When my first daughter was born, I was a musician. I went on tour when she was three months old, returned when she was six months old, and she didn’t recognize me.
I quit the next day.
My mission since then has been to work within terms that fit my life and allow me to follow my passions, spend time with my family, and earn money. It’s a movement that’s caught on around the globe in the last decade, triggering workers to begin freelancing and companies to eschew traditional offices for playground campuses and work-from-home options. In fact, economic gains from a flexible working culture could accrue to approximately $2.36 trillion per year in the US alone.
The future of work, however, is more than that. I co-founded the Work Forward Summit as a forum to discuss this movement. I believe the problem with the current state of work is that companies believe offering one of these options – flexible hours, for example, or collaborative software – satisfies the requirements for a modern workforce.
In other words, there’s a major shift in how people are working, but we're all defining it in multiple ways. As a consultant, I work with many types of companies. Recently, I’ve heard the following definitions of the future of work:
- For a software company, it’s offering memberships to WeWork so employees can work outside the office.
- For a global services provider, it’s allowing more asynchronous communication through Slack and Microsoft Teams and fewer meetings.
- For a payments company, it’s creating agile teams that work across departments.
- For a large technology company, it's about cloud-based tools for design and collaboration.
- The answer changes in the same company, too. On the business side, they may define it as including a budget for freelancers. HR may see the solution as introducing design-thinking training.
The answer is, it’s all of these things. The future of work is actually a holistic system including where, when, and how work gets done, and the tools and resources necessary. Creating a better way of working involves all of these elements functioning in concert. I’ve seen companies that have spent millions of dollars on amazing tools for collaboration, but they have a culture that's toxic, so people don’t work together. I’ve seen other companies with beautiful brick-and-mortar office space designed for creative thinking, but the people are vertically aligned and don’t have good communication tools, so work is inefficient and without inspiration.
How, then, can more companies begin to see the big picture and start making the work lives of their employees better?
A holistic picture of the future of work can be better seen through the following four lenses:
When we work considers actual clock time. If workers are scattered around the world, managers can decide whether to mandate certain office hours to ensure overlapping work hours, even if it means some people are working in the middle of the night. Or, managers can choose to allow asynchronous communication, relying instead on email and accepting delays in direct messaging responses. Asynchronous collaboration tools allow team members to work when it’s best for them, and other team members can pick it up and do their parts later.
When we work needs to be thoughtful. Remote teams rely heavily on tools and technology to define when. Other teams don’t—for them, it's just physical time. When I worked in The Netherlands, most people came into the office at 9:00 AM and left at 5:00 PM. At that company, there were time-based “walls.” In North American work culture, in contrast, there are no barriers. We’re accessible all the time, blurring the line between work and leisure time.
Where we will work now ranges from coworking spaces, home offices, open-concept offices, to cubicles. Today, it’s often a combination of full-time employees working from home one day a week and on-demand talent working in the office several times a month. Where we work also ranges from a rigid and structured design to open and creative. It’s a growing concern for employers, however. “Keeping workers happy at the office is one of the most important facets of retaining talent,” according to the WSJ. “More companies are taking employee complaints seriously, often spending millions on gleaming offices that incorporate their ideas, and no detail seems too small in some employers’ quest to please.”
Where can be an expensive concern for companies, and the dollar costs on physical infrastructure create constraints. For example, the government of New York City alone spends more than $1 billion a year on office space, an amount that’s risen 40% in the last several years. Cost, then, becomes an important part of defining where—is it a collection of individual decisions, or one set of places for the entire company? Whose perspective is it? Who determines the right work environment for everyone?
How defines the approach and methods we use to get work done. The future of work relies heavily on teams—often a combination of freelancers and full-time employees—with people who can be working anywhere. Companies have to ask: How will we work together to get better results? The answers depend on each individual’s mindset, the culture of the company, and what's most effective for getting the results you want.
I recently spoke with a fintech company, for example. They innovate by searching for creative companies that can help them. They're looking for innovation from the outside, rather than creating a culture of innovation that will drive new ideas internally. As a result, the way they work is very siloed. They’re not really permitted to collaborate with others outside of their department to solve a problem. They want to be innovative, but how they work is not aligned with what they want their results to look like.
What (Tools, Resources, and Materials)
The Work Forward “what” defines what people need to work: equipment, furniture, and technology. We all know that today’s tools are in a state of constant change. New technology, platforms, and even business models are creating significant challenges for organizations internally. Each year, it’s harder to stay relevant and competitive.
Companies need to ask:
- What technological tools do you need?
- What tools do you need for the physical environment?
- What are the processes that we have for how we interact?
Then, leaders need to consider these answers through the organizational frame. The right tools will become a part of the culture because they become how work gets done.
For example, one of our clients is a large intergovernmental organization that wanted to become more collaborative. Their current culture was to have in-person meetings, which were formal and hierarchical. They have several collaboration tools, but these aren’t well-used. They have Skype, but no one uses it for quick questions or feedback. Instead, they wait for the scheduled meeting to discuss.
Employees shouldn’t have to be in a meeting to move a project forward an inch. Tools and technology only work if they’re used and are only used if it fits the way work is done within that company culture.
The foundational layer for the holistic picture of work is, of course, the talent. Increasingly, employees today determine when, where, and how they want to work. In order to attract and retain top talent, companies have to accommodate these preferences. Work Forward offers a way of understanding today’s work world and ideas on how to help people be more satisfied, engaged, and more productive in their work lives.
The future of work does not include prescriptive answers, however. The truth is, one size doesn’t fit all. There’s no one when, where, how, or list of tools that will work for all companies. Instead, each of these future-of-work strategy drivers should evolve based on context, whether you’re in Malaysia, The Netherlands, or the US, whether you’re a global collection of freelancers or a Fortune 100 enterprise. Considering work through these four lenses will help companies arrive at their optimal future of work.