The Future of Work

Work

I think about work often. I have been both an employee and a deep thinker about work since my first jobs. Even before I was of legal age to work, I had little business ideas and plans, and some of my beliefs, once thought to be pipe dreams, are a lot more common place. With that in mind, here are some thoughts about the future of work. Note: A good deal of my thoughts on work are very Western-hemisphere centered, but one might be able to extrapolate for other countries, or at least see how their ideas will fit into what I think might be happening here.

Work Will Be Modular

Many of us will start using “project” as the unit of measurement of work. Meaning, a job won’t be a job any more, but a collection of projects, sometimes with the same employer and sometimes not. We will all work a bit more like Hollywood’s film industry, gathering the right team for the right project, and having more than one “picture” in the works at all time. This will require a lot more self-organizing and a lot more self-discipline, but people who define work around the unit of “project” instead of the unit of “job” will definitely have a better chance of succeeding.

Work Will Be Mobile

Anything that doesn’t have to be tied down to a desk won’t be. We are already nearly there. More and more people are issued laptops, and yet, management styles are still based around “butt in chair” metrics. I’ve used tools like GoToMeeting, Skype, Yammer, and mobile technologies to keep attached to a team for years. More and more businesses are catching up. Apple, for instance, has no cash registers in their stores. Other retail outlets are trying out the same technology. More and more of our technology is enabling us to work wherever we can find the net. This trend shifts a lot of other things, such as the future of where we live, the future of transportation, the future of family structures. It’s the most powerful of the future of work trends.

Work Will Be Cause-Balanced

More and more social causes are finding their way into our day jobs. Business models like that held by Toms Shoes will be more the norm than the exception. We will seek relationships with companies based on their social giving profiles as much as we do their value and their product offerings. We’re already hearing that about PepsiCo, who has been building more and more brand power with their Refresh project and other social giving initiatives, and who is getting higher and higher ratings (in some measures) with people who care about social good. Many more businesses will seek this out.

Work Will Be Smaller and Bigger

This sounds like bet-hedging, but it’s not. Work will be pushed to two extremes: tiny cottage businesses of never more than 5 employees, some smaller-but-big-feeling companies of 100 employees, and huge conglomerates of 20,000 or so employees. The mid-sized business will become less and less attractive, and will act more like the “interface” between big companies, instead of feeling as much like a standalone business of its own. This might be my most “out on a limb” prediction, but I have some reasoning, based partially on how social tools and Internet sales and marketing have changed the power structure of small businesses. The more we can grow and market small businesses, the more other company size benefits won’t be useful. So, either we’ll be huge, or we won’t want that at all.

Work Will Be More Goal-Aligned

This is more of a wish than a prediction, but I see little signs that people care about it. At least, I tend to surround myself with people who work for goals instead of working towards a retirement. Maybe because the banking systems have failed, maybe because no one will ever retire at the company where they started (unless they built the company), and maybe because the world has changed in too many ways, but I feel that people work with their own goals in mind now instead of working towards someone else’s. (You’re welcome to disagree.)

And You?

How do YOU view the future of work? What have I missed out on? What would you add? Are you living this future today?

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  • http://twitter.com/coblyn Christine Livingston

    Hi Chris

    This is a really thought-provoking post. The point you make about work being modular is bang-on. Just the other day, I was chatting to very smart 18 year old I know, who is just about to go off to university. He is already thinking of his work as a portfolio of contracts. I think before long most professional workers will have a version of self-employment, and will contract with businesses around specific deliverables to be achieved over specific timescales.

    What interests me in all of this is the shift of mindset for both individuals and businesses that’s required to make this happen. During the 20th Century, work and employment was something that could be pretty fixed and stable, because things were far less complex and dynamic than they are now. Companies hired people on permanent contracts and, to different extents, took a pretty patriarchical approach to the whole employment thing. Most people’s orientation to work was therefore to “get a job”. These days that model no longer fits. Our work is something of value we give to someone who can somehow transact that value. A different way to trade it is emerging.

    However, there’s still a big hangover from the way things were last century. Both businesses and individuals are grappling with the reality that they need to work Adult-Adult on this. The old Parent-Child thing, with all its emotional baggage, is just a lie now and that’s serving no-one. I think that’s part of the confusion that’s going on in the US and UK where people are being made redundant from public sector jobs they thought they’d hold for life.

    Still, as your post and its comments suggest, there’s a new breed out there who have already kicked ass on that way of thinking. They are the pioneers; they are carving out the way ahead for everyone else.

  • http://twitter.com/coblyn Christine Livingston

    Hi Chris

    This is a really thought-provoking post. The point you make about work being modular is bang-on. Just the other day, I was chatting to very smart 18 year old I know, who is just about to go off to university. He is already thinking of his work as a portfolio of contracts. I think before long most professional workers will have a version of self-employment, and will contract with businesses around specific deliverables to be achieved over specific timescales.

    What interests me in all of this is the shift of mindset for both individuals and businesses that’s required to make this happen. During the 20th Century, work and employment was something that could be pretty fixed and stable, because things were far less complex and dynamic than they are now. Companies hired people on permanent contracts and, to different extents, took a pretty patriarchical approach to the whole employment thing. Most people’s orientation to work was therefore to “get a job”. These days that model no longer fits. Our work is something of value we give to someone who can somehow transact that value. A different way to trade it is emerging.

    However, there’s still a big hangover from the way things were last century. Both businesses and individuals are grappling with the reality that they need to work Adult-Adult on this. The old Parent-Child thing, with all its emotional baggage, is just a lie now and that’s serving no-one. I think that’s part of the confusion that’s going on in the US and UK where people are being made redundant from public sector jobs they thought they’d hold for life.

    Still, as your post and its comments suggest, there’s a new breed out there who have already kicked ass on that way of thinking. They are the pioneers; they are carving out the way ahead for everyone else.

  • http://twitter.com/KourosMohit Kouros C Mohit

    Work will be more pleasurable.

  • Greg Smith MD

    Chris,

    Great post.
    I see myself as a medical contractor now in my middle age, and I am enjoying it! I do some crisis unit work, some outpatient clinic work, and my primary job is doing telemedicine with up to thirty different hospitals.
    It’s “modular” work that keeps me engaged, fights boredom, and uses my time/education/talents to reach the most people over the widest geographic area in the most optimal amount of time.
    It is definitely NOT what I thought I was training for starting thirty years ago, but that’s OK!
    I am living the future and I really like it!

    Greg

  • http://www.workforceinstitute.org Workforce Institute

    This is a thought provoking post and I agree that these changes are already happening for a small segment of knowledge workers. But how do you see this working for jobs where presence is required? As many others have commented here, knowledge workers with creative or technical skills can readily adapt their careers to a freelance/consulting/project oriented model that is untethered from time and place. The majority of the workforce worldwide, however, work in hourly jobs where scheduled physical presence is required to meet patient care, customer service, manufacturing and other types of objectives that cannot be delivered virtually (or at least not yet).

  • http://www.workforceinstitute.org Workforce Institute

    This is a thought provoking post and I agree that these changes are already happening for a small segment of knowledge workers. But how do you see this working for jobs where presence is required? As many others have commented here, knowledge workers with creative or technical skills can readily adapt their careers to a freelance/consulting/project oriented model that is untethered from time and place. The majority of the workforce worldwide, however, work in hourly jobs where scheduled physical presence is required to meet patient care, customer service, manufacturing and other types of objectives that cannot be delivered virtually (or at least not yet).

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