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6 Key Trends Shaping the Future of Work

Johanna Lyman November 27, 2018

What got us here can’t get us to the next evolutionary phase of business. Across all industries, the way we’re working isn’t working any more. It’s not working for us personally, as evidenced by the shocking statistic that 80 percent of workers feel stress on the job and nearly half say they need help managing that stress. And it’s not working for industry, either. Take the retail sector as just one example: From 2006 to 2018, the gross revenue of many major retailers either flatlined or dropped significantly. Revenues at JC Penney are down 34 percent, Sears has dropped 69 percent, Macy’s is essentially flat (+1 percent) thanks to a couple of strategic buyouts, and countless regional retailers have gone out of business.

If you want to thrive in this constantly changing environment, business-as-usual won’t cut it. A host of trends will continue to change the way we work in the coming years, and business leaders must adapt in order to stay relevant. Here are just six of those mounting trends and a few ways they’re shaping the future of work.

1. Leadership development is getting personal. 

Most senior executives have had enough leadership training to write their own books. But sadly, there are still plenty of not-so-great leaders out there. It’s at least partly because, thus far, virtually all leadership training has been outer-focused and action-oriented: “Do these five things to be a better leader.” “Avoid these three leadership mistakes.” Those are important components; nothing changes without different actions. But it’s not the whole story.

Increasingly, leadership development is moving toward the mindset, attitude, and habits of leaders: the personal development side. Emotional intelligence, social intelligence, conversational intelligence, and mindfulness are some of the more common ways leaders can develop their personalities for work and life. Due to the increasing complexity and faster pace of business change and growth, look for personal development to play a larger role in leadership training moving forward.

2. ‘Feminine’ leadership traits are attracting attention.

The second trend is one that’s just beginning to emerge: an increased desire to bring so-called “feminine” qualities into leadership and business. Since the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, business and leadership have been heavily focused on the masculine. I’m not talking about male or female here; I’m talking about masculine and feminine traits that we all have available to us.

Traits often categorized as masculine include things like logic, competition, focus, independence, integrity, stability, assertiveness, discipline, freedom, goal-oriented, and strength (specifically, power over someone or something). Feminine traits are qualities like collaboration, creativity, compassion, intuition, empathy, receptivity, flow, nurturing, patience, radiance, and affection. As more and more companies become interested in doing business in a more conscious way, they’re realizing that a company can’t maximize its potential if it’s out of balance.

Lynne Twist shared a story at the 2017 Conscious Leader’s Forum about “the bird of humanity.” It’s an indigenous story, and it says that the bird of humanity has been flying with only one wing. As a result, it’s flying in circles, never getting anywhere. The wing it’s flying with is the masculine wing, which has become overdeveloped and aggressive. The story prophesies a time, which many say is now, when the bird of humanity will unfurl its second wing (the feminine) and fly straight again. Like the bird of humanity, capitalism is out of balance, and it will have to include feminine qualities in order to right itself.

3. Organizations are flattening. 

Companies like Morning Star and Patagonia are now using a Teal model, with less hierarchy and more self-management and autonomy throughout the organization. And they’re seeing bottom-line results that are far better than their more hierarchical competitors.

This trend is somewhat related to the rise of feminine leadership, because the qualities that must be nurtured to successfully transition a company from hierarchical to autonomous are mostly feminine: Collaboration, creativity, receptivity, and intuition mix together to create interdependence rather than independence.

In order to successfully transition a company to any of the autonomous models, you need to start with a culture of trust and open communications. Employees need to be bonded together toward and inspired by a common goal. Then you create the masculine “container” of governance and procedures to empower everyone to make decisions that affect their work.

4. Work is shifting from roles to skills.

In today’s fast-paced workplaces, having agile employees is a powerful advantage that gives your organization a competitive edge. Long gone are the days when employees stay in one job for years or slowly plod their way up the corporate ladder. These days, priorities can change on a dime, and you need to have employees who can keep up (or at least catch up quickly).

Employees need skills like great communication, critical thinking, the ability to work both in teams and autonomously, the ability to prioritize conflicting needs, and a commitment to their work. They need to be quick studies, learning and integrating new concepts or technical skills quickly and embracing (or at least not resisting) change.

5. The workforce is getting younger.

Millennials became the largest age group in the labor force in 2017 at 35 percent—edging out Gen Xers, who represent 33 percent. As the Boomers continue to retire and the post-millennial generation begins to enter the labor force, it will be increasingly important for leaders to understand the younger generations and ensure their skills and talents are being optimized.

It’s widely understood that millennials care deeply about doing work that has meaning. Theirs is the first generation with the luxury of being driven by meaning instead of security. It has created a fairly radical shift in culture, at least in the United States. Millennials are not lazy; they are merely uninterested in doing work that doesn’t matter to them. A smart leader will help them connect the dots between the sometimes mundane tasks and the bigger picture.

6. The HR game is changing. 

Human resources is becoming increasingly outsourced as companies like Globoforce and Zenefits have blasted onto the scene to efficiently take care of the nuts and bolts of benefits, payroll, and other tactical functions. Then there are tools like Culture Amp, Engagement Multiplier, and Glint that facilitate increased employee engagement. And consultants are often used to help develop the so-called soft skills, because it’s easier to affect change if you’re not part of the problem.

In order for HR leaders to remain relevant, they’ll need to be strategic. When they can think strategically and get others on board with their ideas, they’ll be considered part of the core team. If they can’t think beyond their traditional roles, they’ll be likely to find themselves out of a job.

The summary: Now is the time to prepare for the future of work.

In summary, the world is changing faster than ever. In order for companies to thrive in the 21st century, they’ll have to think and act differently. Leaders will need to be more self-aware and balanced in their personality traits, and they need to be emotionally intelligent in order to connect with the broad range of ages and motivations in the workforce. All employees will need to be more agile and flexible, pay attention to emerging trends, become proactive problem-solvers, and find meaning in their work even during the mundane moments. The “bird of capitalism” is ready to fly straight again.

Stakeholder Capitalism
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