What Will Design Teams of the Future Look Like?

Author Date November 22, 2019 Read 8 min
Over the next few years, companies must prepare for a monumental shift in the makeup of the workforce that will bring changes in the way design teams work.…

Over the next few years, companies must prepare for a monumental shift in the makeup of the workforce that will bring changes in the way design teams work.

What will make this shift so massive is it will involve multiple moving parts, including:

Changing demographics and the inclusion of as many as four generations in the workforce

  • Changing locations and the continued expansion of virtual environments
  • Changing employee makeup and the use of a blended workforce
  • Changing fundamentals of how “design” is viewed and treated within companies
  • Changing technology and the needed skills of tomorrow

Concurrently, there are macro trends guiding and shaping the workforce for all of society, as well as design/UX-specific trends and evolutions of what is still a relatively nascent career field.

Taken separately, each of these factors would require a significant adjustment to how businesses do work. Collectively, they represent perhaps the biggest challenge that employers have seen since the advent of the personal computer.

In the design world, a seismic shift is occurring because of the huge and growing demand for design services. The business context for experience design has resulted in tremendous demand. This includes the business priority to improve end-to-end experiences; the dominance and complexity of digital ecosystems; the emergence of people responsible for the experience across the organization; and the knowledge that a better experience gains market share.


For years, the majority of the workforce was made up of the Baby Boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. They dominated the employee base of companies across the world, in all industries and at all levels of the workforce.

Heading into the 2020s, that will all change. According to a Fundera report, more than half of the workforce around the globe will be made up of Millennials. Broadly defined as people born between 1981 and the late 1990s, these Millennials are the new power generation in the workforce.

Not only is the power shift from Baby Boomers to Millennials a huge one, but so, too, is the fact that the common workforce now consists of four generations that are often split into two distinct mindsets — with Baby Boomers and Generation X (those born in the mid-‘60s to early 1980s) on one end, and Millennials (especially the younger ones) and Gen Z (those born in the mid- to late-1990s) on the other.

A study conducted by Upwork, a freelancing website, and research firm Inavero outlined this dichotomy of thinking very clearly. The study found that only 10% of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers felt they were personally responsible for “reskilling” as new technologies enter the marketplace. Millennials and Gen Zers, conversely, were three times more likely to say the onus was on them to develop the new skills necessary for the future workforce.

All at once, then, companies must deal with the fact that leadership positions are shifting from older to younger employees, while at the same time adjusting to the fact that these new workforce leaders have a dramatically different mindset than those they replace.

This is apparent in design teams, which have experienced perhaps the biggest shift in work with the advent of technologies that handle how design is conducted, communication is done, and work is produced.


There once was a time when design teams were able to collaborate by simply swiveling in their chairs to speak with a nearby coworker, peeping their heads over a cubicle, or congregating in a conference room to sketch out ideas in person.

It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that this is no longer the case. Companies have already begun to see the shift in workforce environments from office to home or on the road. Many companies already offer opportunities for certain employees or teams to work outside the office, at “off-peak” hours that work best for employees.

This trend is expected to continue to grow in coming years. The Upwork-Inavero study found that 73% of all teams will have at least some remote employees by 2028.

This is a positive move for employees, who will enjoy the fruits of working when they are most productive, from a location that makes the most sense — within reason, of course. Ultimately, this will prove beneficial to employers, too.

Many prominent studies have shown that happier employees are more productive . One study, by University of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy and the Social Market Foundation, found that productivity increased between 12% and 20% when employees considered themselves “happy” at work.

Between the creation of these virtual environments and the benefits they create, though, is a major challenge for companies: How can design teams effectively work from multiple locations?

Sure, technologies have been created to drive the design concept, the project management process and the communication channel from a virtual environment, but bringing that all together to create effective output in a cohesive way is a huge shift in how design teams once operated in the not-so-distant past.


In addition to a changing demographic and changing locations, design teams must face yet another challenge — the changing makeup of their teams. No longer do employees fall into one of two categories: either a full-time worker or part-time worker.

