by Kevin Empey, Programme Director of the IMI Senior Executive Programme and also Managing Director of WorkMatters Consulting.
Ever feel slightly overwhelmed by the volume of information being produced about the so-called ‘Future of Work’? While no universal definition of the ‘future of work’ even exists, it has become one of the most common management buzzwords over the last decade.
Used (and abused) as a ‘label of convenience’ for everything from Robotics and Artificial Intelligence to Millennials and the gig economy, not a day passes without news of the latest survey, report, summit or social media post on the subject – and I concede the irony of writing this article under the same moniker. However, having worked in and researched this field over the years my sense is we now need to move the conversation on regarding the future of work.
The message has been clear for some time that major converging forces such as emerging technology, rapid change, globalisation, shifting demographics, gig working and so on are all combining to herald in what is becoming the biggest disruption to the world of work since the Industrial Revolution.
We get it.
But yet, when you talk with many leaders, employees and policy makers today, who are often consumed by current challenges and priorities, they are asking the question of what exactly is so different, what is the impact to me, to my organization and what should/could I do about it today?
Basically, where do I start?
Getting personal about what really matters
Part of the issue is how distracting all the information and noise around this sprawling topic can get – between digital this, robotics that, and gig working the other – and every subject in between. Many people are left asking what is ‘really real’ for me in all this, what are the practical and relevant implications for my context, my situation and my future.
These are some of the basic questions we need to address for people, moving beyond the flash, drama and glitz of the latest technological advancement and millennial or Gen Z survey, helpful as these insights are to our understanding of what is going on.
When you do look beyond the hype and headlines, and at how others have successfully travelled this path, you are left with some concrete themes that each business leader, HR leader, employee and policy maker do need to consider.
Themes such as the capacity to manage greater complexity, embedding agility and rethinking how work can get done are among the relatively few but fundamental strategies that will enable all of us to navigate whatever the future of work throws at us. Nothing new perhaps, as many people rightly point out, but they are ideas that now need to be more deliberate, more thought through and more front of mind than ever before.
Agility, for example, can no longer be seen as just a heroic trait traditionally seen as a ‘responsive’ or reactive quality. It now has to have the forward looking, ‘sensing’ dimension dialled up so that it is a proactive, strategic capability not just a quality that enables speedy reaction to events.
Commonly quoted essentials such as embracing new technology, dealing with continuous change and managing diversity are now just simply ‘givens’ in the new world of work and business, to be accepted as business as usual realities rather than anything new or in the future.
Making work better and making work matter
Another basic truth we have to face as leaders, work architects and policy makers is how do we make work better and matter for everyone amongst the spectrum of technologically empowered possibilities and options presented by the so-called future of work. As Martin Ford says ….” crafting a future that offers broad based security and prosperity may prove to be the greatest challenge of our time”.
Declining engagement levels, increasing levels of precarious work, workplace stress and widening pay gaps are just some of the current warning signals that suggest we have some tough choices ahead to create broad based prosperity and sustainable work models for the future.
A fascinating and important journey ahead
All in all, this ‘future of work’ journey will continue to be a fascinating one, scattered with many unmapped routes, speed bumps and cul-de-sacs along the way.
But it is a journey for which we need to prepare ourselves and others, and to take with purpose so that we establish a route for future generations that is characterised by good work and opportunity where people can thrive and not just survive at work.
A future where organizations build the capacity to adapt and change with confidence and skill over time and don’t just exist to deliver on short term priorities.