Future of Work and the Workspace

Future of Work Header

Rapid changes in the nature of work and workplace environments are influencing how people choose their jobs, commute to work, and spend their leisure time. Planners can use these trends as input for their long-range and current planning processes, to practice strategic foresight during community visioning processes, for scenario planning, or simply to inform future decision-making.

Trend Timeframes

The trends are structured in three timeframes, which indicate the urgency of planners' action:

Act Now

Downtowns Revive

Despite earlier forecasts of a decline due to remote work during COVID-19, downtowns are demonstrating their durability. The urban growth notably slowed in the late 2010s for nearly all cities. The pandemic exacerbated this trend, transforming slowing growth into a significant decline for many cities. Nonetheless, recent data indicates a stabilization in most cities, although they are still a long way from recovering their lost population.

Recovery paths differ among cities, each with its distinct characteristics. Even with issues like crime and changing work habits making headlines, urban areas like Chicago and New York City are seeing an increase in inhabitants. Chicago, for example, now has a larger downtown population than it did before the pandemic. While only Southern cities have returned to their pre-pandemic growth levels, many Western cities are also experiencing a rise in population. This shows that city centers aren't disappearing; instead, they are adapting and changing.

The Return of Company Towns

The combination of generous tax incentives from state and local governments, plus the increasing influence of tech (and tech-adjacent) companies, are leading to the return of "company towns". While these may be somewhat familiar in the form of large Google, Apple, or Microsoft campuses, companies such as Amazon and SpaceX are beginning to exert much more influence on the administration of incorporated communities.

This, and other new developments, may have negative implications for public outreach, public safety, and a dedication to the public good if planners are not able to influence or manage these large, often powerful private companies with varying interests.

AI Impact on Jobs

While fears of replacement and redundancy of jobs due to AI are rising, recent reports also point to a set of jobs and fields that might be more insulated from AI than others: those that are heavily based on complex interpersonal relationships or that might require the direct provision of complex services, care, or maintenance. These include the nursing and trades fields (e.g., plumbing, electrical, and construction), though continued worker shortages in these industries are a major element of uncertainty.

Given the potential impacts of AI on the practice of planning itself, planners should consider how deeper integration of AI into the more technical aspects of planning work might require bolstering skills on the human side of planning. This might include core planning functions and skills such as interfacing with the community, building consensus among stakeholders, and coordinating across various government agencies.

Quiet Quitting and the Workplace

Quit rates are declining. In the U.S., they've normalized to pre-pandemic levels — seemingly bringing an end to the Great Resignation. But not everyone unhappy in their job can afford to resign. The ones who stayed have created the new trend of "quiet quitting," or working only as much as needed (or as much as one's job description suggests) to keep one's job.

According to a 2022 Gallup survey, around half of the U.S. workforce seemed disengaged, showing little enthusiasm or effort in their jobs. Yet, Gallup's 2023 State of the Global Workplace report highlighted an interesting contrast: people generally don't complain about the work itself. This finding is supported by a study conducted across 120 countries, which found that over 80 percent of workers worldwide actually enjoy their jobs. The issue, it appears, is not the work but the workplace environment. While most people are content with the nature of their work, they desire better treatment and management within their workplace.

Women Leaders Are Leaving Their Jobs

The most recent "Women in the Workplace" study reveals that women leaders are departing from corporate America at an unprecedented rate. This exodus has created the widest gap yet between the numbers of women and men leaving their corporate roles. Termed the "Great Breakup," this phenomenon highlights a trend in which women are increasingly choosing to leave their jobs in pursuit of environments that better meet their needs.

It's crucial to recognize that these driven women are not exiting the workforce entirely. Rather, they are choosing to leave their current companies in pursuit of more favorable opportunities. This shift is often motivated by a reevaluation of their values and priorities, leading some to switch industries or even venture into entrepreneurship.

