What the heck is “work” anyway?
In the Information Age, the dictionary definition of the word just doesn’t cut it anymore. Skill sets, jobs, and entire companies are forming daily based on new technology, market demands, and trends that didn’t exist even just a few years ago.
As a business leader, you need to focus on the future of work now if you want to get (or stay) ahead of the competition. But before you can act, you need to understand the forces that will support the future of work.
In this post we’re going to focus on these four pillars:
- The skill of learning
- Employee experience
- Remote work and the freelance economy
Let’s dive into the future of work!
1. The Skill of Learning
From the Industrial Age up until several years ago, there was a pretty clear path for workers, especially in the U.S.
It was some version of this:
- College or vocational school
- One, maybe two careers
- Retire and/or consulting
Consider this fictional example:
Tom and Dave both went to the same typewriter school and they both got jobs at the same transcription company. After two weeks, Tom is clearly the faster typist—150 WPM compared to Dave’s paltry 100 WPM. Tom is the toast of the office and clearly a more valuable employee.
But management wants to try out a new invention, the computer. Tom is not interested in learning a new skill; he continues to try and get faster at typing. Dave, however, dives into the new tool with an open mind.
Within two weeks, Dave has learned that he can record his voice and simply edit the transcription, which puts his effective WPM over 200. He doubled his productivity, but not because he became a faster typist, but because he learned a new way to accomplish his task with technology. The company now asks Dave to quit his work typing and spend all day finding new ways to use the computer that benefit the company—Dave has a new career.
Globalization and technology have created a volatility in the market that causes employees who can learn new skills quickly to be extraordinarily valuable. Companies are now looking for “T-shaped thinkers,” or those with significant depth in at least one area, but domain knowledge in many areas.
In this way, if the market dictates that your company needs more skill in any of these areas, you have plenty of options because your employee already has a running start into that field of study. Or, rather than increase her depth in that field, she can use her breadth of knowledge to support another employee who already has that expertise, but lacks the bandwidth to execute.
We’ll talk more about collaboration a bit later in the blog post.
The ability to adapt and learn quickly is now the most valuable trait in an employee, which means you’re not hiring for the job, but for the person. You can’t hire for the job anymore because you can’t be sure it will exist in five years!
Just like the college-to-career track we discussed earlier was the norm for the preceding generation, mid-career changes and completely new skills will be the norm for generations to come.
Clearly, there is an emphasis on the individual to provide this new skill of rapid learning and adaptation, but how does the employer fit into the future of work?
2. Employee Experience
So we need all these great employees and we need them to act a certain way—how can companies attract, train, and retain these mythical creatures?
It’s easy—just throw a table tennis set in the break room.
Yes, that was a joke, and a bad one at that. But when you look at job descriptions for some tech companies, you realize the prevalence of companies showing off their culture. And yes, the ability to blow off steam by recreating or sitting on a swanky couch is definitely part of company culture, but it’s only a small part.
Let’s expand company culture, and therefore the employee experience, in the context of hire, train, and retain. And yes, you will read the word “Millennial” a few times.
Cash bonuses, flexibility, and training and development. If you have these three things at your company, you will attract Millennial talent—simple as that.
The cash speaks for itself, so perhaps we can dive deeper into the other two.
Flexibility. According to the 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 84% of Millennial employees report some flexibility at their job:
- 69% have flexible start/end times
- 68% have flexibility or crossover in their role
- 64% have flexible working locations
Flexibility signals trust in an employee. And if there is trust that the employee is using her time correctly, that means there is agreement on the vision of the company—more on that later.
Flexible working arrangements can increase productivity and employee engagement—all while enhancing health and happiness.
Training and development. From the same Deloitte study, we know that 44% of employed Millennials have stated they plan to leave their current role within two years, with lack of professional development as one of the primary reasons.
So should you run out and develop a massive training program? Probably not, since we won’t even know what to train for five years down the road! Instead, try something easier (and much cheaper) at your organization: Implement a mentorship program.
Mentorship, with no firm curriculum and free-flowing discussions, fits the way Millennials prefer to learn and helps create a stronger company culture.
Speaking of learning...
