It’s just a question of when…and if you ask me, it’s not soon enough.
I originally crafted this post to just purely imagine work life in, oh, about 20 years. Fun exercise. But I soon realized that this article can become more meaningful if we break that process down into two distinct steps. First, understand the causes of change. I’d like to momentarily recognize the forces at play today so that the process of imagining the future has some grounding.
I continue to be amazed by the transformation of our personal lives in how we interact, learn and do. These changes have been enabled mostly by technology but have also been fueled by the ongoing evolution of society. Compared to even ten years ago so much has changed in what we value and prioritize, how we raise our children, how we protect and empower, how we learn and share and what we see as acceptable behavior. While some things are a touch unsettling, I find most of how the world is unfolding to be an energizing system of maturation.
Then my mind shifts to the office and my work life as a career marketer and former banker. Quite frankly, I have seen comparatively little remodeling of how we work. And what I mean by how we work is the core social infrastructure and how we allocate our most precious and limited resource of time and capital to get jobs done. Now, technology has had an impact in speeding the pace of business, while it has also allowed us to spend more time doing work (damn you, Palm Pilot and Blackberry, for your inventions!). In addition, our methods of communication and collaboration have changed a little with the invention of email and remote access. We do interact a little more digitally than face to face. Still, our fundamental processes to access and share information, communicate and collaborate, transfer knowledge and make decisions have been largely unchanged.
The core reason for this is not surprising. Up until now, companies have focused on managing the resources that have the most immediate and obvious (perceived) impact on business performance. These resources are human and monetary capital. Most of us have experienced business environments of controlled headcount and slashed budgets. It’s the quick way to hit a cyclical profit target, a critical metric for publicly-traded companies in particular.
The next frontier to find efficiency and even create a competitive advantage is the landscape of time. The notion of time pulls in the concepts of business processes and business social norms; developing an acute sense of ROI where the input is time. The world of time management has been largely ignored and grossly underdeveloped (usually manifests itself in the nebulous directive to prioritize) as we recognize the challenges to revolutionize an organization for the sake of an unclear financial outcome.
I believe we are on the leading edge of a new era in how we work. I’m not just talking about open offices and telecommuting, I’m suggesting broad cultural, design and process shifts. Yes, I will discuss where I believe we’re going, but as I said in the opening, I want to identify those forces that are both discrete and interdependent, but will nonetheless instigate the creation of what I’m labeling the next generation workplace.
Transition from Full-Time to Part-Time/Contract/Freelance.
Not only are pensions and benefits disappearing but so, too, are full-time jobs. Less than half of American adults now hold full-time positions and that number continues to decline. At the same time, over 20% of the workforce is now comprised of freelancers and other temporary workers. While we may think this phenomenon is contained to the lower socio-economic strata, don’t count on that being the norm. Companies, pressured to contain headcount, are downsizing and then backtracking a bit by taking on temp or casual help to alleviate the pressure points caused by workforce reduction. As this trend continues, we will find more and more educated professionals collecting hourly wages as consultants and freelancers. The more that happens, the more equal time and money will become because you cannot abuse work hours without incremental cost. As far as work goes, then, the process and time to complete projects will become almost as important as outcomes if budgets get crunched.
We currently behave as if time is of unlimited supply on a per person basis. Not so much in the future.
No kidding. I’m watching the Raptors NBA game and texting 3 different people as I write. I’m not unique. Most of us interact regularly with a second screen.
My parents get a touch annoyed if I pull my phone out during a break in the conversation when I visit. They feel ignored. I have explained the glass-is-half-full perspective with some degree of success; they were shocked to learn that I’m nurturing literally hundreds of relationships with the use of my phone. I would not have these friends today if I didn’t have a smart phone. I can entertain them, support them, update them or otherwise just connect with them. Typically as we grow older, our circle of friends contracts. Social media overturned this paradigm, allowing us to regularly expand our network…and maintain it.
This notion is truly liberating, and can be applied to other areas of our life, including the workplace. There is a powerful insight here. While us old folks chastise the younger generation for their lack of attention, we’re missing a substantial opportunity. I will offer that the incoming class has an ingenious sense of how to fill every minute of every day. As soon as there’s a break in the action on one front, they are off creating value in other areas. You call it lack of discipline; I call it hyper-opportunism.
Blurring lines everywhere.
