The Future of Work – 5 Trends We Expect To See

25th October 2021

The Future of Work, Part Two.

 

The 5 trends that lead us to a picture of what the Future of Work will look like for organisations in the knowledge-based economy.

 

  1. Work from Anywhere!

There is an excess of boring [on & offline] debate surrounding home working and ‘back to normal’, but the ‘work from anywhere’ debate is relevant.

Fundamental to this debate is what you do [not where you do it]. If it is transactional activity, then broadly it does not matter where you do it (appreciating there may be some security and time zone considerations). A bigger concern here, if it is genuinely transactional, is how easy it will be to automate? If your work is creative and collaborative in nature then the ability to be with colleagues, partners and customers becomes more interesting. The ‘where’ of the work becomes about cadence (how frequently you need to be together) and optimal workspaces (not rows of desktops but inspiring work locations with collaboration enhancing meeting spaces).

However, in addition to collaboration and creative brainstorming, there is also a more subtle subtext and that is a need [in most high value roles] to appreciate how an individual’s work fits into the bigger picture.  This is important for a couple of reasons:

  • The bigger picture context helps work to be more intrinsically rewarding and consequently drives up engagement (in simple terms there is a difference between the stone mason who tells his family he has been laying stones all week and the stone mason who says he is helping to build St Paul’s cathedral).
  • The awareness of what other teams are working on (stressing about, prioritising) that is not necessarily directly linked to the individual’s role can lead to improvements and new ideas that might not form directly out of an organised meeting. Often referred to as ‘Water Cooler moments’ these inter-team serendipitous moments are often gold dust.

Finally, we are social creatures. We should not under estimate the importance of face-to-face time for personal enjoyment (the primary reason I love my role is the people I work with), for mental health [see trend 5] and for continuous improvement. I think the pandemic was particularly hard on those ‘new in post’ and that was compounded for ‘first jobbers new in post’. Even organisations with the most detailed training programmes that are well adapted for remote learning recognised the value of learning through that hum of osmosis – just getting better at the role by being around people who are very good at it. [… and more experienced workers often raise their engagement in these situations, the enthusiasm of the new starter rubs off and we’re reminded just why we are here].

So, Work from Anywhere is a trend that is here to stay, but the most successful organisations will work very hard to design opportunities for teams to get together regularly and for work spaces to meet the needs of more interactive work time.

 

  1. Assemble the Tribe! Responsive and agile organisational structures

For years we tried to stop rivers flooding by straightening the channels, by building dams, by dredging and by building higher and higher levees, but at last we are learning to work with nature, allowing a river to flood (albeit in a managed way) which stops catastrophic (life-endangering) events and it also has numerous additional benefits; not just in terms of the environment, but also in terms of economic impact. Similarly organisations have spent decades building more and more complex reward programmes, they have engaged experts to attempt to imbed innovation culture and a plethora of other high effort / low impact activities. However, working with the natural ebb and flow of teams and the individuals within it does have enormous impact. We need to release the shackles of rigid structures and move away from hierarchical organisational designs to ones that are more more fluid; adapted and disbanded around customer challenges. There are good examples of hybrid org. model adopting holacractic elements like self-forming teams? They are very responsive to changing environments and create empowered and proactive teams.

‘The new organisations will have much less boundaries and be more fluid. They might not even be recognisable as the traditional ‘organisational entity’. They will more likely represent a network, community of tribes and a loose coupling of value(s). People may barter and trade their knowledge when they see value (this happens today amongst start-up communities and within co-working spaces). When a group of people see value in collaborating and swarming around a problem space, they can. They call on the resources available to them and experiment to find an opportunity. This is more likely to happen in diverse, coworking spaces or large campuses sponsored by the giants.

Space will open up, connections and boundaries will be reimagined, some things will be automated, new forms of ‘mobility’ will be supported’. [Leigh Whittaker -Transformational Strategist] 

 

The Tweeting potholes solution detailed in the Smithsonian is a good example of the possibilities achieved in a borderless scenario where talent simply swarms around a customer problem.

There are of course challenges and this is exacerbated in large organisations: it can be hard to ensure employees don’t lose sight of the big picture, more challenging to prioritise and difficult to manage individual’s careers & promotional paths.