Imagine a young employee’s first day at work—she’s excited, a little nervous, and eager to contribute. The old way of training this employee would be to have a supervisor walk through every task and demonstrate step-by-step procedures for the correct execution.
But this doesn’t really fit with how Millennials prefer to learn. They’d rather understand the goal and then figure it out for themselves. They assume training materials exist, whether on your company server or on YouTube, and that these materials will be intuitively designed so they can start using them right away.
Like a toddler yelling “I’ll do it myself!” at the playground, Millennials prefer to learn this way. Wait, did we just compare Millennials to toddlers? Dangerous ground, for sure, but it has nothing to do with immaturity or entitlement, two common misconceptions about Gen Y.
Millennials prefer to learn this way because they’re used to getting information instantly.
A trip to the library has been replaced by a asking a robot in your house your question. Your training program should function in a similar way—intuitive and accessible.
If you’re in compliance with the first two concepts, you’re already off to a great start with employee retention. In addition to the items mentioned, creating a collaborative office is a great way to keep talented employees.
Here are a few ideas to kick-start collaboration in your workplace:
- Consider allowing employees to switch teams as they complete project-based work
- Consider hot desking (no permanent work stations) to keep things fresh
- Implement a lattice model for career advancement
Lastly, make sure your company has a vision and that you stick to it. Millennials are attracted to careers that give them a sense of purpose, and a clear vision is the first step to creating that.
If you’re not slightly concerned with a robot taking your job, you should be. Artificial intelligence is working in ways that are surprising even to the imaginative—did you ever think machines would take over writing? They already are.
That said, the key to job security in the age of AI isn’t competition, but collaboration.
For example, in this intriguing article from the New Yorker, we see that instead of robots assisting humans with their jobs in an industrial setting, the job roles have reversed. The robots are instructing the workers what to do with color coding and various other signals in the tasks that require the human touch.
Additionally, this type of collaborative effort between human and machine is widely evident in software. It’s relatively commonplace for an algorithm to analyze data streams, such as digital advertising metrics, and make suggestions how to improve performance and deliverability. Once all the hard work is done, all it takes is for a human to implement (or approve) the optimizations. Beyond just making things much easier for ad ops professionals, the algorithms can find jewels in the data that would be extremely difficult to find otherwise, no matter how many pivot tables you use.
The foresight to design workflows around the collaboration between human and machine is huge for the future of work. Start by replacing any fear you might have of ‘robots taking over our jobs’ with the vision and forward thinking to best take advantage of emerging technology.
4. Remote Work and the Freelance Economy
Have you ever paused for a second and asked yourself, “What is work?”
For knowledge workers, this can be surprisingly convoluted. Consider a few of these standard tasks:
- 2-hour meetings
- Filling out HR paperwork
- Writing expense reports
All of these items are deemed necessary by most companies, and some require you to be present at a physical location. But with technology and globalization, people are increasingly questioning the meaning of work.
If the work doesn’t require the employee to be in a physical location, why require it? If accountability is your answer, then you have deeper problems that need to be addressed before considering remote work. But, as we’ve discussed, location flexibility is a key feature that prospective employees are looking for, so it’s something you need to consider.
Remote work is not the same as contract work, of course, but combined, the two definitely represent the future of work. According to the World Economic Forum, 35% of the U.S. workforce is freelancing, and that figure is expected to grow.
From the freelancer’s side, the appeal is obvious—unlimited (so to speak) vacation time, ability to earn more, and overall freedom. But there’s also plenty of benefits on the company side, such as reduced cost and liability.
The key to truly embracing independent contractors as the future of work lies in facilitating a balance between the two sides. One of the simplest ways to do this is to break out work functions into projects and look to see if it’s really necessary that one person completes each project. If not, consider parceling out projects to freelancers and evaluating the quality of the work.
The Future of Work is Here
Technology, market demand, and generational differences has thrust the future of work to the forefront of discussion for business leaders. Rather than wait for the tides of change to wash away all the great things you’ve built with your business, understand what’s on the horizon and make moves to adapt.
And quickly, because in case you didn’t notice, most of the four pillars described are happening now.