The Future Of Work Is Not What You Think

Perspectives on the future world of work – technology, employees, operating models and more

William Gibson, one of my favourite sci-fi authors, coined a phrase: ‘the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’. I think this sums up what is currently happening with the ‘future’ of work. My overarching view is that the future of work will be a hybrid, a fusion, a modified genetic mix. We are already creating some work cocktails that combine fresh and more established flavours. But with many of these new concoctions we don’t really know what the long-term consequences might be.

We find ourselves living through a great remote working experiment enabled by technology, and whilst some stressors are dissipating, others are arising.

When it comes to technology, we can’t be definitive about longer term implications. I love technology and it creates benefits for sure, but history has shown that it also creates new challenges and unseen future negatives. The petrol engine, for example, heralded at the time as a breakthrough innovation, has had massive negative implications from an environmental viewpoint.

It is fair to say that I am absorbed daily in the future of work. I head up the Future of Work Institute in Cpl – A European Talent Organisation. We run projects, pilots and conduct research across multiple themes that may or may not turn out to be important to how work will ‘work’ in the future.

As a team we constantly find ourselves falling across what we think are answers and then doubling back to realise we are asking the wrong questions! At a personal level I find myself routinely simplifying future of work concepts in order to make them compelling stories – a necessary evil in today’s engagement driven world.

Principles and perspectives for navigating the future of work

So, what really is the future of work? Or more precisely, what should we be thinking about when we talk about this hybrid future of work? I have captured a few principles and perspectives here, gleaned from the past two years of team research.

A societal model

When we talk about the future of work we are really talking about the future of society. Any conversation about the future of work needs to understand the broader societal context and the associated changes or evolutions happening at that level.

Different societies and nationalities are at different stages of their journeys when it comes to their ‘world view’. Therefore any views on the future of work need to include an ‘integral’ perspective that is inclusive of these perspectives and societal norms.

Equally, different cultures and sub-cultures at any one time have different perspectives on life and work, so any view on the future of work will most likely only be a partial or biased one.

Rewriting the rules

There is a growing perspective that capitalism needs to be redefined, evolved, or in the extreme, totally re-built from the ground up. This is a view that is still in its infancy, although the thinking behind the concepts is fairly developed.

The purposeful/sustainable movement we have begun to see probably represents only the first step in this thinking. This perspective may or may not be accelerated by covid-19 – it is still too early to tell, given most organisations will want to push on towards growth post the crisis. What is fair to say is that there is a growing questioning about how we should best redesign our societies given the growth of income inequality, the deepening environmental crisis and other seismic challenges. This has direct implications on how work may be organised in the future – changing where people work, and how workplaces are viewed and used.

We will be in a form of hybrid societal model for some time (timelines are hard to call but possibly around 20 years) where the older (narrower) and newer (broader) models of growth, development and execution will rub up against each other and create new opportunities and challenges.

Technological impact

Technology in its broadest sense is having profound impacts on society – both good and bad – as it always has. Much of the research points towards an acceleration of technology impact and much more profound structural changes than before.

The growth of platforms, ecosystems, what I call ‘self’ technologies – those technologies that complete actions ‘by themselves’ (AI, ML, RPA, Blockchain, Nano,  Smart etc) – along with advances in biotechnology are already having strong impacts to how society works, and how work works. The explosion of data and the promise of quantifying everything is already creating new challenges around privacy and what is appropriate to track and measure. Many of these technologies are creating fundamental contradictions that are new and will need significant creative thinking in how best to extract true net benefits.

Platform technologies supported by growing ecosystems are fully enabling sustainable ‘Self Careers’. A plethora of tools are widely available for individuals to deliver quality output, design their employment journeys and create their own portfolios of work.

Platforms have also enabled individuals to monetise their assets – like their homes and cars. Access is becoming much more of a watchword of our era than ownership. There are growing consequences of this platform effect. Commoditisation is one – many point to the driving down of prices being paid for the work delivered. Poor job security is another- as is currently being starkly highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis. These types of consequences will continue to create the need for new and creative legislation that works for all parties.

Many commentators highlight a coming era where mechanisms like universal wages may be needed to support human beings as technology capabilities impact all forms of employment – from manual to executive levels.

There are genuine, substantiated concerns that there will not be enough work to go around for humans in the next decade. Yet others point to the fact that disruptive technologies create new types of jobs. What is clear is that hyper optimised organisations with technology at their core require significantly less humans to deliver work than their more traditional counterparts.

Organisational design

If the past 100 years of work could be represented by a linear visual metaphor (bureaucracy, hierarchy, chains of command, assortments of tasks bundled into jobs, traditional learning…) then it is probably safe to say that the next 40 years will be circular (decentralised ripples, guild or small cell based teams, circular practices, continuous learning, integrations…).

Open and crowd sourced organisations have had mixed success but have become more professionalised in recent years. They are likely to see broader adoption and may have large implications as to what ‘workforce’, ‘work tasks’ and ‘workplace’ mean in the future – as well as how structural functions like HR are organised into more supportive or consultative forms.

In general, we are starting to see a move beyond silo thinking towards more integrated models into how we think about society and work. Many of the big challenges faced by society can no longer be solved in silos nor will organisations necessarily win without an ecosystem perspective in a world where the lines of competition and collaboration are increasingly blurred.

A more open model is already changing what we mean by ‘workforce’ where blended workforces (what I call ‘work-nets’) are becoming more pervasive. This will increasingly challenge the more traditional definitions on how an ’employee’ is defined.

As organisations attempt to attract and retain the best talent in a world where individuals are increasingly seeking a level of freedom through different working models – consulting, contracting, freelancing, gig work – it is likely that design-centred, social and holistic approaches will evolve. This will create ‘destination’ or ‘experiential’ organisations that attempt to solve inherent contradictions like control vs freedom, access vs ownership and compliance vs creativity.

These decentralised models will place an even greater emphasis on both organisations and individuals to continuously learn using platforms and diverse learning methods. We should also see a maturing in how organisations view and harness things like diversity, individuality and difference. It may well be that ‘working with’ an organisation will predominate over ‘working for’.

Summing up

These are just some of my perspectives on the hybrid future of work. There are many more. As with all complex subjects we need to get to a complex place before we can even attempt to make things simpler.

But let’s be real with ourselves and understand that there are no silver bullets when it comes to a future of work that works for all, and solves all the inherent challenges the world has in store for us.

I look forward to this journey of failure, tempered with some success.

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