What do we really mean by The Future of Work?
...And what should organizations focus on?
The “Future of Work” is probably the most hyped business buzz phrase today. But why? There’s always been a future of work, since work is constantly evolving. The advent of desktop computers, word processing, and email must have led people to envision a radical transformation of work in the near future. Work did change but it wasn’t radically different. It just had a technological layer upon the “same old way of working.”
In 1984, organizational behavior and management author Charles Handy put out a book called The Future of Work that talked about some of the same issues being discussed today, such as the relevance of continued full-time employment in a changing economy and the idea of universal basic income (called a state subsistence wage in the book). So why such a fascination today as if these are new concepts?
Likely, it’s because the Future of Work we now see or rather predict looks to be even more profoundly different than any scenario envisioned in past times. We’re witnessing the death throes of an industrial age that is desperately trying to hold onto its dehumanizing ways, resulting in vast worker disengagement, a rising gig economy, stagnated wages, and more. Combine that with the anticipated massive impact of Artificial Intelligence (further dehumanizing or liberating?), and you have a potential transformation of work like never imagined before. But unfortunately, so much talk around the Future of Work seems to miss the truly transformative aspect of how the way we work needs to change, along with the way our organizations operate.
Yes, there’s a lot of talk about A.I. these days, but it’s become a red herring that is distracting us from the larger picture. Of course we need to factor it in, but instead of fearing it and discussing how it will destroy work, we should be talking about how we can harness it to make work better. As the saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to create it. In the end, A.I. is just a tool that can impact how we transform work but is not the transformation itself...or at least we shouldn’t let it become that.
When talk about the Future of Work is not centered on A.I., the focus often turns to topics like flexible working arrangements, reinventing the employee review process, the impact of millennials in the workplace, new skill sets needed, etc. The problem is these topics are not the Future of Work, they are happening now!
Companies need to explore these issues (and most are) just to get by and retain their people. These types of changes are part of the natural evolution of work resulting from technology improvements and generational/societal changes. They don’t represent a seismic shift in the nature of work, which is where the Future of Work should focus.
Evolution is slow but every now and then it takes a sudden, giant leap forward and the resulting mutation or adaptation changes everything (e.g. the emergence of vertebrates, the colonization of land by plants). What does that leap look like for the world of work? No one has a crystal ball but one thing is for sure. With megatrends such as accelerating technology (A.I. and more), Globalization, changing demographics, rapid urbanization, Climate Change, and shifting global economic power exerting tremendous pressure on business, work as we know it will change – must change in order to succeed in the future those combined forces are creating. The ever-increasing dysfunction we are seeing in today’s organizations and societal institutions are a symptom of this pressure.
At the same time, other more positive trends are pressuring corporations to change the way they do business, both from a reputation standpoint and for improved business results (financially, efficiency). Digital transformation grabs all the headlines today but some organizations are also experimenting with new approaches to business, such as new economic systems (e.g. accounting for more than profits and losses on a balance sheet), reinventing their organizational model (moving away from top down hierarchies), and “profound” mindset shifts that see business as a force for good in service of life (and not just for the almighty dollar), to name just a few. These movements may be at the fringes of the business world today but will likely move towards the center in the coming decade.
The trends described act like colliding forces on today's companies (see above image). Global megatrends, by rapidly reshaping the business landscape at a disruptive pace, amplify organizational problems, exposing their weaknesses and inability to adapt. But alternative ways of doing business – ways that shed industrial age practices – can act like a bulwark against those forces and compel organizations to take that evolutionary leap into the true Future of Work.
We can try to imagine what that future will look like but odds are our guesses will be far off the mark. (Aren’t we still all waiting for our flying cars?) Perhaps then, we shouldn’t be asking what the Future of Work will be but how our organizations can learn to adapt to change more readily, so that they’re prepared for whatever sweeping change the Future of Work brings.
The ability to adapt and thrive better than any other species is what makes us human. It’s why we’re top of the food chain. So why can’t our organizations exhibit the same traits? (Hint: Model them after life, not cold machines that can’t evolve.)
The Future of Work is not a steady state. It’s a moving target, ever changing, and likely to stay that way in our exponential world. Don’t make it a goal to reach, make it a way of being. Sense. Respond. Adapt. Repeat.