Today, the gig economy has transformed the way teams are constructed. Instead of on-staff workers making up the entirety of the workforce, temporary workers, freelancers, and specialized contractors are being integrated with staff workers to create the blended workforce.

A 2016 study of the gig economy conducted by Field Nation found that 93% of businesses know about and use the blended workforce, with freelancers and employees working side-by-side on important projects. The reasons for this are vast: from rising costs of offering employee healthcare to more workers choosing to freelance.

Mynul Khan, the CEO of Field Nation, said, “Spurred by competitive demands for more agile organizations, the world of work is pivoting to a blended workforce. The combination of enabling technologies, societal attitudes, increased mobility, high workforce dissatisfaction and the war for talent is disrupting the classical employer-employee model. Top performing firms are leading the way. Nearly 40% of top performing firms already have more than 30% of their labor force composed of contract/freelance workers.”

A Workforce 2020 study from Oxford Economics further highlighted this trend. According to the study, 83% of the 2,700 executives Oxford surveyed said they were planning to increase their usage of “contingent, intermittent, or consultant employees” in the next three years.

Not only will this put a huge onus on HR departments to monitor and manage these various employee classifications, but it will cause a complete restructuring of design teams as well.

Managers on design teams will now be tasked with overseeing not only on-staff employees, but contractors and freelancers who often don’t work on the same schedules and have multiple projects at once. How these managers respond and react to these challenges will certainly go a long way in determining how effectively projects are completed.


Design used to be considered a supporting aspect of a business. After the engineers and bright minds in other departments came up with a concept for a new product, new service or other breakthrough, they would describe the concept to the design team, which would make a visual representation of the idea. Design wasn’t valued as much as, say, production, sales, or customer support.

That has quickly changed over the last few years, and design teams are expected to play a crucial role in the workforce in the years ahead.

This was one of the big topics at the Future of Work panel at San Francisco Design Week, which was held in June 2019. Dennis Field, a product designer at InVision, was one of five panelists, along with other designers from Asana, Wealthfront, Slack, and Designer Fund.

Among the topics of conversation from the Future of Work panel, according to Field, is that designers and engineers will start working more closely together. The “walls” that exist at many organizations between the two departments will be broken down — if they haven’t already.

“Product designers will play a bigger role within an organization, becoming leaders who help companies achieve key business goals through design,” Field said. “Design won’t just be valued as visual — it’ll be the common theme in a company. Product designers will help spread that message to every department in an organization — even the ones that haven’t traditionally been design-focused.”

What does this mean for design teams and, more specifically, designers themselves? First, working independently or with other designers only is a thing of the past. Designers need to become comfortable not just working with multiple departments of a company but serving as the lead on many projects.


One good thing: the UX design profession stands a good chance of withstanding the coming AI changes to the workforce. A 2019 MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab report  states that workers who rely on intuition and creativity will be least affected by the coming AI disruption.

The need for creativity in the workplace continues to increase. According to the World Economic Forum, creativity is listed as the number 3 skill workers need for 2020. Back in 2015, the same report listed creativity all the way down at number 10.

Emotional intelligence also ranks high in the list at number 6. Emotional intelligence embraces a set of mental skills that enable you to know and control your own emotions, and to recognize and effectively respond to the emotional states of other people.

And this skill speaks directly to the design community. Creatively solving complex problems with emotional empathy for the end user is the crux of what design teams do.


There is little doubt that the makeup of design teams — and the importance of them in organizations across the globe — has already begun to change before our eyes. Many factors are contributing to this changing role, including demographics of employees, the advent of virtual environments, the integration of a blended workforce, and the increased importance of design in general.

Companies must plan for, and react to, this monumental shift. From the increased usage of communication tools to the integration of bots and other tools backed by artificial intelligence, what design teams look like even a year from now may be dramatically different from what they look like today, and company leaders must be prepared.

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