The internet is heating up with content and conversation about the future of work, a concept that has for decades been substantial fodder for discussion but is at present demanding ever more action. Because…well… 2020.

The realities of social distancing have us scurrying to adapt to and make the best of the current conditions. Shopify in Canada has led the charge, announcing that WFH will be permanent going forward…and then subsequently clarifying that the option to WFH will be permanent as we progress through recovery.  Companies large and small quickly followed suit with similar proclamations.

WFH as an initiative is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come. The assorted professional and academic communities are not short on thinking and compelling ideation about what the workplace could and should look like going forward. Nevertheless, I’m jumping in with my own perspective, much of which connects to the foundation of writing already published here.

As is typical with my posts, I will be shorter on detailed tactical solutions – I tend to think that’s jumping ahead a bit. Yes, the brainstorming has its time and place, but where I commonly prefer to start is by structuring our path to seizing this fascinating but profoundly complex opportunity to image and then manifest our future approach to work. Break it down, as the title implores. Once we’re clear on what we’re trying to accomplish and how we need to think about it, we have a more focused and aligned avenue to execution.

 

Where we start is a numbingly-common question that we ask in business: what is the objective? Said another way, what are we trying to achieve as we imagine the future of work? I’m sure few of us believe it’s simply a guessing game or prediction contest followed by a race to the destination. We must first wrap our imagination around some very precise goals.

To me those goals would focus on one or all of these connected organizational objectives:

  • Resource efficiency
  • Employee performance
  • Employee satisfaction and continuance

In this article I will focus on the objective of maximizing employee performance and satisfaction, which should, in turn, result in continued employment. I’ll asterisk the idea of continuance because in the future we are likely to live in a world of a widespread condition of transient employment, so retention may ultimately lose its lustre as a goal.

I note that the three objectives are connected because you could argue that a more efficient workplace heightens both performance and satisfaction. However, the idea of efficiency gets into systems, structures a host of other elements. If I took that on here, I’d be typing well into retirement. So I’ll contain the narrative for now to just the workers and leaders.

The Pillars of Job Satisfaction

Five years ago I posted this article that pulled together effective cultural attributes across an array of organizations into major categories….or pillars. These are independent of compensation and financial incentives, which are assumed to be a given and the most obvious in importance. Based on my collegiate teachings and feedback from students in my Organizational Behavior class, I will signal the emergence of Security as a need among the younger generation. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Because, again, 2020.

I now stop to ponder the levers we might pull within the domains of compensation, security, freedom, inclusion, empowerment, advancement and organizational tone to find the most powerful innovations for the next-generation workplace. And in so doing I search for the greatest potential value-adds to the workplace experience; these can either come from conspicuous opportunity or tangible pain points:

 

A new respect for time (freedom, empowerment, advancement)

I may never get off this soapbox. The company that learns to be as efficient with a minute as it is with a dollar is gonna dominate. Think you’re already there? Pretend none of your employees are paid salary and they all cost $100/hr for their time. Now, go. Watch how quickly you start to do things differently.

The issue of time comes up in a number of major complaints about the workplace: emails, meetings and low-value work are arguably the top 3.

Email. There are a host of ways to streamline org communications but they all require culture changes. We have to rethink how we talk to each other: in what medium, who is included and what is the cadence. Further as companies grow we tend to communicate MORE. We should in fact communicate less in a way, or at the very least differently. We stop pulling people together to force content into their brains and instead more passively publish and grant access to information – and then compel everyone to stay informed. (PS if you say to yourself “they’ll never do that” my answer to you is to get up to speed on best change management practices. Separate conversation).

Meetings. I have years ago published this article on the Root Causes of Meeting Misery, citing a lack of respect for time as a prime causal factor. Until leadership deems shitty meetings as unacceptable, nothing will change…and, to date, not much has. My post from back in the day goes into more detail.

Think for a second meetings are not a poor ROI on people’s time? Or at least not seen as valuable? Try this – step into your department and announce that today’s 2-hour meeting on ________ (seriously, you can pretty much insert anything) is now canceled and will not be rescheduled. Pause and absorb the palpable surge of positive energy among the team in the wake of this announcement. Ask yourself why. And ask yourself why the reaction wouldn’t be all that different if you announced a major year-end bonus.

One of the handful of core issues with meetings is how we use them. We have a bias toward sharing information versus using it to make decisions within the meeting time. Yes, we spend most of an hour reading information to attendees (and then slowing the pace of sharing to be consistent with the lowest common denominator of cognitive thinkers) versus formulating effective plans to act on it. Brutal. I have written about how some companies won’t start a meeting until everyone attending has read and digested the necessary information in advance. Better ROI on time. By a mile.