One highly respected commentator said to me ‘Agile at Scale, it is simple, it does not work!’.

Whether you agree with that or not, the shift to flatter hierarchies and more agile ways of working certainly represents a considerable challenge for larger organisations. Rather than trying to emulate the success of start-up and scale-up organisations (companies that have been born digital (cloud native) – both in terms of technology and culture), the answer is more likely to be a decoupling of services within those organisations. The success here will depend on the quality of the service-design between component parts; particularly in the interface between Agile and non-Agile teams or between Agile Teams and non-Agile customers. The end result is that larger organisation look more like a modern matrixed entity; as a technology comparison a move from a traditional to a micro-services architecture.

A parallel trend (as alluded to by Leigh Whittaker) is the continued shift to maximise opportunities and solve problems using workers that do not ‘belong’ to the organisation.

When I started in business 20 years ago organisations used to be keen to hide 3rd party resources, whilst now organisations, like our own Rokker, take active pride in our ability to blend a project team with the optimal mix of permanent consultants and SMEs from a variety of sources. (This is particularly the case on technology related projects where maintaining a breadth of contemporary technology skills is simply impossible (why would we pretend we have ‘all the answers’ on the internal bench?)

The speed of change and technological advancement is an important factor here. Just as work tenures continue to shorten [*see granularity] so should project intervention. At Rokker, we believe if we can’t provide a business design within 3 months then it will probably be ‘out of date’.

Consider those still running 20th Century models – 2 year Business Transformations are not unusual. These are often out of date before they have been started.

So shorter interventions and multiple sources of talent will very much be the norm.

 

  1. Granularity

There is no such thing as a ‘job for life’ – ‘no s*!t Sherlock! However, the trend for ever shortening tenures is an interesting one. From several permanent roles to lots of different careers and through to a more fluid portfolio career. The natural conclusion will be our ability to offer services and ‘buy’ talent at micro increments.

(It’s a similar trend to the one we have seen in trading where we have gone from ‘stocks’ that we expected to hold onto for years to today’s HFT (High Frequency Trading) – it has reduced to a level where there is a need to accurately synchronize trading clocks “to within a nanosecond, or one-billionth of a second” to refine regulation of gateway-to-gateway latency time—”the speed at which trading venues acknowledge an order after receiving a trade request”).

We are seeing this increase in granularity in virtually all forms of work (from well referenced examples like the modus operandi of Deliveroo through to the professional gig economy where one might engage a specialist on a task basis from a provider like Fiverr or seek professional intervention through an expert network).

The future portfolio career will be about delivering ‘work’ by the minute or by task. This fits well with the growth of flexible workspaces where meeting rooms and collaboration spaces can already be booked by the hour or in even smaller increments.

Will this Granularity bleed into other areas of our lives. Certainly, it already has. In entertainment the continued rise of Reality TV and the success of shows like Gogglebox means that media ‘heroes’ can play a very short part in our lives. (The Travolta or Olivia Newton-John poster replaced by daily ‘ones to watch’. “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. [Andy Warhole]. … and will we really consider one lifelong partner an ambition or a measure of success? For a generation brought up on dating apps will those relationships also be more granular and ‘of the moment’.

A braver prediction might be a backlash to these shifts. In the same way as we have seen a re-emergence of good quality independent (local produce) stores to buck the super – hyper market trends.

Will lack of deep fulfilment play a role in bucking all of these leanings from a ‘fame point of view’: ‘And when everyone’s super, (Evil Laugh) no-one will be!’ (Syndrome – The Incredibles).

… but also in work, will there be an active return of those seeking fulfilment from those longer term dedicated vocations?

 

  1. Managing worker expectations (reduction in ‘strivers’)

There will be a reduction in the length and size of the cohort of corporate (or indeed non-corporate) ‘strivers’.

Traditionally a career, [compared here to Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development ‘ The Forming-Storming Model], has been made up of applying learning, finding ones feet and fighting for a place of recognition within the team (Forming and Storming). The striving years are where we are busiest climbing the ladder (Norming and Performing) and finally we might accept our final level position and remain career static in terms of promotion (in the adjourning years).

So, why might the striving years shorten?

