1,684 participants representing the full range of regions, industries, company sizes, functional specialties, and tenures"), shows how rapid the growth of AI in business has already been.
The report found that "industries relying most heavily on knowledge work are likely to see more disruption — and potentially reap more value." This is especially true of tech companies as well as "knowledge-based industries such as banking, pharmaceuticals, and education." (Manufacturing industries involving human physical labor will likely see less change from AI.)
As expected, the report found that "few companies seem fully prepared for the widespread use of generative AI."
The study identifies what it calls high-performing AI businesses (defined as businesses where at least 20% of revenue is attributed to AI) are less likely than low-performing firms to use AI as a source of new business and revenue, as opposed to cost-cutting.
But the most telling insight from this report is how AI has already begun to change the "job landscape."
The survey predicts that some 12 million people in the US will be made redundant by AI.
These roles typically comprise routine and repetitive tasks. Many of these jobs are in food service, customer service, office support, and production. Besides automatability, these jobs are not eligible for remote work, for the most part.
Other jobs, especially in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), healthcare, construction, and other professions, will find that AI creates growth opportunities.
There are two things to note about the technology and engineering jobs under discussion here.
These job categories are already chronically understaffed, with workers more likely to suffer from burnout. These are areas where AI will absolutely come to the rescue, tackling an increasing amount of repetitive drudgery and freeing humans to focus on the more creative aspects of the job.
The McKinsey report, in fact, identifies three broad job categories where the future holds massive increases in demand for workers: a whopping 30% increase in the need for health professionals, including technical health workers, by 2030 and an incredible 23% demand for STEM workers, including all IT and information-systems employees.
Among the jobs with skyrocketing demand are technology fields already suffering from serious talent shortages.
It's easy to see how AI will improve these jobs, not threaten them.
And now, we get to the remote work part.
Why remote work is here to stay
Advocates for ending remote and hybrid work often talk tough about forcing employees back to offices. They're usually bluffing.
The reality is that we exist in a capitalist marketplace, where supply and demand dictate not only prices but salaries and benefits as well.
The evidence? Tech companies that have vociferously embraced back-to-office mandates and an end to remote work are, in fact, quietly seeking remote workers. Specifically, Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft collectively have more than 700 remote positions currently advertised.
Despite their public anti-remote proclamations, they're doing this because it is simple: supply and demand. They need workers, and there aren't really enough in those positions to go around. So, they're sweetening the offer by specifying remote.
In STEM generally, according to the McKinsey report, demand for technology and engineering positions will increase by 23% — and no doubt many roles will see much higher increases.
Companies of all kinds simply won't have the luxury to demand that existing or prospective employees in high-demand fields work in an office if they don't want to.
According to McKinsey's survey, those crucial, understaffed positions will grow enormously over the coming years, even as AI reduces the number of employees that must do location-specific work.
The report is clear — the future of work will feature a lot of AI and many employees working remotely.