Beyond the wasted hour of actual meeting time we also have the inefficient hours of prepping. A few years ago I wrote a post about transitioning from Founder to CEO in the startup space. In it, I point out the necessity to shift the thinking from current product to building the foundation of a company, including infrastructure and decision support. This process never stops but is one that is abandoned by too many leaders, creating a disastrous ripple effect to the disenchanted lower level.

One of my test questions of the Cadillac-ness of your infrastructure is this question: ‘how much can you learn about your company, including confidential internal information on plans, performance, etc via a query from any device at any time, from any location’? Chances are, not all that much. Most of it is prepared for you by underlings who remain at work for all hours building reports..and then perhaps reading them (“presenting”) to you the next day? Soul crushing, inefficient work that prevents large companies from building agility.

I have desperately been looking for – and have yet to find – an article I read several years ago on a project a consulting company took on to help a large corporation find efficiencies (likely for the sake of justifying layoffs but whatever). One of the biggest issues related to all the company-wide prep required to feed weekly information to the leadership team for an exec call every Monday morning. If memory serves, the total was over 10,000 man-hours. Per week. Just for that.  This is how we operate, and we need to stop it. But before we do, we have to come clean on the lack of sense in our business practices.

Low-value work. In our personal lives we have apps for everything to solve virtually any informational or social problem. But not so much in the workplace (well, we could argue they exist, but then wonder how widely they are deployed). We hire college graduates to process information that we just know some machine should be doing. We think the resulting issues are more about millennial whining that they feel they should be changing the world the day they walk in the door. The reality is they simply have an intuitive sense that their talents could be deployed more meaningfully.  I left a job in my 40s over an issue much like this – so I get it.

A renewed sensitivity to and appreciation for time has multiple payoffs – one of which being reduced work hours. Much conversation out there about migrating to 4-day work weeks, post-pandemic. This may naturally happen as a byproduct of a recessed economy. But to make this concept work through the recovery and beyond, the mindset needs to be about reducing the organizational demand for all this time; and we can’t achieve the next level of productivity without proper evaluation and diagnosis of our failed management practices. Otherwise, we will continue to implement work reduction through primitive mandates such as ‘meetingless Fridays’ which only serve to create tension in organizations through pent-up demand for meeting time that doesn’t get serviced.

 

Freedom and Flexibility – Supercharged.

Unlike time, we’re on a much better path with this one. I think we mostly got it, but need to work it harder. Choose your perks, flex benefits, flex work hours, flex workspace. These last two are about giving employees the freedom to find their personal productivity zones. Me, I’m at my worst in the late afternoon and between 2 and 9 am, which is when I sleep. Any other time I’m ready to rock. We have to start breaking down the models of how and where work is performed and empower our people to be their best.

And, since we’re OK with expecting our employees to be tied to their phones staring at (and losing sleep over) work stuff 24/7, so, too, should we be OK with our workers backing their personal lives right into the workplace. I’m by no means the first one to acknowledge that work-life balance is now an historical concept. We’re well into the era of full work-life integration. I think we sort of get the idea, however we haven’t operationalized it quite yet. When I see children of employees running through offices and yoga mats instead of a table and chairs in conference rooms I’ll be inclined to agree we’re getting warmer.

 

New paths to affective commitment. (inclusion)

Busting out an org behavior term from my teachings. This is about ensuring employees stay because they are happy and want to stay – not because they simply need a job. Moreover, they feel somehow tied to the company in ways that are voluntary. How hard we push on this depends on to what extent we want to keep our people long-term. And, as mentioned, I’m unsure about where we’re going to sit on this matter deeper into the future. For now, it’s a need.

This is all about scaling the ideas that Facebook and Google are advancing – building micro-communities around the office…or campus. WeWork has tried this a bit in the shared-office, entrepreneurial space but failed to generate enough authentic connection between disparate groups. Companies that are more single-minded will get better at doing what we marketers do, and that is apply journey mapping to the lives of our employees, adding value to their personal lives in every dimension within which we are allowed to create a willing interdependency.

Some current and awesome executions are simple ideas such as sending food home for the kids if mom or dad is working late, or arranging to pick up cleaning if you don’t have time to. If you are able to effectively journey map and walk in the shoes of those who work for you, you could come up with a host of solutions to better people’s lives – and they’ll love you for it in return. And there are limitless resulting benefits.

 

Looking even further ahead

I’m working my crystal ball pretty intensely these days and I see the potential for two transformative trends that I personally feel are exhilarating. For the sake of brevity (not a strong suit, sorry), I will simply highlight how some current practices and sensitivities have the power to utterly remodel the composition of our workforce and how companies achieve their objectives:

 

How far can data and AI take us?

