An essential read on the future of work and reimagining work practices in your organisation.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. The disruption of work, which was already taking hold, got accelerated.
Jeff Schwartz, in his book, Work Disrupted, defines the future of work as follows:
"The future of work refers to the changes that technology (including automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence) along with new employment models (including freelancers, gig workers, and crowds) will bring about in how we work, where we work, who we work with, and the skills and capabilities we need to work."
The definition focuses on three interconnected areas:
It is important to note that it is not just the digital technologies that are causing the disruption of work, but like Jeff says in his book, but also a societal awakening that work can celebrate “our essential human capabilities—innovation, creation, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, empathy, caring, and relationships.”
The future of work is about embracing new types of work enabled by digital technology but doing so by embracing our uniquely human values.
With that clarified, let’s dig into the three areas.
During the pandemic, salespeople who used to get on a plane once a week are now calmly achieving similar results via Zoom calls. Digital teams who shelved improvement projects before the pandemic are rolling them out in weeks using low-code platforms. Managers who have a tight grip on decision-making feel liberated by open sharing on collaboration tools like Slack.
These salespeople, digital teams and managers are embracing more productive and efficient modern practices made possible by using modern digital technology and adopting humanistic principles.
Forward-thinking organisations are investing in these changes and reaping the rewards, not just in terms of superior performance but also in terms of happier and healthier employees. The remaining four lessons will go into this area in more detail.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that "By 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines."
However, the same reports tell us that "By 2025, 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms."
So we may lose many jobs, but we also stand to create more jobs at the intersection of humans, machines and algorithms.
We are not just talking about full-time work, but also part-time, contract and gig work made possible by modern technology.
And what kind of Work will these new jobs entail? Another WEF report tells us that the top 10 skills in 2025 are:
Organisations and governments are investing heavily in this area, hoping to reskill the workforce before it's too late.
The pandemic pushed the world into a remote working experiment in an instant. For those who were not ready, it was exhausting. But for those who already embraced the new work and workforce practices, it was exhilarating.
Many companies are now offering long-term remote work, while others are going with hybrid or flexible modes. Many of these changes will be permanent and will redefine the notion of where work gets done.
PebbleRoad, for one, opted for full remote work. We still do have an office, but it is not the office that we know of pre-pandemic. Today, our office is only for meetings, brainstorms and celebrations. Yes, people can come in for work, but that is not the main reason.
We now see many companies racing to redefine their workplaces for a post-pandemic office environment.
So while organisations are investing in the Workforce and Workplace improvements, we don't see much effort in redefining the Work itself.
The future of work is about embracing new types of work enabled by digital technology but doing so by embracing our uniquely human values.
Imagine that you have just hired a smart, talented graduate having the WEF-identified modern skill sets such as analytical thinking, active learning and complex problem solving. Would she thrive if your organisation chained her down with bureaucratic practices? Probably not.
It is a lose-lose situation. She loses her ability to exercise her talent and your organisation loses the ability to grow with her talent. Now play this scenario out with your entire workforce. You can see the importance of reimagining work practices in the future of work.
There are many factors that affect practices at work, but the most toxic among them is bureaucracy.
Bureaucracy is defined as an "excessively complicated administrative procedure". It is all the stuff that slows work down. Gary Hamel, one of the world's most influential business thinkers and author of Humanocracy, has a tool called the Bureaucracy Mass Index (BMI) to calculate the cost of bureaucracy in organisations. The index has the following factors:
Do you recognise some (or all) of these factors in your organisation? If yes, then you are not alone. Gary Hamel estimates that the cost of bureaucracy for OECD countries is around $9 trillion. He made these estimates in 2017.
There are two aspects to Work: what we do and how we do it. What we do are the practices and how we do it depends on the principles we embrace. It is the principles, whether explicitly or implicitly defined, that influence work practices.
What bureaucracy-busting principles will prepare us for the future of work? We think there are four of them:
It is about clarifying job roles and instilling a sense of purpose and meaning in work. Patagonia's purpose statement is to "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis." It is not enough to have the purpose statement stuck in office walls but to embed it to drive everyday decisions. Read how Patagonia does it.
People-first is about being fair and respectful. It is about recognising and appreciating the diverse backgrounds, qualities and attributes of people. The pandemic raised the awareness of this often neglected area. Today, JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, inclusion) conversations have a seat at the table.
Self-managed is about inviting people to be responsible and accountable for all aspects of work without any top-down control. It is a belief that people are fundamentally good, trustworthy and motivated to direct and manage their work—more Theory Y than Theory X.
Typically, we would not include tech as a principle. Still, after seeing many organisations jumping on any-tech-will-do bandwagon driven by FOMO, we added this principle to stop the madness.
Tech-augmented believes that tech can align with the work principles and augment work practices, not just replace them. Better still, the right tech can create new work practices. Read Tim O'Reilly's "Don't replace people. Augment them".
Principles, however, are just words. They don't mean much on their own if they don't show up in everyday work practices.
