19 Apr
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The Future Of Work

By in Tips & Guides on April 19, 2012

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

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

13 Responses to The Future Of Work

  1. Ben says:

    Wonderful insights!

  2. Fantastic article, Maria.
    I think the key is that social enterprise is not simply about increasing productivity of the workforce, but about conducting all aspects of business in a more natural, networked way, including internal mobility, collaboration, sales, performance checks, and why not? even company hang outs… The future of HR is SOCIAL!

    • Maria says:

      Agree. The more collaborative model ultimately does increase productivity, reduce cycle times, creates satisfied customers and happy employees.

  3. Nice one! Many of these principles apply in our company. Everyone works from home (we have no office), everyone can work when and where (s)he wants, in the environment and with the tools that suit them best. Even more, the employees form our company are spread over Europe, all working from home. Communication is very open, feedback between each over very appreciated. There is no control on how the work is done, only on the desired output (which is great software for happy clients).

    • Maria says:

      That’s great! Seems like you are working for a really cool company! Results are the most important part of the equation, not face time. Digital collaboration helps us connect seamlessly across departments, geographies and people. It is also important to spend some time face to face to energize each other!

  4. Ramon says:

    I fully agree, Maria. But what if your company on one hand preaches openness and transparency and on the other hand reads post on Yammer in a big brother fashion. I can truly say that I am a Yambassador, as you put in one of your earlier blogs, and that I share and mostly write uplifting, positive posts on Yammer. But I also want to be critical on performances and be honest about this. Again, I still do this in a way where I believe it’s helpful, instead of simply complaining and do nothing about it. I also organized Yammer workshops to help colleague’s on their way. But I will get to my point now. I am a communications professional and work for a city. A few days ago I spoke with my senior manager, and he handed me a word document with some copy/paste of my posts on Yammer. They were fully out of context and some were from up to a year ago. The document was produced by another manager who mailed it to my senior manager. This manager, who is head of communications and who has never put a post on Yammer, was angry about a few things I wrote. Instead of replying to me and make arguments, she asked my senior manager by email for me to put a lit on it. This of course was very disappointing to me as an ‘empowered employee’. But hey, it convinced me even more that times are changing. The dinosaurs are getting nervous about the new times, we just have to hold on and create a new atmosphere.

    • Audrey says:

      At a recent assignment, I was told not to question executives because I had no idea what went into their decisions. The times couldn’t change fast enough for me.

      • Maria says:

        That’s really unfortunate, and sorry to hear that. While it’s important to ensure that you aren’t “voting by committee” and while it’s true that oftentimes others don’t understand decisions that are made because of lack of context — it’s also important to have a dialogue about why decisions were made. In the age of openness, opacity can be demoralizing and may cause people to leave the company and go somewhere else.

        • Ramon says:

          Hi Maria, do you know of situations like I described and what can be done to solve this kind of actions? Perhaps somekind of ‘freedom of speech act’ within a company? I’m curious about your opinion.

  5. Great insights Maria. Re. Ramon’s point I think that the companies that ride the fence on empowering their employees to as you mentioned bring their talents and passions forward and reach further will lose out in the end. For those who do succeed the principles and practices of what it means to be an empowered employee need to be built into the entire employee lifecycle and included in manager personal business commitments.

    • Maria says:

      Completely agree. I think there’s quite a bit of disconnect between theory and practice still. Conceptually, everyone wants an empowered employee, but getting there necessitates commitment.

  6. “Empowered employees don’t like being controlled…”

    Yep. And I would say that empowered employees are ones who are given autonomy to act on their own. And that is where true engagement is found, happiness in the workplace. So simple, really! The future ain’t so hard, ya see! Empower workers to do what you hired them for — empower them to create and accomplish their own goals. Treat them like adults? Novel! Wow. See how that changes the workplace!!

    Great post, Maria. Rulin’ it.

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