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These 5 Characteristics Will Define the Future of Work

Steve Semelsberger October 18, 2018

Realizing that we spend a third of our adult lives working, many of us are beginning to reimagine work. We’re co-creating flexible conditions, finding new purpose, and demanding workplaces of equity and inclusion. With a relatively healthy economy and competitive conditions for skilled labor, many businesses are also proactively changing. Leaders are shifting power structures, becoming more transparent, finding compassionate approaches, and discovering that adopting more vulnerable management styles build cultures of trust.

Both forces are important: People expect more from work, while organizations are experimenting with new approaches to compete for top-tier talent. As an advisor to leaders at Fortune 500 companies, technology startups, and social enterprises, I’ve identified the following five qualities that signify a changing face of the concept of work.

1. Distributed

Humans are highly collaborative creatures. In the 20th century, most work required physical co-location. But with new tools, approaches, and rituals, many organizations are now finding success with distributed teams.

Automattic, the company behind the content management platform WordPress, employs 762 people in 68 countries who speak 81 different languages. To bring it all together, the company encourages employees to meet online for transparency’s sake—even when located in the same place.

Emboldened by the results of teleworking and open-source software projects, many forward-looking organizations are deciding to forego offices altogether—equipping their entire workforce to operate from home offices or co-working spaces. These organizations find that they are often able to attract top talent from multiple geographies. Employees love the freedom to live where they want while eliminating expensive, time-consuming commutes.

The Linux Foundation is an example of a fully distributed organization. With membership from over 1,000 companies, the Linux Foundation manages a robust set of collaborative projects including Hyperledger and Automotive Grade Linux. Its collective code is valued at $16 billion. The global team uses remote calendaring, video conferencing, and other tools to power an enormously productive and engaged global workforce. To create thriving conditions, leaders at the Linux Foundation must be highly tuned in to their teams. A focus on empathy, compassion, and communication is key. Without physical connection, regularly scheduled meeting time is critical. Teams build rituals to include personal conversations throughout the workday. Workers connect through email, text, forums, video conferencing, phone calls, and more.

I see more organizations embracing this type of distributed structure. The economic benefits are tangible as workplace overhead is dramatically reduced. And once people make the leap to develop new ways of working, they often love the flexibility and productivity of distributed work.

2. Open

Gone are the days when most workers spend their entire careers at the same company. According to a Gallup report from 2016, millennials are more likely to “job-hop” from company to company than workers from any other generation—and 60 percent of millennials say they’re open to new job opportunities.

The traditional full-time workforce is waning; 47 percent of millennials are freelancers, a multi-generational group made up of 57.3 million Americans in total (36 percent of the entire U.S. workforce). This openness to non-traditional work styles requires companies to think creatively about their people and be thoughtful about the use of part-time employees, contractors, advisors, and consultants. While the headlines focus on “gig-based” workers, the nuances and opportunities for multiple approaches to hiring are robust.

Many organizations are incorporating more fluidity in their teams, with a network of part-time and contract workers coming in and out according to project needs and worker preferences. One example is management consultancy SYPartners, which maintains full-time and part-time employees, as well as an open talent network of freelancers. The network, called SYPand, brings vetted subject matter experts into client work and bolsters teams when project scopes swell.

While non-traditional staffing arrangements call for thinking anew around employee experiences like on-boarding and management, the boom of a fluid and flexible system may be crucial for future success, and the trend will likely continue. In 2018, freelancing platform Upwork published a report stating that U.S. hiring managers expected a 168 percent increase in the use of flexible talent over the next 10 years. And venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers noted, “Freelance work is growing three times faster than the growth of the total workforce.”

3. Human

In the age of automation, the service economy has exploded. More than 65 percent of tech titan IBM’s revenue comes from services. Fields like health coaching and leadership development are growing rapidly, as people turn to experts to help them with wellness and professional goals.

At the same time, technology automation—increasingly fueled by artificial intelligence—is replacing jobs. And it will likely replace many more. For example, just 10 years ago, MIT predicted that long-haul trucking jobs would not likely become automated. In 2017, it reversed this position, noting that many of the 1.7 million truck driving jobs in the U.S. will likely be replaced by AI systems.

This means companies must relentlessly test new services. How can product competencies be augmented by services? What new services will markets require? In many cases, the answer may be hybrid. For example, Testlio is a startup that ensures mobile apps work well across phones and systems. It offers a hybrid platform-human service, employing people in more than 100 countries and intentionally paying better-than-market wages to attract the best talent.

Futurists such as Yuval Noah Harari, author of “Homo Deus,” see a world of extremely high unemployment as many jobs are automated and phased out. I envision a different reality. Just as the decline of farming jobs gave rise to factory work in the 20th century, I believe a whole new set of service positions will evolve in the 21st century. Driven by a biological, moral, social, and even spiritual calling to serve, create, and connect, people will prototype and develop new forms of helping one another. While technology replaces routine, predictable, and often mundane work tasks, people will evolve new capacities of aiding, helping, and serving others.

4. Neighborly

Company structures are moving away from power-oriented places to encourage a greater sense of community, a feat that requires more than just perks. As Mark McClain of Sailpoint, the highest Glassdoor-ranked CEO in Austin, tells it: “What’s more meaningful and gives our team members the drive to stay and do good work are the deep-rooted values and culture that would hold steady and strong, even if all the craft beer and breakfast tacos vanished off the face of the earth.”

A sense of community and belonging has been of increasing priority for employers in recent years—and the concept of the workplace as a healthy neighborhood is beginning to gain traction. Neighborhoods are different from other community structures. They are open to newcomers. They respect differences. They collaborate for common benefit. They distribute power and collectively tackle challenges. The social contract of a neighborhood brings many benefits, from encouraging considerate social behaviors, to establishing a camaraderie and impetus for strengthened organizational loyalty and pride. For employees, feeling a part of a greater group has been shown to increase productivity, positive emotions, and well-being at work.

5. Caring

Holistic well-being has become much better understood in recent years. Researchers have explored and documented pathways to physical, emotional, psychological, and social well-being. At the same time, many fields and providers are tackling the challenges of the rise of anxiety and depression.

With a new understanding of and urgency around well-being, conscious companies are doing more for their people. For example, Facebook provides an abundance of employee offerings. One is a philosophy called fuel. It includes a set of programs and people to help Facebookers envision and do great work—building rich, meaningful lives in the process.

Enlightened leaders see the power of caring. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, has built a powerful culture of compassion. After reading “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama, he shifted his hard-charging leadership approach to one that focuses on removing the suffering of others. The strong form of compassion that he practices helped LinkedIn grow to more than 250 million members and a 2016 acquisition by Microsoft for $26.2 billion.

Aetna is another company that is committed to employee well-being. CEO Mark Bertolini has built an insurance giant that offers dozens of employee programs, from guided meditation to yoga and more. Recently, Aetna announced plans to merge with CVS to create a new form of company, deeply committed to health and wellness.

The bottom line

Many forces are at play as work continues to evolve. What will always be at the heart of it all is how employees feel when they work—the alignment of their values with those of the organization, the recognition and respect for their individuality, and a sense of belonging to a greater purpose and community. Today’s forward-thinking leaders consider both business operations and the bigger picture. They constantly redefine what it means to be people-focused. With new distributed, open, human, neighborly, and caring approaches, leaders can create dynamic organizations to tackle the big challenges of the 21st century.

Stakeholder Capitalism
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