What does the ‘future of work’ look like?

Published 5/1/2022

One of the things we’re most often asked is “what is the future of work?”. While it’s tempting to simply answer “robots”, the truth is more complex. 

“The future of work is here” is a common catchphrase, but we think it lets us off the hook a little easily. It’s true that the last couple of years have accelerated some of the changes that would have eventually taken place anyway. But to mistake the present day for our destination risks designing systems and practices that will be out of date just as they’re being implemented.

Why does the future matter? 

For one, having tasted freedom, employees are now rethinking what they want out of work. Purposeful work and a sense of appreciation are key drivers for workplace happiness. Physical spaces are no longer a limiting factor for work, and flexibility is the fastest rising job priority in New Zealand. Given the overwhelming war for talent, compounded by the global marketplace we now operate in, businesses need foresight to attract and retain great people. 

With these new demands comes an opportunity to reshape and reimagine our workforce and organisations. Among other things, it’s a chance to design out inequalities, to narrow the digital divide and to create a diverse and multi-skilled workforce that meets the needs of our rapidly changing world. It’s also an opportunity to build anti-fragile systems - systems which thrive in conditions of pressure, uncertainty and volatility.

So, what will the new world look like?

Remote working (we prefer the term “distributed working”) certainly forms part of future workplaces, but not as it currently exists. We know that around the world, employees were told to go home until further notice, and that one of the downsides of this (largely unavoidable) move is that they’re now trying to do the same job with inadequate resources. 

You’re probably thinking of laptops and software here and yes, technology is a crucial part of remote resourcing - tech will create jobs that don’t yet exist and businesses will need the capabilities to integrate digital tools into effective ways of working - but there are also other resourcing considerations that have nothing to do with wireless keyboards or forgetting to turn off the mute button.

Chief among them is improved coherence - a key factor in ensuring that distributed working is as effective as, or even better than, face-to-face. Businesses need to be nurturing lifelong, reflective learners to keep up with technological developments and the changing demands of the workforce. This requires soft skills like analytical thinking, creativity, problem solving and emotional intelligence.

Where two worlds collide

Another consideration for employers concerns their employees’ life outside of work. Anybody who saw the foreign policy specialist interrupted by his son and daughter part way through a tense BBC interview about South Korea will know that children are part of the picture now, even if they’re not always invited. But there are other aspects of the home office that employers and their employees need to anticipate and agree around too - from round the clock availability (or otherwise) to recognising they might have other passions and business interests (“side hustles”) that are better acknowledged than ignored.

We use the word “agree” there because working agreements will form a big part of our future. The more flexible and geographically distributed a workplace gets, the more certainty there should be around exactly what is expected by all parties in a working relationship: we need to make the implicit explicit.

You might be surprised to see “the office” included in a discussion on work futures, but we still need to think about, or perhaps rethink its role in corporate life. No longer always the place where work gets done, it’s now best thought of as one tool in the working toolbox - to be employed where and when it allows us to do the job better than any other tool available.

What do these coming changes demand of us? 

  • Redouble your investment in people. Start building the foundations of a future which celebrates workforce diversity, flexibility, ongoing reflective learning and mutual fulfilment for employers and employees. 

  • Revisit outdated perceptions of your own organisation. Rather than seeking a detailed plan for the future, iterating now is what is needed - we need to start by starting. We have to probe, sense and respond until we get the results we’re looking for. 

  • Experiment with ways of working. What constraints could you remove, what new freedoms could we test? 

In an ideal world we may have seen some of these changes transition over five or ten years, but the world in 2022 has demanded fast, radical adaptation. The world’s best companies won’t stop adapting - they’ll be working hard to anticipate what’s coming next, while continually making sure they’ve fully caught up to the present. Flexible work and adaptive, learning organisations are here to stay, but businesses that resist change may not be. 

Ready to shake things up at your own organisation? Please reach out to get a conversation going. We'd love to hear from you.

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