As we grow comfortable with multitasking, fewer and fewer things in our life remain discrete. People share cars and open up their homes to transient renters via Airbnb. Mass retail channels now sell groceries and grocery stores sell clothing and housewares. Retirement is no longer the time to enjoy our wealth and relax as we now integrate work sabbaticals into our careers. Work-life balance becomes work-life harmony, which in turn is becoming work-life integration. Technology has made work ubiquitous, so it stands to reason that there be a backwash of personal activity during our work time. We see it now in the form of digital / social activity during the day (people unlock their smartphone up to 10 times every hour at work), errands, time outs for fitness. Expect this type of activity to become less and less discreet.
The blur is happening in one other key area. Celebrity and authority are less of a big deal. Reality shows and social media have created connections between worlds that 30 years ago couldn’t have been further apart. We now challenge politicians, teachers and law enforcement in ways that would have been unthinkable not long ago. As a wise person once said, there are no icons anymore. If you’re a boss of someone, take note. As each day passes, personal power (i.e. leadership) will be valued so much more than authority.
Our relationships are becoming more transactional.
We see this most literally on the dating scene. Apps and social media have turned dating into a series of hookups (I use the term loosely…but not really) which may or may not become something more. But this dynamic has extended to the rest of our lives. We marry less, and show little loyalty to jobs and brands and most things in our universe. We don’t even really talk much anymore; our social intercourse has migrated from the telephone to AOL and MSN chat to pagers to texting to social media. Conversations do continue but no longer as an involved or extended process without much peripheral activity in between. We are challenged to be compelling in 140 characters or less (I should take note…but…*sigh*…not today). The work place social dynamic has not kept pace with our life away from it. Long meetings and long emails…and yet we complain that people can no longer focus. ::::face palm::::
Socializing is location agnostic.
Not sure if we are becoming a civilization of introverts but we have become much more comfortable socializing and solving problems digitally…or in hybrid virtual/physical formats. I assume the underlying wisdom is that being location agnostic creates flexibility in the number of people participate while reducing the cycle time to initiate interaction. We can’t (yet) teleport, so we embrace the instant and flexible nature of mass communication by sacrificing the ability to lay eyes on each other in the flesh. Go back to the dating analogy. We ‘date’ digitally and then meet just to…um…close the deal. Now apply that logic to the workplace and you can instantly see what would be different.
We learn differently.
OK I could write a whole book on this but I’ll leave it for the PhDs. For now I’ll give you this graphic to study while I whittle the whole modern-day process down to these four characteristics of learning:
- We learn in chewable chunks. Quick bursts of small amounts. So, next time you plan a two-hour powerpoint download to the gang, keep in mind they will take away 3 things at most. You best decide your top 3 points and think carefully about how much time you need to deliver them. (hint: not two hours; just sayin’)
- We learn on our own terms. In a world where our attention is regularly demanded and our senses are constantly assaulted the consumer has taken control. Marketers are already learning about our ‘on demand’ world in which we can no longer push advertising and information to the consumer. Instead, we need to figuratively hover and be forever accessible when the market is receptive to the message. That’s a big part of how you break through.
And, because we’re mentally opportunistic, our minds cycle in 10 to 30-second intervals searching for and validating relevancy; if we don’t find it, we move on. We have a higher standard now for what should gain or hold our attention.
- We have a ‘thin client’ structure (That’s an IT term if you’ve never heard it ). Our minds work so much like systems now. We don’t retain much. We use google and/or our smart phones to find answers to questions and solutions to problems on the ready. Our knowledge is now in the clouds, while our ‘memory’ has taken less the form of a hard drive in favor of more RAM to handle all the multitasking. Again, big info downloads are not likely to take root.
- We learn from each other. Let’s turn to our education system for clues. Many cities have turned teachers into facilitators who encourage learning in small teams, even at young ages. As adults, we make purchase and lifestyle decisions based on peer recommendations much more than what we are told by authorities. Mommy bloggers are today’s cartel of influencers that are no doubt as powerful at mobilizing a consumer base to action as much as any brand. And, they make lots of money doing it!
The takeaway for my management contemporaries is that instead of blaming others for the info that’s not sinking in, we will soon need to re-examine the how, the when and the how much of knowledge transfer. We need to better facilitate learning instead of finding inventive means to force feed it.
We are overwhelmed.
