I was asked at short notice to cover a conference keynote today, and used the opportunity to pull together some of the divergent threads of my own work exploring the Future of Work.
Most of this work is based upon interviews, conversations, case studies, and research into various aspects and the many and varied approaches that Organisations are taking, but i should stress that this is not by any stretch definitive, nor complete. I have tired to represent broad trends, and points of convergence, but these really just set the scene for further exploration. Still: it can be a valuable part of my personal ‘sense making’ to have the early opportunity to share work, because it marks the first opportunity to form vocabulary and ideas.
One of the first observations i shared was about the move from ‘structure’ to ‘space’ as perhaps a dominant model of organisation. Potentially a move away from seeing Organisations themselves as structural and Domain based entities, towards them being a scaffolding or framework within which parallel (social) structures operate. The types of language we hear here are about ‘collaboration’, ‘engagement’, ‘connection’, ‘purpose’, and ‘responsibility’. Perhaps one way to understand this is in terms of the role of the organisational architect: is it to build the Organisation, or create scaffolding (structure) within which it forms? This latter approach i would say is more typical of what i see at this stage: although the mechanisms, beliefs, and methods that Organisations are employing to find their future of work differ, there is a general sense that it will not be ‘built’ per se, so much as earned or emergent.
Again i should stress that this is very much a generalisation: individual conversations may indicate counter tendencies, but nonetheless, it ‘feels’ like a broader trend to me.
I would also observe that when i speak to more senior individuals about the future of their Organisation, it typically involves a shift, move, or lurch, into a parallel space. Few would necessarily describe their opportunity as lying in ‘more of the same thing in the same space’. Some would say ‘a new thing in the same space’, others would say ‘the same thing in a new space’, and many would say ‘a new thing also in a new space’. Let me illustrate that rather convoluted sentence: think of four things – building more of an existing car, developing and releasing the next version of an existing car, introducing a new category of vehicle, or developing a flying car.
Each of these things is a radically different proposition, and, crucially, your strength to do one of them may impede your ability to do others. Not through ignorance, but often through power, resource, conception, or influence.
In some ways, this indicates that the ‘future of work’, a thing often talked about in terms of geography, is in fact a more existential concern. Perhaps a move from certainty into ambiguity – or a move from structure to network – or structure to fluidity – potentially a shift from ‘individual’ to ‘collective’ capability. Probably aspects of emergence and hence understanding precursor and base conditions.
Again i should stress i feel no particular obligation to make sense at this stage: ideas may still be disparate and as fickle as soap bubbles.
I recently settled on a thought around the relationship between ‘culture’ and ‘performance’. I think this is a very dynamic space: it’s not as simple as culture ‘giving’ performance, but rather a sense that, contextually, each both enable, and inhibit, the other. This would indicate that we need quite a fluid relationship with them both, certainly a more nuanced one than simply observation or naked belief. Personally i am focussed on the notion of Individual Agency, in the space between culture and performance – which is really about the ‘ways’ that individuals are engaged, and the ‘how’ we create opportunity for that engagement.
You may note that very little of my conversation so far has been about the ‘where’ of work, or the popular conversations about the need to ‘be together’, for social connection of explicit control. It’s not that i don’t think that these are important: just the opposite in fact. But they are the easily solved part of this: let people be together, to work and not to work, and trust in people. People are social and sociable: we do not tend to need explicit instruction to know how to do this well, and also much of the current conversation is fizz. Things will settle down if we stop shaking the bottle, or worrying about it being flat.
Finally i shared an open framework that seeks to capture four areas of thought: the ‘location’, ‘mechanisms’, ‘agency’ and ‘identity’ in work. It’s probably better to view these as a small number of a larger set of lenses through which we may explore. But it’s a reasonable place to start.