23 May 2019

Harvard Business School, BCG Researchers: Workers Optimistic While Business Leaders Struggle to Grasp Forces Changing the Workforce

First-of-its-kind research surveying 11,000 middle-skills workers and 6,500 business leaders shows a workforce happy in their current jobs and prepared to adapt to the future of work while business leaders struggle to identify and act on forces shaping their workplaces

BOSTON—Researchers from Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work and Boston Consulting Group’s Henderson Institute today released Future Positive: How Companies Can Tap Into Employee Optimism to Navigate Tomorrow’s Workplace, which provides a first-of-its-kind global outlook on how business leaders and middle-skills workers view the forces shaping the future of work. At a time when the future of work discussion is dominated by reports of widespread fear, the research found that middle-skills workers see opportunity in changes and are optimistic for their future job prospects.

The report’s findings reveal that business leadership is not sufficiently connected with a workforce that is happy in their jobs and eager to make necessary adjustments.

To succeed, business leaders will need to put aside preconceptions and bridge the gulf in perceptions that separates management and middle-skills workers.

“The forces that are and will continue to shape workplaces in the years to come are varied. What the findings in this report demonstrate are that business leaders are overlooking a key partner in their efforts to prepare for the future—their workforce,” said Joseph Fuller, Harvard Business School Professor and Managing the Future of Work Project Co-Chair. “Rather than fearing the future of work, employees across the world are eager to embrace the change and take action. It is incumbent on business leaders to recognize this opportunity and be proactive in supporting their employees and generating concrete plans for action.”

“I was surprised that workers, globally, don’t consider technology a universal culprit for an uncertain future. The middle-skill workers in our research look towards the future with confidence and believe that technology can be part of the solution,” said Judith Wallenstein, senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and leader of BCG’s Henderson Institute in Europe. “Business leaders need to leverage their workforce’s goodwill to create a learning organization fit for the future”

The researchers asked middle-skills workers – those without a 4-year degree – and business leaders to describe their outlook on a variety of forces that will impact their work in the coming years. Forces include: new technology, remote work, contingent workforces, government protection of workers, and regulatory changes affecting trade. The results are aggregated globally but also broken down to reveal country-specific results.

The report lays out concrete recommendations for companies to consider and highlights a number of innovative companies already leading the way preparing their workforces for the future. Some examples of initiatives companies have undertaken include: the deployment of artificial intelligence tools to test if a candidate has the cognitive ability to be a high-performing technology worker; committing to empowering workers to learn new skills through a range of formats including and beyond classroom training and digital learning; and the leveraging of technology to provide a more service-oriented business model.

A copy of the report can be found here.

Key findings from the report include:

Management, workers disagree on worker outlook

Many business leaders (39%) say a lack of employees with sufficient skill sets is already having an impact on their organizations. Additionally, business leaders most often cited (29%) workers’ fear of change as the reason most inhibiting them from preparing for the future.
Nearly half of workers globally (46%) consider themselves personally responsible for preparing for changes and 45% believe that changes in the workplace will result in better wages. 75% report probably or definitely seeing a need to prepare for future of work trends.

Middle-skills workers indicate being happy in their current jobs

52% of workers globally indicated they are happy in their current jobs.
At 64%, U.S. workers were the second happiest group surveyed trailing only Swedish workers at 66%.
Moreover, 45% of workers globally indicate their employment situation has improved over the last 5 years.

While business leaders struggle to differentiate the forces that will affect their company in the future, the most common issues flagged as highly significant were:

Increases in skill and education level required of the workforce (30%)
Sudden shifts in customer needs (27%)
Employee expectations for flexible work (27%)

Employers are missing an opportunity to address major obstacles to preparing for the future reported by workers

33% of workers globally cite the inability to afford training as the biggest obstacle to improvement.
24% cited a lack of time and 31% feared negative effects on their wages

Business leaders gave a number of reasons why their organizations were currently not preparing for the future

Half of business leaders (50%) indicated their organizations had other strategic priorities.
39% said that the impact their organization expects was still too far in the future.
Slightly over a third (34%) of business leaders indicated their organization lacked visibility on future trends and their specific impacts.

Workers believe that the forces shaping the future, including new optimistic technology will have a positive effect

Nearly half of workers globally (45%) believe that changes in the workplace will result in better wages.
Overall, 61% of workers were optimistic about the impacts of technology on their futures
Over 80% of U.S. workers expect that digital freelancing as a source of additional income will positively impact them.
In an area of agreement, workers and business leaders both did not perceive the impact of technology as a priority issue


Harvard Business School:
Walter Suskind

Boston Consulting Group
Eric Gregoire
+1 617 850 3783


Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work pursues research that business and policy leaders can put into action to navigate the complex, fast-changing nature of work. The Project’s current research areas focus on six forces that are redefining the nature of work in the United States as well as in many other advanced and emerging economies: Technology trends like automation and artificial intelligence; Contingent workforces and the gig economy; Workforce demographics and the “care economy”; The middle-skills gap and worker investments; Global talent access and utilization; Spatial tensions between leading urban centers and rural areas.


The BCG Henderson Institute is the Boston Consulting Group’s strategy think tank, dedicated to exploring and developing valuable new insights from business, technology, and science by embracing the powerful technology of ideas. The Institute engages leaders in provocative discussion and experimentation to expand the boundaries of business theory and practice and to translate innovative ideas from within and beyond business.


Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 200 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and doctoral degrees, as well as more than 70 open enrollment Executive Education programs and 55 custom programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, HBS faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, shaping the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.