Let’s Talk About Work: The Future of Work

Let’s Talk About Work: The Future of Work

The Future of Work

Nowadays the HR community often finds itself in the midst of a whirlwind.  There is almost no end to the articles, conversations and learned prognostications about the future of work. By all accounts, it seems we stand on the precipice of a new world which will be vastly different from the world of work in which we all labored at the end of the twentieth century. The revolutionary changes which are just beyond our horizon are expected to either herald the long-awaited man-made utopia where we are freed of mindless repetitive tasks or the frightening dystopia where we are reduced to characters best depicted in Disney’s Wall-e.

As all this swirls around us, managers and staff are often looking to HR to provide some guidance, some safe path that will get us to and through this uncertain future while magically sparing most of us from little more than having our hair mussed. Within the HR community, we are generally dumbfounded. We just don’t know what to do since we simply do not know what to expect! We have all seen in the past twenty to thirty years the gradual disappearance of many classic office positions and occupations which fifty years ago formed the backbone of office functions.  Stenographers, switchboard operators and typing pools have gone the way of blacksmiths and bridle makers. So, we labor on and for most of us, we will deal with the future when it gets here. It is not that we are confident that we can confront the challenges; it’s just that thinking about them makes our heads hurt, so we would just rather not. 

Understand the Future by Remembering the Past

There is no point in being either Pollyannish or morose about the future.  As with most things regarding the future, insight into the future of work can be gained by taking a few steps back and looking at what has happened at similar crossroads we encountered in the past. This is not the first revolution. The current challenge is often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, and it is said that the changes which are coming will be unlike any past transition. Yes, technological change can be very intimidating, but to assert that what is coming will be disruptive in a manner far exceeding past transitions isn’t quite right. The changes in society that came in the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the early part of the twentieth represented a massive shift in so many industries that the transformation which occurred touched every life on the planet. In the space of twenty to thirty years, ocean travel was transformed from wood and canvas to steal and steam. As a result, it enabled not only faster and larger forms of transport, it supported the massive waves of migration which defined this period. With trains and cars, the millennia dependence on horsepower disappeared. As a result, farms, which were the “gas stations” of the day concentrating on the production of fodder, shifted to growing a wider range of crops for human consumption, lowering food costs and supporting a population shift to urban centers.

The electrification of cities and factories not only spurred new methods of working, it transformed lives in unimaginable ways.  Inventions such as refrigeration (have you seen your iceman lately?) and the creation of modern sanitation and high-rise elevators literally enabled the cities we know today.  Air travel, radio and television were just a few years further on in the transformation of how we work and live.

Through all of these changes, the simultaneous destruction of old jobs and creation of new ones took place at a dizzying pace.  Another important change occurred that fundamentally redefined how we work.  Time began to matter.   Before travel in steamships and trains, it was not possible to accurately determine the time it would take to travel between two cities.  With the invention of the steam engine and all that followed, schedules could be devised, and our lives more closely governed by the ticking of the clock.  Time standards were developed in the 1880’s to bring order to the mess created by railroads, which each set their own time.

Time measurement combined with the development of more modern methods of production such as the assembly line transformed how we defined work from the effort to produce a finished product to a series of inputs that together make up the process that results in a finished product.  Moving from outputs — being paid for what we produce – to becoming a provider of one of many of inputs which contribute to production – led to the restructuring of work and reward.  Salaries were born.  We would not be paid for what we produced, but for the time we spent at work, molting into the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday definition of work.

The Next Revolution is Upon Us

What scares many of us today is the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday construct is crumbling before our eyes. How can we value contribution if not through the measurement of time? The answer to this question also lies in our past.  It is to focus on the outputs we create and not how long we spend making them. Returning to an output-based foundation for defining work is not an easy transition. Our minds and behaviors have been so conditioned and regimented by the clock that we fear without a time-based approach we will be exploited and find ourselves continually at work. Conversely, the promise of focusing on outputs can liberate us from a daily regimen and provide us true recognition for what we actually accomplish.

This is the challenge that lies before us: Can we transform our thinking and concepts of work that are only slightly more than 100 years old to enable a return to a view of work that prevailed for millennia before that focused on true value? Our only certainty is that how we work in the coming years will bear little resemblance to the man in the gray flannel suit that so colors our subconscious.

In our next blog on Let’s Talk about Work, we will examine how the new world of work is emerging and how human resources can help lead organizations through the changes that are upon us. To map this path forward, all we need to bring is an open mind, and perhaps to let go of some time-worn notions. It has been done before; after all, who ever thought humans could fly… until we did!

posted on June 17, 2020 / Blog, Featured