Far. One area I’m watching is the potential to codify the conditions and behaviors that cause business outcomes. Long way to go on this but consider the potential to determine precisely who contributed to business outcomes to what extent…and how. Even the most contemporary of org designs would collapse. Formal power structures will dissipate and become fluid, project by project, situation by situation. We still stop paying employees and leaders for their historical achievements and credentials to instead compensate in highly-fluctuating degrees based on  contributions solely within in the current cycle. Long way to go for this but I think we can get there over the longer term. But the net result is a wholly-equalized workforce where all have identical opportunity to monetize their skill sets. Ratchets the career risk-reward game up a serious notch.

 

Next-level diversity

Diversity management is at the same time as exciting as it is intimidating. And I’ll apply my academic OB concepts with support from an editorial article from Forbes to characterize a new altitude to which we can ascend.

For all the rhetoric that speaks to the moral imperative of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, it’s still approached more like a fresh and contemporary coat of paint. Because what tends to side-saddle with such values is either a conscious or subconscious drive to hire and develop for ‘fit’ for the sake of building cohesive teams. The result ends up being – as one of my minority contemporaries pointed out to me 15 years ago – that diverse hires end up landing roles if they act like white people.

I think of diversity strategy in terms of journey and destination as it relates to org objectives.  The journey is in fact tougher when you have a truly diverse profile of teams; this is known as process loss. Diversity that lives deep within our collective DNA results in a greater array of opinion, work and communication style, among other things. This manifests itself in less consensus, longer and more energetic debates. The rewards come in the destination – implementing or commercializing real innovation fueled by newfound levels of creativity.

I got a huge dose of this dynamic as a leader of the West Indian operation of a Canadian bank, whose employees came from all over the Caribbean. I learned many nuances between different island cultures. Collectively, my department did not passively accept every process or policy change. I’d have lineups in my office challenging me on most of our moves. Frustrated the heck out of me initially, but I can convincingly admit that by end of my five-year term I had thought through decisions much better before I implemented them. And the results showed.

To expand how we value diversity in this way requires substantial cultural change and a different leadership mindset. All involved must be not only comfortable with but crave to be challenged. We need upgraded skills in creativity management and brainstorming. We must be developed as leaders and teammates to possess next-level skills in patience, mediation and conflict resolution. We must abandon what we call mental models and perceived norms of how we speak, behave and socialize. Creating new diversity hiring targets doesn’t come close to seizing the opportunity before us; we must challenge companies to prepare for real diversity to set the table. Startups have the best chance of getting there because of their compact size; we must start by abandoning or streamlining our definition of ‘fit’ and go from there.

The gift with purchase for this next-gen approach to HR management is a newfound ability to harvest talent that is substantial yet remains largely untapped for our workforce. We will learn how to get the most out of introverts, people with disabilities and those with dimensions of neuro-diversity. We’ll stop being concerned with packaging and surface matters of fit to unlock profound capabilities we have only so far dreamed about.

 

Effective leadership into the future of work begins with a mindset reboot, and is informed by a molded perspective.

This is not about creating tactics to manage through the complexities of our environment in the 2020s. That’s reactionary. What we are realizing, though, is that crises are the ideal Launchpad for change …transformation, really. We are no longer encumbered by downside risk because we are presently situated square in the middle of the downside, looking upwards and realizing that renewal is the most effective tool to change our trajectory.

This mindset will certainly be informed by thought leaders but needs to reside within leadership of the entities doing the transforming. This mindset begins with embracing that we must divide our attention equally between driving current results, incubating downstream opportunities and building and constantly nurturing a powerful infrastructure of people, systems, environments, development, information and culture. And we don’t syndicate those responsibilities to IT and HR to own.

This mindset also involves acknowledging that our personal lives may have evolved at a much more rapid pace than what we see in our professional environment; this disconnect is confusing and demotivating to emerging generations who are joining the workforce. We can’t rely on technology and processes to simply give us more content to consume, more work to do and greater expectation to stay connected. Said another way, the solution to our mismanagement is not to throw more time and energy into problems and initiatives, treating time like an infinite resource. This is simply no longer sustainable.

And our perspective needs to assert that not only is time a precious resource, but that our people are our most powerful asset. Technology can go so far to execute, but we the people still hold the controls; we can imagine, strategize, create and plan. And that’s where the returns come if we open up the right doors.

I say if we’re going to transform, let’s do it. Long time coming. So much we can do, I don’t think we’ve even begun to understand. But my point here is let’s ground our transformation in clear intent and vision for what the outcomes are to be. Let us journey map it by uncovering and accepting the true needs and pain points within our organizations. We need to not rush into building a 10-step program without saying out loud that we are alcoholics and take ownership for that. Let’s first ground ourselves in our failures as well as our opportunities; maybe I’m not consuming enough content out there but I haven’t heard enough relative to such a well-rounded and soul-searching narrative. Yet if we start there, we will most certainly maximize our results by delivering transformative value to the people we will rely on to help carve this wonderful new path. So, now we move forward.