What are the changing patterns of work? What are the shifts in perspective and attitude? What do the organization and worker of the future look like?

I’ve been mulling on these questions recently, and wanted to invite a dialogue about it. Below is a synthesis of ideas from a number of reports and articles (references at bottom of post) to get a sense of where we’re at in this narrative and where we might be headed.

From Job Security to Employability

The 20th century pattern of employment featured a steady, permanent job with predictably rising pay. In order to achieve maximum efficiency in that predominantly industrial paradigm, fully anticipated behavior was desirable — Meaning, people were viewed as cogs in a system: not necessarily paid to think, but paid to follow rules. They were designed to be interchangeable, and paid more for clock time than specific outcomes.

That model includes characteristics like:

  • full-time exclusive employment relationship
  • paid for amount of time spent at work
  • common location
  • stable hierarchies
  • evaluation primarily through the judgment of superiors
  • what and how the job is done is prescribed

A sense of security and safety came from the organization, knowing that hard work, loyalty and dedication were a good formula to get you into a lifetime job with regular pay raises, promotions and a good pension at retirement.

In the 21st century pattern, it’s accepted that we’ll have many careers over our lifetime, that movement may be lateral or transitional instead of just linear, and that “job security” will have to come through the individual. We’ll have to take more responsibility for our careers and the direction of our lives through self-awareness and assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, continuous learning, self-improvement, and the ability to be flexible and adaptive to change.

Some characteristics include:

  • part-time, flextime, crowdsourced, project-based swarm teams, free agents
  • paid to harvest new ideas and tap into community knowledge
  • working from home & participating in virtual enterprises
  • flattening hierarchies
  • peer evaluation, external evaluation, new metrics like reputation, degree of connectedness, and influence in a network
  • employees participate in informal communities of practice, work and learning

From Work/Life “Balance” to Work/Life Integration

Work, life, and play used to be more clearly demarcated, and we’d try to “balance” these various identities. Now the edges are blurring and overlapping. We’re trying to close the gap so that “who we are” and “what we do” aren’t different things. We’re rediscovering the need to feel that what we do matters, provides meaning and purpose, and makes us feel that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Instead of balance, we’re looking for an integration where work can become a reflection of a certain way of life, and also a vehicle for satisfying our personal and social motivations.

The Courtship Between Worker & Organization

The interplay between 21st century workers and organizations is a matchmaking dance, where both parties seek to find an alignment of vision and values.

Firms want a talented workforce whose members passionately buy into the vision. Workers want to be inspired to contribute their best to an organization with clarity of mission and purpose.

Firms want to empower and create value for the employee, so the employee will be motivated to interact with customers. Workers want to feel a sense of ownership and control in how they structure their work, and an environment where knowledge and decision-making is decentralized.

Firms want leaders with an entrepreneurial mindset that can leverage new business models. Workers of tomorrow want to be able to cultivate certain dispositions and skill sets are not necessarily prized in conventional work environments, and the support of a management team that can play the role of coach and facilitator.

Both sides of this equation seem to value personal accountability, growth, learning, and continuous improvement. Both seem to be looking for a people-centric approach.

So How Do We Create this Holistic Human Workforce?

I wonder what the dialogue might sound like to kick off this future-shaping.

The organization might say:

“Ok, look. Things are moving fast these days and constantly changing, and our challenges are complex. We need totally rethink our approach to business and transform the marketplace. We need to figure out how to add value for customers that’s totally differentiable, compelling and urgent. We need to question the very nature of the organization and how it’s managed. And we need a stellar team of people who can make this happen — people with courage and imagination.

Please drop your sense of entitlement — we can’t guarantee you lifelong employment. In fact, we don’t even know if we’ll be here tomorrow. We’re moving forward into a shape and location that we’ve never been, so we need people with vision who can take responsibility for the future. The territory we’re entering doesn’t have regimented work processes and things will not be clear-cut, so hopefully you’re comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Accept total responsibility for your outcomes. That includes managing your own learning, skills development and career management. Be creative, be resourceful, take initiative, throw obsolete beliefs out the door, and be completely receptive to new ideas. Let’s go.”

The worker response might be something like:

“Alright. I’m willing to adopt a self-employed attitude, and assume I’m working with (not for) you. I’ll embrace the fact that we’re living in a networked world, that digital technologies allow for rapid information sharing and communication, and that innovation happens when many of us can interact efficiently across these mediums. I’ll work on my emotional intelligence and ability to communicate and manage conflict. I’ll invest in myself and make a commitment to continuous learning, and seek new knowledge by participating in a community of practice. I’ll face my fears and start the process of changing myself, and value enhancement as well as advancement.  I’ll bring my full Self to the table, and I’ll keep upgrading – my attitude, my craftsmanship, my performance. Support me in that.”

So if we pretend that these are the types of forward-focused mindsets that are defining the future of work, what might the next round of questions be?

I wonder:

What if we treated business itself as a platform to support personal and social learning?

How can we create nurturing, immersive environments for workers to satisfy their dispositions and talents?

What dispositions do we want to cultivate?

How can we develop a structure for lifelong learning, mentorship and development?

How can we create motivational feedback loops to improve personal performance and modify behavior?

How can we create working environments that increase human freedom and agency to make decisions and be self-directed?

What else should we be asking as we move forward?

references and further exploring:

The Future of Work by David Bollier (PDF)
The Future of Work by Thomas Malone
The Future of Workplaces by GigaOm
The Workplace of the Future: alabamaconnection.org
10 Forces Shaping the Workplace of the Future
The 10 Keys to Building the Flexible Workplace of the Future
12 Rules for Self Management

books of interest:

We Are All Self-Employed by Cliff Hakim
Gung Ho! by Ken Blanchard & Sheldon Bowles
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
First Things First by Stephen Covey
How to Find the Work You Love by Lawrence Boldt
Zen & The Art of Making a Living by Lawrence Boldt
Do What You Love The Money Will Follow by Marsha Sinetar
What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles
Making Vocational Choices by John Holland
Applied Concepts of Life Planning by Vernon Zunker
On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler
Future Shock by Alvin Toffler
Megatrends by John Naisbitt
Future Tense by Ian Morrison & Greg Schmid
New Work Habits for a Radically Changing World by Price Pritchett