The growing innate desire to mult-itask is grinding against corporate inefficiency and mandate for deliberate, single-mindedness to leave us feeling net overwhelmed. A global study by Deloitte revealed that employees only spend 41% of their time on productive tasks relevant to their job while 72% claimed they could not readily find the information they need within company systems, a challenge exacerbated by the multiple information flows that exist within organizations. On average, employees say they are interrupted every 5 minutes, contributing to the need to accomplish about 30% of their work outside of the workplace. Doesn’t sound like a sustainable model to me.
A new class in charge.
If you feel that the above vectors just aren’t strong enough to overpower convention, I have a final fool-proof, catch-all tipping point. And it’s these ‘kids’ who have just graduated and are populating our offices. Kids who seem to have no focus and are texting all day and fidgeting during big meetings at conference room tables. Kids who won’t put their heads town, take orders and go hard. They don’t act (or think!) quite the same way we did when we entered the work force, and the reasons why lay embedded in the observations above.
So guess what? Every day that goes by, there are more and more of them. And less and less of us. Get where this is going? Yup, inversion. Within the next 20 years, most CEOs and certainly the bulk of corporate executive will have grown up on smart phones and digital media. They will call the shots and run organizations in a very different way then what we’re seeing today.
THE NEXT GENERATION WORKPLACE
If I could succinctly characterize society today in terms of how we operate and based on the above, I would use the following terms: quick, opportunistic, succinct, virtual, relevant, on-demand, value. Which all swirls in a vortex of better efficiency. Our tolerance for and attention to low value activity will dwindle considerably as the balance between the new and old guard tips in favor of the new. So now, let me project what this will mean for us as the dichotomy between work and personal norms and methods resolves itself. Feel free to think of your own implications (and share!), but in the meantime, here are some of the primary characteristics of the future org:
Less is more.
I can’t say it any more simply. Time will become expensive and attention is scarce, so we will place a premium on value for every second and every word.
We’ll start by decoupling the relationship between time and importance. You know what I mean. Someone has worked on a project for three months and calls in the team to present the project and the findings. The first 90% of the meeting is the chronology and detail of the work. The balance is used for conclusions and discussion. We will blow up that process; you open a meeting with the problem definition and expected outcome and then go straight to the findings. You no longer show your work. Get to the point and get out. Everything that doesn’t matter is a backup.
We will stop being a slave to Microsoft Outlook…or at least realize you can schedule meetings of any length using the tool. Standard meeting length will be 15 or 30 mins. If you worked for me, you’d have to business case a meeting of more than 30 mins. Think it’s not possible? You’ve never seen me in action. Clearly. In the meantime, feel free to watch a 3-minute TED talk and then let me know if you feel inspired.
The purpose of meetings will change as well and will largely be contained to problem solving and decision making. Knowledge transfer will happen virtually and much more passively.
And how will we do that? Well, I am holding on to my twitter stock, waiting for the break into the enterprise market (I have tweeted them asking for this, too. Guys, get on it, will ya??). Info will be shared in a twitter-like enterprise feed and you will be capped in word count to make your point. Link out to the backup and secondary content. If they don’t jump on this, companies like Slack will win the (yet-to-be-started) war to revolutionize business communication.
Emails are another thing. We can do extended posts just on this. I’d contain them to small group, less critical decision-making needs only. FYIs go to enterprise twitter. Templated to force key info up front, words are capped and an easier opt-out button is available to ping the sender that you have exited the thread.
The rise of the nerds.
Because technology is speeding up the marketplace remarkably, companies must continue to react much more quickly. We get there by evolving decision support methods. That means data. Big data. Systems and algorithms will replace the human capital draining processes of modeling and synthesizing data in Excel. Yes, the nerds are coming, just as soon as our educational system catches up. Students are starting to get the message that academic (and even business!) degrees provide more education than they do job training. Those who care to be employed (!) will migrate in increasing numbers to technical programs. As this skill set comes into steady supply, expect a material proportion of headcount that currently sits in finance and management in all departments to migrate to a power center of IT and statistics. Not only will be get those damn corporate dashboards right, but we will unlock our ability to spend effectively, make strategy calls and even metric our employees in a meaningful and inspiring way.
Better, more precise data means fewer people making decisions. We will do away with the constant gridlocking caused by our laborious, consensus-building habits and finally become lean in our decision making infrastructure.
