The forces reshaping our jobs are coming faster than ever

This article is part of "Workforce Innovation," a series exploring the trends and leaders shaping enterprise transformation.

Work doesn't work like it used to.

Remote and hybrid work setups are standard — and likely here to stay. Generative artificial intelligence is making its way into many offices, bringing opportunities but also concerns that, as these bots get better, demand for workers might drop.

In the C-suite, the rise of roles like chief digital officer and chief data officer reflects the need for diverse skills, from digital transformation to employee wellness and sustainability.

Meanwhile, many employers are paying more attention to how employees are feeling. Some leaders are openly discussing mental-health challenges and ways to manage stress and fight burnout.

And despite political pushback against diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, many young people entering the workforce say they care about DEI.

Business Insider's "Workforce Innovation" series will explore how our jobs are changing by digging into four themes: AI, the changing C-suite, worker well-being, and DEI.

As part of the series, we're also convening a Workforce Innovation Board, which will be announced in August. The board will be composed of C-suite leaders from HR, strategy, technology, and DEI. The Board will convene regularly to share insights on the forces driving innovation where we work.

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Artificial intelligence will be a job killer. AI will become your digital assistant. AI will take over everything. The variety of predictions about what AI will mean for the workplace — and beyond — is wide. And while it's too early to say with certainty how the technology will remake our 9-to-5s, many experts say there will be big changes.

AI could help train workers. And it could help weaker performers get better at their jobs. It could help boost overall productivity. As a result, companies are fighting for workers who can develop AI models.

Daron Acemoglu, an institute professor in the economics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told BI he agreed with the notion that AI could represent one of the biggest changes since the rise of the internet. Yet he said it's unclear how reliable the technology would be at doing parts of — or all of — people's jobs.

Daron Acemoglu
Daron Acemoglu, an institute professor in the economics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Cody O'Loughlin

Acemoglu said that some employers rushing to swap people for bots might realize that some AI tools lack the versatility of humans.

"These models have very limited capabilities," he said. "So if you adopt them too quickly and without enough thought, you might actually not get anything like the productivity boosts that you were expecting."

Acemoglu said it's likely some workers — particularly at the high end of the pay scale — would have AI assistants to help them get more done. For others, especially office workers earning middle-class or lower-middle-class incomes, it's unknown how AI might help or hurt.

"Whether that person is ever going to have any type of help from AI or whether it's going to be his replacement being trained by AI, we'll have to see," he said.

The C-suite is getting more crowded, and jobs like chief growth officer and chief AI officer are becoming more common.

The rapid evolution of technology requires corporate leaders to elevate more players to the C-suite to help manage it all, according to Ty Wiggins, the global lead of the CEO- and executive-transitions practice at the recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates.

Increasing amounts of data and the emergence of AI, Wiggins told BI, require companies to have roles beyond chief information officer or chief technology officer. It wasn't long ago, he said, that tech functions might have simply fallen under a chief operating officer or a chief financial officer.

Ty Wiggins
Ty Wiggins, global lead of the CEO- and executive-transitions practice at Russell Reynolds Associates.Georgie Clarke

Corporate chiefs now need to have closer connections to different aspects of the business — especially emerging ones like AI, Wiggins said.

"If that function is not reporting directly into you, you are two steps away from something that's moving so quickly that has a significant impact on the organization and your performance as CEO," he said.

Wiggins, the author of "The New CEO," said the C-suite continues to shift away from a place focused on reporting about various aspects of a company to becoming the "top team" tasked with helping the CEO solve the biggest problems facing an organization.

"The C-suite is no longer just a reporting body," he said. It's not enough for CFOs to pump out financial reports or the head of human resources to lobby for increased hiring, Wiggins said.

"There is an enormous pressure now on C-suite executives to really move from being a technical expert to a technical leader of other experts and to join the C-suite in a way that means that they can contribute to the other functions," he added.

The well-being of workers has drawn greater attention since the pandemic. Many employees report feeling stressed out. And various mental-health challenges are hitting workers — and businesses, as a result. Depression and anxiety alone sap the global economy of an estimated 12 billion productive workdays each year, the World Health Organization says, adding that the annual cost of that reduced output totals almost $1 trillion.

Carly Holm, the founder and CEO of Humani HR, a consulting firm, told BI that challenges around workers' mental health are bigger than ever. Yet, as the problems grow, more companies are looking at narrower interventions over a one-size-fits-all program, like offering counseling services that not everyone will want to use.

"A gym membership may be great for some people, but other people may not be interested in going to a gym," she said.

Carly Holm
Carly Holm, the founder and CEO of Humani HR.Leah Smith

A better approach, Holm said, is talking to employees about their needs. Often, this involves something that's not expensive or even difficult to implement, such as flexible work schedules. Or it could involve offering wellness days in addition to vacation days.

Business leaders often consider extra days off a major expense, she added. But that extra time away, Holm said, is correlated with improved productivity and business performance.

"Having that flexible workplace so that people can kind of merge life and work, I think, really goes a long way," she said.

Employers also can adjust policies that might not be working, Holm said. Unlimited paid time off sounds great, but if workers don't use it, they lose the chance to recover. Instead, she said, setting a minimum PTO might be a better approach. Some employers, Holm said, are telling workers they need to take a week or two in a row — and not just a day or two here and there.

"They see the value and getting their employees to unplug," she said.

"The data is clear: When your employees are healthy, when they are happy, they're going to work better," Holm said.

DEI feels like a buzzword gone bad. Companies that a few years ago were happy to talk about their efforts to make their workplaces more equitable are now far less likely to mention DEI in quarterly earnings calls. Some companies have also been cutting DEI jobs.

It's a notable about-face. DEI initiatives rose toward the top of many corporate to-do lists after George Floyd's murder in 2020 and the racial reckoning that followed. Between 2020 and 2021, the role of chief diversity officer was the fastest-growing title in the C-suite. But by 2022, hiring started to slip for such jobs, according to LinkedIn data. In the years since, DEI has become a political wedge.

"There's a clear backlash right now," Regina Lawless, the former head of DEI at Instagram and author of "Do You," told BI.

Regina Lawless
Regina Lawless, the former head of DEI at Instagram and author of "Do You."Charles Schoenberger

She said companies would have to choose how they want to continue to do this work. Lawless said companies were right to ask about the impact of their DEI efforts because some initial steps, like creating coursework on race, could amount to little more than papering over a problem.

"A lot of companies just went at it in a performative way," she said. "We just throw in an employee resource group and think that's going to solve the very real issues of people from different backgrounds not having equitable experiences in the workplace."

Lawless said that as Gen Z took on a larger role in the workplace — they're expected to outnumber boomers among full-time US workers in 2024 — employers would have to be more thoughtful about addressing DEI. That's what many young workers are expecting, she said.

To progress and move beyond performative measures, companies will need to look under the hoods of the systems they use to hire, develop, promote, retain, and pay workers, Lawless said. Some of these procedures are leading, even if unintentionally, to inequitable outcomes, she said. In other cases, some people in charge simply have undue power, Lawless added.

"When you give your managers too much discretion, and there aren't checks and balances, that's when bias has the opportunity to creep in," she said. Lawless added that managers needed training on inclusive leadership to get the most from diverse teams.

To move forward, Lawless said, more employers will need to dig deeper into the data and ensure that DEI teams are not the only ones tasked with promoting equitable experiences within an organization. It will have to become a shared responsibility, she said.

"The future of DEI," Lawless said, "does need to be more diffuse."

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