I see four significant trends impacting the future of work and I’ll describe them here, along with the implications of them for employers, workers and everyone in between.
This comes from consulting with fun and interesting clients in the US, Asia and Europe in industries from telecom and technology to performance apparel, food and other CPG products. These impact how we all do what we do. They aren’t specific to any one industry. It all matters.
Here are four trends I think you can take to the bank. We’ll figure out what to do about them below.
Democratization of technology:
What used to be the sole preserve of the IT department in large corporations is now available to anyone, anywhere. I can get a more powerful, less expensive computer myself, either online or even at retail – and increasingly, we’re expected to get our own devices.
We see research showing that people at the bottom of the global economic pyramid, subsistence level farmers and urban dwellers in east Africa, are increasingly reallocating what little disposable income they have away from food to pay for additional pre-paid minutes for their cell phones.
We see research telling us that the pervasive spread of technology and the instantly accessible, always on nature of news and social media is re-wiring how our brains work.
It’s the IT department’s job to keep up, rather than to provide. And when tablets are walking in to the enterprise, with all of their security drawbacks, this becomes a complex job.
Decline of location:
One of the causal factors springing from the democratization of technology is the decline of location as a limiting factor. The technology that has been put in our hands isn’t limited to the devices we own. The ubiquity of the Internet itself has dramatically changed how we live our lives and how we work. Similarly, the ubiquity of broadband, the wireless web, low cost videoconferencing and VOIP have all combined to give us the ability to communicate anywhere we have a device and a connection. The explosion of cloud based computing means our data is wherever we are, always up to date and at our fingertips.
Business process outsourcing, from our accounting and payroll to other back office support functions, is increasingly happening elsewhere as a result. When you don’t need to hire accounting, HR and finance people in the branch offices, do you really need “branch offices”? Increasingly, the answer is no. Companies providing office space on demand, like Regus, are exploding. Regus is now the world’s largest real estate holder as a result.
“The office” is now wherever we have a laptop, an internet connection and a good headset.
Changing nature of social glue:
We have high powered devices and instant communication: does this suggest the decline of relationships? Are we all isolated?
Ask anyone on Facebook – you have a one in seven chance of randomly finding someone on planet earth with a profile, after all – if their “relationships” have suffered. No, they haven’t. But they have changed. We now communicate better with that long lost friend from junior high school who lives half a country away than we do with the guy three cubicles away.
Our social glue has changed, the ways we communicate with our network has changed and the nature of relationships in general has changed. I’ve got friends I’ve never met before now, some I’ve never even spoken to. This isn’t terribly unusual at this point.
If we all have the same powerful productivity and communication tools, location is no longer a limiting factor and the very nature of our social relationships have become more nuanced and complex, it stands to reason that automation (technology) is going to replace everything and anything it can on the low end, leaving the more nuanced and complex parts to actual humans to figure out. We see this in the contact center industry, where voice recognition, online FAQ’s and even P2P forums have taken the place of what was once entry level labor. What’s left is the stuff too complicated for simple self-service answers. This isn’t just a case of human intervention, either. It calls for highly skilled human intervention, and highly skilled humans are expensive and rare.
The war for talent starts here. Watch for increased polarization – of (forgive me, it’s a good turn of a phrase) the 1% further separating from the 99% – of labor as the low end disappears and the skilled become even more in demand.
We have trends. What do we do about them?
For employers, we need to understand that it’s an imposition to ask smart people to drive 45 minutes to the “office” when they’ve got a phone and a computer where they are. The very smart employers amongst us are also realizing that at any given time, more than half of all their cubicles are empty. The lights and electricity and real estate costs, however, are always on. Downsizing your headquarters footprint and moving to a more flexible office arrangement – hot desking or “hoteling” – makes a whole lot of sense, particularly when the second largest fixed expense a company typically has is real estate. Increasingly, this is a case of “yes and” rather than “either or.”
Companies that are rapidly doing away with branch offices – and often headquarters space, too – need to do something to step into this sudden void in the social glue. The smart ones are creating new opportunities for face to face communication. They’re thinking about internal communications beyond the monthly newsletter. They’re creating big meetings at the Company-Plex and ensuring that teamwork stays healthy even when we’re not seeing each other face to face every day.
This also suggests that companies that have closed all the branch offices and have moved their people into Regus spaces need to take some of that considerable saved money and invest in their HQ space.
When your people are out in the marketplace and no longer sitting obediently outside your glorious office, the nature of the relationship tends to shift, as well. Let’s acknowledge that this change also sounds the death knell of the command and control management style, at least as it relates to control over people. You can still manage. You need to. But you can’t necessarily keep all your people under your thumb in one (or a few locations), because increasingly this means you’re losing out on some of the better people available to you.