I see borders breaking down or redefining themselves along several lines:
- Office space. The open office is not without its challenges, and will become less important as we depend more on technology than people. Employees will have more peace to interact with media (headphones are today’s step in that direction)
- Meeting space. Meetings will be more fluid and have fewer members. The traditional conference room will go away and meetings will be held in pop-up spaces of no standard design. Technology will be portable and will be used to conference in the other half of workers that are remote…or even those who choose to meet from their desk while they work on other tasks. Few tables and chairs; we’ll likely stand while we engage, since many believe a more kinetic and free-flowing environment becomes a metaphor for how we want the mind to be working in such circumstances
- We are rarely single-minded. Multi-tasking behavior is pervasive. Not only do we engage in social media and monitor our feeds during meetings but we might bring in a yoga mat and stretch while we brainstorm. Ok, well at least I definitely will be…
- Roles and departments. We will have accountabilities, yes. But we will be much more free to participate wherever we wish to add value. I imagine a company where we have visibility to all meetings and agendas. If you like the topic, show up or dial in. Everyone gets a voice, which is the silver lining to not always being a part of the smaller decision making group. I predict more involvement when the option is yours. Let passion be your guide
- The new generation is less directive and won’t think of ‘management’ (much like ‘parenting’, but I digress…) as such an intense action verb. They believe in empowerment (more on this later). Bosses won’t feel like today’s bosses; they will lead in part through facilitation and provide support through newfangled processes like peer coaching
A new meritocracy.
Doesn’t all this empowerment make you nervous? Sounds like lightly-controlled anarchy on the surface doesn’t it? Remember the backdrop: organizations will be fluid; more contractors and temp help; less loyalty; better data.
There will be no cushy jobs and organizations will be almost flat. We will all be heavily metricked on the value we bring and will be paid accordingly. Career progression won’t be something we think about much, because our pay and responsibility will be a function of what we did last. That means we could move upward one month and downward the next. The notion of ‘boss’ will almost be outdated because our roles could be reversed on the next project. We won’t be told what to read or what to think but we’ll be given full access. If you fail to deliver, you’re cut loose. If you say you weren’t told, the reply will be ‘you didn’t ask’. Accountability. Freedom. Risk. Reward.
A better place.
But we won’t mind an environment that today sounds like chaos and makes us feel disposable. Because, we will love our jobs, much more than we do today. We will have much more control over our time. We will work the way we want. We will have ‘managers’ who are much more open minded. We will be empowered to participate and solve problems and will be highly-rewarded if we succeed. And heck, if we don’t, we’ll have virtual staffing entities that will pump us into the next job. Such companies are already springing up, anticipating forthcoming change. Through this new dynamic, compatible companies and employees will become much more adept at finding each other.
Transformation happens over time or there are tipping points. Think stock market. The Lehman Brothers disaster kicked off the recession in 2008 and there are similar underlying risks already again. However, we may see only a gradual correction. Same goes for culture shifts. Our steps forward may continue to be gradual, or we may get a kickstart from a visionary corporate leader or an economic challenge. I can’t predict that part.
The generations starting with millenials have faced challenges, uncertainty and lightning change in all key domains (social, political, economic) in a way that is unlike most generations of the past. While the byproduct is a little anxiety, they are for the most part used to it. They have adapted by being positive, efficient and importantly, fluid. We have much we can learn from the new class to become more relevant, productive and influential in the marketplace. We smugly champion the notion of preparing tomorrow’s leaders while in my mind we overlook the even greater challenge of readying ourselves to be led by them. Those who understand that the sword has indeed two edges have marketplace advantages to gain.
I have a ways to go before I exit the workforce, but I feel pangs of urgency today as I write this. There is opportunity everywhere: opportunity for efficient use of time; opportunity for a more energetic workplace; opportunity to jump ahead of the competition. My dream job would have functional accountability but would also allow me to help a company catch up with the times (or — yikes — jump ahead!). A legacy of synching up with the next generation to create a new workplace or transform an existing one. I can think of nothing that sounds like a better next chapter for my career.
Reference/Additional Reading: The Lean Management Enterprise, McKinsey & Company
New Work Rules, Fast Company, May 2015
And a few years later, this Forbes articles on top 10 digital trends of 2017 is my everything. Some synergistic thinking with this post!