The future of work has been the subject of lively discussion for at least three decades. While optimists and some organizations have been looking forward to a technology-driven utopian job environment, the nature of work remains fundamentally unchanged. Still, the advent of powerful technology and methods has remade the workplace for most organizations.
To explore the implications of the Future of Work, Korn Ferry convened a conference with the aim of creating a community of ambitious-minded future-focused thinkers and practitioners. The gathering brought together a cross-functional group with vision, influence and a mindset of positive change.
Consider the impact over the past 20 years of game-changing technological breakthroughs such as the Internet, wireless communications, super-high-speed broadband networks and increasingly powerful microchips. Try to think of life before e-mail and smartphones and social media and texting and Skype. Even those who are old enough to recall that companies thrived and work actually got done are still hard-pressed to contemplate work life, or personal life for that matter, without these accouterments. We post on Facebook, therefore we are.
But with the all the changes, the realization of a utopian workplace remains elusive. After these technological advances, are workers happier, more productive, or more likely to remain loyal to an organization?
For corporate human resources professionals, the transformation of the workplace environment has reshaped their mandate and job description. H.R.’s role is now that of strategic business partner. The personnel department’s directive is now aimed at not only helping to affect the environment as it is influenced by technology, but in the acquisition of talent as well. No longer a corporate support function, H.R. is now tasked with partnering with the business units to create viable talent strategies and enable employees to build a sense of purpose and be the best they can be.
Speakers at the workshop included three leading experts in their respective fields: Jo Taylor, Dave Coplin and Kursty Groves Knight. Each has a unique take on what the future of work looks like.
Dave Coplin has been a futurist and visionary at Microsoft U.K. since joining the company in 2005. His current title is “chief envisioning officer,” and he is focused on providing strategic advice and guidance about the impact of technology on society, at work and at play. Coplin is an author whose latest book, “The Rise of the Humans,” offers a call to action for harnessing the “digital deluge” and taking control of the technology and its impact on our lives.
As a self-described “alchemist,” Coplin suggested that we are surrounded by “base metals”—the organizational structure, the buildings we are in and the technology we use—but “we don’t often combine those elements together to deliver magic. And that’s the potential for the future,” Coplin said.
So many of the things we use today were invented by “alchemists” who were trying to do the impossible, he said. “The technology affords us a different way of working and a different way of structuring organizations,” he said. “The future requires a few people to paint that picture, to make some whacky experiments that will perhaps never work in the fullness in which they were painted, so we won’t get gold out of base metals. But it will make us think differently about the potential, and we may invent some new things along the way.”
According to Coplin, one of his roles is to show what is possible, to push through and change conceptions about what we do and how we work, and to deliver “not just tiny changes or slight improvements on the way we work, but fundamental transformative capabilities.”
For example, available technology could make the office so different that “it might not be an office at all,” he said. During the Industrial Revolution, workers had to fit inside the physical confines of a factory or mill, because that was where the infrastructure was. Those constraints no longer exist.
“Work should be an activity, or a set of activities, not a destination,” Coplin declared. “Work is something you do, not somewhere you go.”
In fact, the biggest obstacle to an overhaul of the future of work is cultural, not technical. “The challenge of the next decade or longer is how to make sure this remains humans plus machines rather than humans vs. machines,” Coplin said.
Jo Taylor is a talent and organizational development consultant in the U.K. She has been a highly successful senior human resources executive for the past 15 years, much of which was spent operating at the board level in a variety of leadership roles within flourishing customer-facing organizations. She was most recently the director of talent and recruiting for TalkTalk Telecom Group.
According to Taylor, talent management within organizations is systematically changing. Collaboration tools and social media offerings like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are creating generational nuances that will influence the future of work. “H.R. has a really important part to play in not only supporting but also in demonstrating and enabling business leaders to understand how to lead in this new environment,” Taylor said.
In the past, H.R.’s role was to access employee data for an organization, but today that has been turned inside out. H.R., she said, aided by technology, is giving that responsibility back to the employee and the manager and that responsibility now rests not in H.R., but in the business units.
Taylor believes technology is having a powerful influence on how staffers communicate outside the normal channels. With employees able to work anywhere and technology available for sharing documents and data and for virtual face-to-face encounters, she is hopeful that time-consuming meetings will die out.
There is a downside to the technological tsunami, however, that must be addressed. Technology has spawned an “always on” mentality that is wearing down workers. With e-mail and powerful mobile devices, there is no “down time.” “What did we do before e-mail?” Taylor asked. “We actually talked to each other. Now, whether you are on holiday, on a train or a plane, you are always ‘on,’ always expected to be available to answer e-mail and do more work.” She favors creating cultures where employees have permission to shut off the work.
Indeed, Taylor is outspoken about trusting staffers to work virtually. “Why do we need offices anymore?” she asked. “Why not work in cafes or at home? We’re predesigned to be in an office, to have meetings, to do everything on PowerPoint.”
In fact, statistics show that personnel work half as hard in the office as they do at home. “They get up earlier and work later when they are at home,” Taylor said. “In an office, with meetings and e-mails, you are less productive.” For the outlook for the future of work to remain upbeat, technology must enable a work-life balance, which thus far has been an elusive goal.
Kursty Groves Knight is an award-winning innovation and design consultant and workplace adviser. She is passionate about helping organizations cultivate the right cultural and physical environments to support innovation. Her book, “I Wish I Worked There!: A Look Inside the Most Creative Spaces in Business,” examines the drivers to success for some of the world’s most innovative companies.
According to Groves Knight, we’ve moved a great distance from the transactional world—“I pay you, you give me goods or services, and off we go”—to much more of a service economy that is far more experiential. “The entire experience is so important for organizations, for consumers and employees,” Groves Knight said. “Because our world is so much more connected, organizations need to be genuine from the inside as well as from the outside. They can no longer hide behind a big logo and expect people to buy their products and services.”
To accomplish this transformation, commercial organizations need to become more innovative and think about much more than transactions. They have to be driven by something more meaningful because that is what consumers want. Providing a purpose for an organization has a profound effect, not just on customers and employees but on the bottom line. A company without a clear purpose for doing what it is doing will not be able to differentiate itself in a crowded, fast-moving marketplace, Groves Knight pointed out.
She used Medibank, Australia’s largest health insurance company, as an example. Previously run as a nonprofit government-owned private insurer, Medibank has recently changed its business model and is now a for-profit entity that pays dividends to the federal government. According to Groves Knight, Medibank was a typical government-run institution with a disengaged staff and spotty loyalty. It was viewed essentially as a commodity.
“When they became a private company, they had a really big issue getting people to buy products,” Groves Knight said. “They decided to create a deeper and more aspirational meaning for the organization.” The company created a new mission statement: “For Better Health” and changed its purpose, from providing health insurance to creating better health outcomes for its customers and employees.
The biggest challenge in making this transformation is being able to think “bigger” about value creation and discarding the myopic view that sees everything from a financial perspective, Groves Knight explained. “When companies take a bigger leap of faith into the unknown, that’s when they are able to take themselves into exciting new territory,” Groves Knight said.