If we continue this trend line outwards, beyond these two data points, does this mean we’re moving from a W2 to a 1099 world? Maybe.
The fact that location is no longer a constraint may suggest to us that there’s nothing but upside when we choose to move services and roles elsewhere to take advantage of relative cost differences. But there’s a catch. There’s still a limit to what we’re willing to live with. There’s still a “just noticeable difference” beyond which we shut down. We’ve been comfortable sending our contact centers elsewhere for some time now, but increasingly we don’t want them sent overseas. Why? We still want to do business with people like us. Particularly in the US, we want American accents. We want the comfort of knowing that our credit card information isn’t on a server somewhere on the other side of the world. Our new definitions of location may mean “not here,” but it doesn’t always mean “anywhere.”
Culturally, this new future of work suggests that old forms of recognition and reward need to shift, as well. If we’re splitting our time between a formal office location, a home office, a professional layer (like a Regus location) and the airport and hotel, what are the true trappings of success? One friend told me a story of how a new employer questioned his loyalty and commitment to the firm because he had no pictures of his family in his cubicle. Not surprisingly, the situation didn’t last long.
The new trappings of success are the things we carry with us: the iPhone, the Mac Book Pro, the headset. Once upon a time, it was the sole preserve of the C Suiters to carefully positioned their cell phones on the board room table to show off their executive jewelry. Now, everyone does this. Status is what you can walk in with and carry out with you. It’s not about the corner office anymore, or anything else like it.
For bosses who need to hire these sorts of people, the implications are that you need to have these skills too – and that you need to be able to manage these people well. That’s not easy, particularly today, because virtually no companies seem to value “management of people” as a skill set. If this is a dying art form, it’s going to come back and bite us in a tender spot, because getting people on the same page and motivating them isn’t always a given. In Silicon Valley, managing people as a discipline to be rewarded is virtually non-existent. Ask any Apple employee.
For bosses, the real skill set will be how to quickly on-board workers “in space,” keep aligned on projects and how to quickly judge whether their new hires (or existing ones) are in fact the right ones or not. Killing off the bad decisions quickly is smart and nurturing the right ones for retention is crucial.
Bosses also need to be outstanding at communication beyond the one on one. They need to be good at promoting the social glue, creating multiple ways to stay in touch, keep the professional and personal alive and meaningful, and create a sense of camaraderie particularly when the troops are miles apart.
For workers, it’s simple. Operating “in space” is where work is heading. Minimal hand holding, fast alignment, do it yourself without a whole lot of bureaucracy and process, strive for results, crystal clear alignment and reporting. People with those skill sets will be in demand. People without them will increasingly be competing for fewer low paying roles.
Communication skills get very important when you’re not sitting face to face all day long, don’t they? You need to collaborate with lots of domain experts in far flung places all over the world. You can’t spend all day long getting people on the same page. You need to do this quickly, because time zones are painful reminders of the limitations of collaboration. The death of globalization is sleep, after all. If you don’t believe me, try organizing conference calls with Europe and India. Someone is going to be tired.
What this doesn’t mean is cowboy antics. This doesn’t mean doing whatever in the world you think you want to do without any oversight or alignment. We’ve all worked with that guy once or twice (briefly, usually). Going rogue usually ends up with you getting shot fairly quickly, for good reason.
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What do you think? Does this resonate with you? Do you see other trends on the horizon that will impact how we do what we do all day long?
Tell me what you think –
Stephen, you are one of the few people talking about “the Future of Work” that goes beyond flexible workplaces. Implicit in the way large corporations are structured is the fact that generally they are large because they have been able to compete on scale and consistency in process and output which means predictability of cost and ROI . This in turn drove design of jobs, organisation of work and the management of resources including people, the processes and the output. This in turn meant that power and authority was concentrated in the hands of few to minimise variation and this in turn determines reward and remuneration structures, and then we land in the arena of enterprise bargaining and consistency in terms of conditions of employment and the employment contract.
When we talk about the “Future of Work”, I think it will be helpful to large corporations who are by and large still trapped in industrial age “factory models” of organising work, and a different group of economic participants…entrepreneurs, “free agents” and specialists. I scour the internet daily for examples of large corporations ( 10000 or more employees) who are successfully transitioning from hierarchical factory models of organisation structure to different forms of organising, employee contracts, structure, design of jobs, and leadership models. I think “operating in space” that you touch on is what is needed….but what does that look like when it’s a large employer/ corporation? If you have ideas, these are the very issues that the Amplify Festival of Innovation & Thought Leadership will be exploring 3-7 June 2013 in Australia. ( I founded Amplify (aka @Amplifyfest on Twitter) in 2005 and it has since grown into the largest business learning and innovation platform in the Southern Hemisphere. Let me know if you’d like to present your thoughts there?