COVID-19 worsened the divide between working men and women. Among adults 25 and older with only a high-school education, more women left the labor force than men in the last two years, and men have now recouped all pandemic-related job losses since February 2020. The pandemic shift to working from home gave more college-educated women employment opportunities. However, the pandemic's impact on the quality of women's experience in the workforce is not necessarily positive.

increased flexibility at work

The concept of flexibility in the workplace goes even further than breaking the standard of 9-to-5 in-office jobs. Flexibility means being able to choose how many hours a day you can dedicate to your job and what times of the day you do so. The new mantra is, that if you want your employees to be successful in their work, you need to give them what they need to be successful. For some employees, that may mean sleeping in the afternoon and working at midnight because that's when they are most productive. We are moving from customer insights and customer experience to employee insights and experience.

An increasing number of companies and public-sector agencies allow their employees to work from anywhere. According to a 2022 McKinsey study, 58 percent of employees in the U.S. (about 92 million people) now have the option to work remotely for all or part of the week, 35 percent can work remotely on a full-time basis, and 23 percent can work remotely part-time or on occasion. This had already impacted commuter patterns and related transportation systems, office space occupancies, and surrounding services.

With the option to work remotely, some people moved out of cities and into the countryside to be closer to nature, while others relocated to different countries while working their U.S.-based jobs. Almost 50 countries across the globe now offer so-called digital nomad visas for these expat remote workers. According to the World Economic Forum, currently, 35 million digital nomads are working around the world. Most of them chose the U.S. as their place to live and work. Digital nomads who work for European or U.S.-based companies and move to countries in the Global South raise concerns, as they drive up prices for real estate and other amenities in the places they move to, resulting in gentrification and displacement.


Nonemployer ("gig") work is increasing, and the trend of younger generations of gig workers pursuing multiple functions or clients has given rise to the term "polyworkers." The concept of polyworking, which involves holding two or more jobs, emerged as individuals capitalized on the opportunity to undertake multiple full-time roles while working remotely. The absence of a time-consuming commute has made transitioning from one job to another as simple as logging onto a computer for a second shift. This convenience is a key factor in the trend revealed by new research, which shows that a third of workers are now managing three or more jobs.

Cities are increasingly struggling with how best to accommodate new services and service delivery models without sacrificing worker protections or undermining the community's vision for growth and change. Gig workers and polyworkers need to be considered in economic development strategies.

Worker empowerment through unions

In the wake of increased labor organizing in 2022, recent times have seen a rise in high-profile strikes across major sectors. These include strikes by members of the Writers Guild of America, the Actors Guild of America, and the United Auto Workers, along with a narrowly averted strike by UPS workers. Analysts observe that these strikes have leveraged the post-COVID era's labor market dynamics, which have given workers greater bargaining power. These strikes aim not only at achieving higher wages and improved working conditions but also focus on the integration of new technologies and innovations in established industries. A notable achievement for autoworkers, as highlighted by the UAW, was the successful negotiation to include workers from two electric vehicle plants in their agreement.

For planners, this shift toward worker empowerment amid technological change could signal some changes on the ground. This might include the economic health of communities, the uncertain impacts of technological innovations on different industries, and potential effects on contracting and procurement within newly unionized industries.


The contentious role of AI in the workplace

In 2023, artificial intelligence (AI) has made a significant impact in the workplace. Tech companies are introducing AI features to enhance a wide range of tools and software. Microsoft is at the forefront with its CoPilot integration into the Office suite. Meanwhile, Zoom offers AI-driven capabilities to summarize meetings, take notes, and distribute follow-up tasks to attendees.

The Writers Guild strike exemplifies the challenges and resistance AI is facing in certain sectors. Guild members opposed the incorporation of AI into writing and production, fearing it might lead to the replacement of human writers. The writers achieved notable success in their new contract, which prohibits AI from creating original content or modifying existing literary material. This incident marks a turning point in understanding the future role of AI in the workplace, particularly in creative and planning professions. A Goldman Sachs report on AI's impact on economic growth suggests that up to two-thirds of all jobs could be affected by automation to some extent. The report also indicates that generative AI could potentially replace nearly a quarter of all current work, highlighting the transformative influence of AI across various sectors. Impacts on planning and planners are expected to be significant as well, especially as AI tools can complement the efforts of local planners, as described in APA's PAS Report Planning with Artificial Intelligence and AI in Planning whitepaper.