What is a work practice? Practice is an activity or process that we undertake to get work done. Some examples of work practices include how we coordinate work, how we make decisions and celebrate wins.
As you can imagine, there can be hundreds of work practices in organisations. What differentiates one organisation's work practice from another is the principles they adopt and how they play it out.
For example, an organisation that adopts power and hierarchy principles may celebrate wins by rewarding only the leaders and managers. But an organisation that adopts more people-positive principles may let the team choose how they want to celebrate their wins.
Notice that technology plays a neutral role in both instances. However, the organisation embraces more human-centric principles that have more loyal, happier and motivated employees.
There are many books published in the last few years that have case studies of organisations reinventing work practices. We like the following:
We have found Aaron Dignan's Brave New Work to be a handy guide. Dignan describes 12 core work practices that he finds to be an organisation's bedrock. He calls them the organisation's operating system and he argues that by reimagining these work practices using people-positive principles, we can make work happy, healthy and productive.
The 12 practices are:
As you can see, tweaking 12 practices in an organisation can take tremendous effort. It is no wonder that many equate embracing the future of work to a cultural transformation.
Let's unpack one practice—meetings— to understand how forward-thinking organisations convene and coordinate. Meetings are one of those central practices that have an outsized impact on the culture of an organisation. Do them well and you have the spillover effects of many other things going well. The inverse is also true.
The biggest criticism of meetings is that they interrupt work. The more people in a meeting, the more work is interrupted. Check out this infographic on TED that calculates the cost of this interruption.
Let’s consider one type of meeting—the status meeting, where team members give regular updates on their work.
Jason Fried, the co-founder of Basecamp, thinks status meetings are the scourge. He prefers asynchronous meetings (write it up rather than say it out loud). He strongly believes in not interrupting work and giving power to the teams to coordinate the work.
Team members at Basecamp give their status updates asynchronously using their collaboration software. They provide the following updates every week:
Let’s analyse Basecamp’s practice of status updates using the principles we mentioned above:
At Basecamp, the tech supports the first three principles. However, in most organisations, we see tech used without guiding principles, creating a messy and chaotic work environment.
As another example, let’s consider Atlassian. In addition to doing away with status update meetings, the company has also killed information broadcast meetings. “If all you need to do is broadcast information, for the love of everything holy, please just write it down and let people read it!”
There are many moving parts in every practice and it takes deliberate effort to make them work together. But how can we influence hundreds of practices in an organisation?
The answer lies in treating the challenge as a design problem, especially a systems design problem.
Earlier, we pointed out that modern work principles lean towards people and systems. Using this insight, we can see that top-down measures of changing existing work practices are futile. We need to treat the organisation as a living system.
A key concept in systems design is that of leverage points. These are points in the system that, when acted upon, have an outsized impact on the system.
For example, Singapore is trying to reduce the use of combustion engines and increase the use of electric vehicles. To nudge the system in this direction, the government uses its best leverage point: monetary incentives in the form of discounts and tax rebates for purchasing electric vehicles.
What are the leverage points to change work practices in organisations? One approach is to go to the places where the practices are exercised: teams.
We need to encourage teams to:
At PebbleRoad, we group these activities under a "transformation track" in a project. The objective of this track is to find better ways of working.
Notice that this track is not another project on its own (a top-down dictate). Instead, it spawns from an ongoing project (a bottom-up realisation).
So who in the team is responsible for the transformation track? We’ve found that adding a role in the team builds commitment. In our engagements, we use a ‘transformation coach’ to commit to finding better ways of working.
So how do the learnings spread and disseminate throughout the organisation? It can be tempting to add a management layer to this, but before we do that, we can also learn from how Buurtzorg, a Dutch home-care organisation, does it.
Buurtzorg has become world-famous for its decentralised way of working. It has a workforce of 15,000 nurses throughout the Netherlands. They work in hundreds of self-managing teams of up to 12 nurses per team. They have only one small office of up to 50 people, mostly coaches to support the nurses.
The single principle that aligns all the teams is to focus on their clients and remove all blockers that stop them from doing their job. Yes, they keep tweaking their practices, but how do they share good practices between them?
Each team has a role to identify inefficiencies and remove them. There is another role—coach—to share and learn from the other teams. Buurtzorg uses an online social platform where someone with an idea can share it freely, and someone with a problem can ask for help freely. This deliberate intent is to identify and embrace good practices across teams (a learning network) that makes Buurtzorg so efficient.
We don't typically see such a decentralised change process in organisations. Change is pushed down. However, we find that changing work practices cannot be dictated. It must be volunteered by the teams using them.
In conclusion, the future of work is upon us. The pandemic has accelerated its arrival. The whole world is experimenting with new ways of working. Flexible, hybrid work is here to stay. Purpose-driven, people-first, self-management are becoming prerequisites for wooing top talent. Work is disrupted. It is time to embrace it.
We hope this introduction to the future of work has been helpful. If you need any help on transforming your organisation to be more future-ready, do reach out to us at email@example.com.
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