The workplace is changing quickly--and so are the rules that define it. And while much of this change is related to new technology, some of it stems from long-rooted issues that are just now coming to a head. Based on some of the biggest trends Inc. covered in 2015, here are seven of the most important ideas that will affect business this year.
1. On-demand work will get a new employment classification. Until now, Uber drivers have been considered contractors, and thus ineligible for benefits or the minimum wage. A class-action lawsuit set to begin in June will determine whether that's going to change. It's hard to believe the status quo will remain: While Uber maintains that it's merely a technology company connecting passengers with drivers, the reality is that it controls the rates the drivers charge, maintains performance standards, and can fire drivers if its standards aren't met. Should the drivers earn employee status, watch for much of the on-demand economy to follow suit.
2. Augmented reality will change the way we work. Much of the hype surrounding virtual and augmented reality has been related to its entertainment value, but these headsets have huge potential to change work as we know it. Manual labor becomes easier with AR, as a small set of glasses could provide carpenters with blueprints or plumbers with written instructions--which also means a decrease in the amount of training necessary. An Android hardhat gives construction crews an unimpeded view of entire work sites. Doctors and surgeons could have patients' medical information in front of them at all times and easily monitor vitals. Companies such as Google and Microsoft have jumped into the VR game, and Apple just hired a professor who specializes in virtual reality.
3. The call for more diversity in tech companies will only get louder. The numbers are stark: America's population is 13 percent black, but in the Silicon Valley work force, that portion is less than 1 percent. The problem is as old as the industry itself but really came to light in the past two or so years, as Silicon Valley started revealing demographic statistics: Giants such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter all hover around 70 percent male and 80 to 90 percent white or Asian. The lack of diversity is especially concerning considering that five of the top nine and 10 of the top 25 jobs in America are in the tech industry, according to Glassdoor. Many of the leading players claim to be doing something about it--finally recruiting at Howard University's computer science school, for example--but the results aren't showing yet. The quest to hire more female and black or Hispanic employees will remain one of the tech industry's most public challenges in 2016.
4. Transparency on pay data will become the norm. The idea of letting all employees know one another's salaries can be terrifying--but it might just be necessary. A 2015 job satisfaction study of 70,000 workers found that how people perceive their pay matters more than their actual salary. Additionally, the more information employees have about why they're being paid what they are, the less likely they are to quit. This could especially come into play at cash-strapped startups, where underpaid employees might be willing to stick around for the cause--as long as they can see the math behind it. A less-awkward alternative to full transparency for larger companies: providing median salary info for each type of position.
5. A.I. will get a lot less scary. A recent report suggests artificial intelligence will wipe out 5 million jobs by 2020. And plenty of movies, books, and warnings from people such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk allude to the rise of killer robots. But A.I. in 2016 will do a lot more good than it does harm. On top of acting as an office assistant, the technology can instantly translate Skype conversations or identify and block lewd images on Twitter. What's more, tech giants like Google and Facebook recently open-sourced their A.I. software in the interest of fueling innovation and protecting the greater good. Having the ability to use existing software instead of starting from scratch will make the technology far more accessible to entrepreneurs--which could mean an explosion of A.I. startups in the near future.
6. Great and borderline quirky benefits will become the norm. Nap rooms and two weeks of paternal leave are so last year. Some companies now pay for employees to bring children and caregivers on business trips, a trend that some expect to become more widespread. Netflix has begun offering unlimited maternal or paternal leave for one year after a child is born or adopted. Animal lovers won't have much trouble finding pet-friendly offices. And recent graduates, who average more than $35,000 in student debt, will be relieved to learn that companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers now offer to pay back college loans. Look for this to continue in 2016, as the lowest unemployment rate in 15 years means employers will be fighting for recent, debt-strapped graduates.
7. Everything will be on the "Internet of Things." No longer are communication devices the only things assumed to have Wi-Fi capabilities. In 2016, consumers will expect all devices to be able to connect to the internet--and to one another. Coffeemakers will start brewing once your alarm clock goes off, wireless headphones will remember your music preferences, and friends and colleagues you're supposed to meet will get an alert if your car is stuck in traffic. Research firm Gartner predicts there will be 6.4 billion "things" connected electronically in 2016, a 30 percent increase from last year, and that the number will jump to 21 billion within five years. Expect big tech companies--and some brand-new ones--to battle it out to host the Internet of Things on their clouds.