Adoption of a Hybrid Work Lifestyle

In the post-pandemic U.S., a dominant trend is the adoption of a hybrid work lifestyle combining remote and in-office work. A 2023 Pew Research Center survey found that 41 percent of remote-capable workers follow hybrid schedules in 2023, up from 35 percent in January 2022. During that time the number of people working from home full-time decreased from 43 to 35 percent, but this is still significantly higher than the seven percent who worked from home pre-pandemic.

Asian and European employees have returned to workplaces faster than their U.S. counterparts but over one-third of desks worldwide remained empty throughout the week, though. Planners must closely monitor these evolving preferences as to how, when, and where people work, as the unpredictability of future work arrangements has a significant impact on infrastructure, transportation, and city development patterns.

Office to Residential Conversions

The reduced demand for office spaces due to remote and hybrid work has resulted in rising U.S. office vacancy rates, which reached record highs in the second quarter of 2023. This presents an opportunity for office-to-residential conversions: one study suggests that 34 percent of office buildings in 14 major North American markets could be potential candidates.

However, office-to-multifamily conversions remain relatively rare because of regulatory and market challenges and building standards. Mayors in several U.S. cities are considering loosening rules to expedite office-to-residential conversions; other potential solutions include fee waivers and tax incentives. To further accelerate this trend, the Biden administration launched a commercial-to-residential conversion initiative in October 2023. Planners should explore these potential opportunities to reshape downtowns and provide much-needed housing for residents.

Skills-Based Hiring

There is an ongoing notable shift toward skills-based hiring in both the public and private sectors. Dubbed "tearing the paper ceiling," the turn toward discrete skills and away from university-based degrees is increasingly seen as a better way to attract potential talent in a tight labor market. In 2022, Maryland led the way in no longer requiring four-year degrees for many state jobs. By mid-2023, 12 other states had taken similar actions. The World Economic Forum, in its 2023 report, highlighted the challenges faced by the workforce in this context. The report revealed that 60% of companies are worried about their current employees lacking essential skills. Furthermore, over half of these companies are concerned about their ability to attract new workers who can bridge these critical skill gaps.

In 2023, significant developments occurred at the federal level in the United States. The Office of Personnel Management introduced a new guide designed to assist federal agencies in adopting skills-based hiring practices. Additionally, the Biden administration launched a significant initiative focused on training and equipping young individuals with skills pertinent to the growing fields of clean energy, natural resource conservation, and environmental and climate justice.

Four-day Workweek

The concept of a four-day workweek with the same pay, which may sound appealing, was put to the test in the United Kingdom in 2022 in what's considered the world's largest trial of this work arrangement. The pilot program involved dozens of companies and was met with positive feedback that a majority of both supervisors and employees have chosen to continue with the four-day workweek.

In 2023 this worldwide trend has made it into the U.S. public sector, with states including California, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington exploring bills to promote or mandate this shift. At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Mark Takano reintroduced a bill to lower the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours. If this idea of a shortened workweek gains traction, workers will rejoice while planners will need to consider potential impacts on transportation, transit, and the continuing evolution of the workplace.

Younger generations' expectations

Generation Z has entered the labor market. Gen Z experiences zero job security, has minimal expectations regarding retirement, and generally distrusts other generations because of the climate emergencies they will be left with. Their top priorities are climate change; equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace; and mental health. Gen Z is tech-savvy and wants opportunities to use that knowledge at work.

Young professionals don't want to enter the labor market saddled with the entry-level tasks of prior generations, knowing that many of these tasks can be done by a machine. Furthermore, the interest in linear career paths up a career ladder seems to be fading. Many young employees prefer "portfolio" careers, allowing for multiple parallel gigs (e.g., being a research manager while walking dogs and teaching yoga on the side).

As an example, the evolving preferences of the young workforce will be a critical driver of economic transformation in Asia. Its manufacturing landscape is undergoing a seismic shift, as China's factory activity experienced a fifth consecutive month of contraction in August 2023. Younger generations are choosing alternative career paths that are less grueling and less demanding. Primary and secondary industries are expected to feel the brunt as these individuals shun traditional manufacturing in favor of higher-paid and more comfortable jobs.


APA's foresight research is made possible in part through our partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.