  1. Organisations have flatter hierarchies (there are much fewer rungs on the ladder) and therefore less need or opportunity to ‘strive’ for promotion.
  2. Speed of change. For most of us 20 years’ experience is no longer justification for a bigger role. The speed of change [Kurzweil’s The Law of Accelerating Returns relating to the speed of technology change] means most of what we did 5 years ago is no longer contemporary and relevant so why should we reference 10, 15 or 20 years’ experience*1 as justification for ‘the next step’.
  3. For the generation currently feeding the workforce (Gen Z and their buddies) climbing the corporate greasy pole seems a more abhorrent thought. Many are a 2nd generation of latch-door kids. They saw the toll ‘striving’ took on their Gen X parents. The ‘stressed generation’ that chased material wealth is being replaced by a different kind of striver. Perhaps one who strives for good, purpose, the ability to make a difference, sustainability? “Einstein’s advice to a young man [person] was to try to become a man [person] of value instead of a man [person] of success. A man [person] of success takes more from life than he [or she or they] give(s) it, and the man [person] of value gives more than he [or she or they] takes.”

 

Why is this reduction in ‘strivers’ important?

It represents a wider trend: career ladders and promotional systems will become increasingly things of the past. Success will be measured differently: Impact rather than job title, excellence rather than promotion [too many organisations have focussed on promoting individuals out of jobs they excel at into leadership roles which they are average at], a range of experiences [demonstrable reference to being intelligent and adaptable]. Leadership is recognised as a skill-set in its own right and not something to be simply promoted into. The manager role is not recognisable from its 1990’s, noughties or even teenies counterpart. The effective manager is a super-hybrid that encompasses resource Manager (bring the right swarm together), facilitator and provider of the social safety net).

 

[*1 However, expecting recognition or a premium for ‘wisdom’ is so much more reasonable. Why?
 … because wisdom helps us take the most effective route through a problem or helps us rapidly select the best solution. This is because:
We have worked through comparable challenges and constructed effective solutions on many occasions. It is not necessarily the problem that we recognise, but it is how to tackle it, we know whom to speak to and we know how to manage stakeholders and influencers. We have an intuition, based on that experience on the actual size of the challenge / opportunity and how long we should spend on it.
We have, through experience, gained deep rooted empathy for our colleagues and our customers. We appreciate and understand the impact of technology, business or project related change. We have been around long enough to work on cross-function projects and we have been curious to know what goes on over the fence. This has helped us to become more T-shaped. We have an inherent and holistic understanding of how organisations fit together and where the dependencies lie].

 

  1. Social Safety net

Those of you whom have heard me pontificate on ‘How to Build and Manage High Performing Teams’ will know I am a strong subscriber to the importance of the Psychological Safety net. In fact it is the one consistent factor across high performing teams and probably the single most important element.

This safety net will become wider in its purpose. The organisations we work for will play an ever more important role in providing a social safety net. The societal checks and balances that not only make sure we are thriving at work, but that we are surviving (from a well-being and mental health perspective) at home.

During the pandemic we saw lots of individuals step up into this role. The value put on personal interactions understandably increased and we became more empathetic to team members individual circumstances. It was needed and people generally took up the mantle. It was also a ‘trigger’ for a lot of individuals. They remembered how much they enjoyed caring and how rewarding and purposeful it can be…

.. but this was a pre-covid trend for different reasons. Organisational leaders were rapidly becoming aware of how quickly work place culture can be exposed and how brand damaging the fallout can be (Amazon and Brewdog have hit the headlines recently).

Paying lip service to employee well being is being exposed. The social safety net is not something to be implemented by an HR function; it is something that needs to be embedded in the very culture of the organisation. …. and you can’t design culture it is in the 100 little things that make us ‘US’. Codifying those important things and spreading best practice and continuous improvement must be the mandate. Managing the social safety net will be very much part of the tool set of the modern manager; it is very much in the gift of the GenZ employee.

 

So, there you have it. The 5 trends Rokker’s Jim Marshall is expecting to see in the future. Next up, we have the 5 Winners in the Future of Work. Are you ready for what’s to come?! The future is closer than you think! 

Want to know more? Email Jim on jim.marshall@rokker.co.uk.