The Future Of Work

Photo credit: Eric Murray

There’s been a lot of talk about the future of work. But what exactly is it? Although the future is tough to predict, especially at the speed with which we are all moving, there are some common elements that have started to emerge. A company of the future is one that can deal with constant change by creating flexible and decentralized environments that can execute autonomously, yet are working to further a crystal-clear vision. A company of the future is one that understands the changing dynamics between the company, its employees and customers.

Evolution to a partnership between customer, employee and company

Instead of distinct processes where one party creates something and passes it on to the other party, this partnership is the evolution toward working together to create meaningful solutions. The truly empowered employees are searching for meaning in their work, where they bring their passion. By collaborating with others on the basis of these passions, they are able to push beyond the obvious and create unique solutions, at the speed of now. For this to happen, companies need to create environments where passions can flourish, where each employee can craft his/her own path, where opportunity for change is welcomed and so are the risks that are necessary to create this change. Customers, in turn, help the company understand their needs, which requires honesty between all parties.

Collaborative spaces

How do all these parties come together and co-create their future? Collaborative spaces need to exist that connect people to each other all across the value chain – employees, partners and customers. These collaborative spaces can and should be a blend of online and offline – enterprise social networks, open office culture, hackathons, etc. Collaborative spaces can be set up at the organization-wide level, or any ecosystem participant can create one ad-hoc. Open spaces – both, in a physical and digital sense – foster greater serendipity, allow for great ideas to emerge and prevent “echo chamber” thinking (we’ve been collecting our favorite office designs into this Pinterest board).  The paradigm of the physical office itself has to change as “cubicle nation” stifles communication, innovation and fluidity. Providing a flexible environment with a blend of office and remote options gives employees the autonomy to get work done how and where they want, with the resources they need. Employees are increasingly bringing their own devices to work and using what they need to get things done, and IT needs to follow their lead.

The evolution of the knowledge worker

A lot of us grew up with the notion that if we went to college and studied hard to become specialists, we would have job security and would progress our careers. Having gone through an MBA program, I learned many frameworks and worked through many case studies, preparing for a job with very specific requirements and tasks. Things worked out differently, and although I value the exposure to cross-functional education I received, what I do now hardly fits into any specialization. Knowledge workers of today – if they want to be successful – need to train themselves to synthesize massive amounts of information and apply insights to complex and far-reaching problems in an unstable climate of constant change.

Annalie Killian of AMP says it best:

Preparing for a future with less full-time and permanent jobs means we need to be flexible, creative and resilient in our mindset,  train across disciplines and hone our ability to learn fast. Most of all I believe that as we increasingly work on short-term assignments rather than a job with tenure, that people will need to develop entrepreneurial thinking and marketing skills from as early as junior school!

The education system also needs to catch up to the new reality of the workplace and emphasize applicative and experiential learning over rote memorization, but this is beyond the scope of this article.

Ubiquitous learning

Speaking of learning, much of it happens in the workplace by doing and trying new things. An organization that can attract and keep the empowered employee is the organization that appreciates learning. We need to update how we think of learning – learning is not just sitting down in a classroom, idly consuming information. Learning is immersive and experiential; it happens every day and comes from consistent and constant feedback. Learning comes from taking risks and experiencing failure; learning comes from unfettered sharing. Leaders need to create environments where this type of sharing and learning is possible. Culturally, this means letting go of the ego and the “I know what’s best for you” approach of corporate learning. Freeing ourselves from constraints of hierarchies, we’ll be able to learn up and down, as well as across, and beyond the organization – through customers, partners and beyond. Recognition of this fact can only happen when humility becomes a defining cultural cornerstone.

Transparency: beyond the buzzwords

Companies need to be honest with their employees and share more of the “why’s” behind their decisions. Employees need to be honest with their senior leadership about happenings in the market – customer and competitive feedback from the field – the good and the bad. Otherwise, you get decisions made in an ivory tower that don’t solve problems, but retain status quo. Vendors need to be honest with their customers, and customers need to be honest with vendors about their needs. All of this will only happen when we get beyond the rhetoric of transparency and internalize honesty as a business necessity.

Evolving role of leadership

The future of work means that our paradigm of leadership has to change – toward true leadership and away from management. The leadership mandate is no longer to filter information down to employees; rather, it’s to provide leadership – in thought, vision and inspiration – and empower employees to make decisions. The role of leadership is to inspire, stimulate conversation, hire to preserve company culture, help employees find and pursue their passions and realize that it’s never a one-size-fits-all solution. The job of a leader is to create vision and to create environments where people can execute on that vision – that part hasn’t changed. What has changed is how you get people to act. Control through fear and asymmetry of information doesn’t work as a motivator; to get loyalty, you need to give up some control.

Gaining loyalty by giving up control

Empowered employees don’t like being controlled; rather, they need an environment that enables them to bring their talents and passions forward and reach further. Driven by a clear vision, empowered employees want to execute, but they want to design the way in which they execute. They need fluid access to information and resources, not to be given orders from the executive ivory tower. The “don’t question what I say” approach needs to be replaced by a culture of dissent. Expect employees to express their own opinions, and don’t suppress them for fear of dissent. Instead, treat what they are saying as an opportunity to learn, as Giam Swiegers of Deloitte Australia did in this video:




Decentralization is really key in delivery of the right product to the market, at the brisk speed that the market requires – imagine turning around a huge battleship vs. a small lifeboat. Dave Gray talks about organizations of the future becoming podular – made of pods, which Gray defines as an “autonomous unit that is enabled and empowered to deliver the things that customers value.” I think this captures the purpose of decentralization quite well: to deliver value to the market.  Decentralization helps companies become more adaptable in the face of constant change. Additionally, you can access employees’ passions and talents much easier in smaller, autonomous units – Dan Pink calls autonomy one of the foundations of motivation. Podular cultures help develop and maintain deep trust and mutual accountability.

Common vision

How do you decentralize without causing chaos? How do you maintain a consistent brand? A common vision is the tie that binds; the ability to rally around a common vision teases the potential and passion out of people – purpose is yet another one of Dan Pink’s foundations of motivation. Dave Gray uses Whole Foods as an example of a company that decentralizes (each team sources from its own suppliers) while supporting an organizing principle (not selling cigarettes).

What do you think is the future of work? How is your workplace moving towards the future today?

Photo credit: Eric Murray