The Future of Work is a Perspective, Not a Product

Do a quick Google search for the words “future of work” and see what your results look like. Here’s mine.

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Over a billion hits, with a software company, three top-tier consulting firms, and a multinational bank topping the charts. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Also described as Industry 4.0 or the “smart age”, companies are now faced with the challenges and opportunities of integrating sophisticated technology into everyday work with the goal of predicting, enhancing, and (in some cases) replacing human behavior. This includes ideas about robots, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, vertically integrated digital platforms, and other Spielberg-esque topics. Some of it is eye-roll worthy. Some of it is interesting. And some of it is serious.

As corporations across a variety of industries spread a collective sense of FOMO, tech companies and prestigious consulting firms like the ones listed above are swooping in with the latest tools and buzzwords to meet demand. While the tools and lingo may be perfectly viable, there is real danger of losing the signal through the noise.

Here’s what I mean.

In their November 2017 issue, the Atlantic profiled IBM’s journey from pioneering the remote work model (40% of their employees worked remote by 2009) to announcing an about-face, requiring thousands of employees to transition back into a few “central hubs” throughout the U.S. This shocking decision flew in the face of modern organizational reason. After all, IBM gained nearly $2 billion by emptying office space and dispersing its workforce to the comfort of home offices, co-working spaces, and coffee shops. So what gives? In short, the exercise provided a useful case study for distinctions in productivity and communication. The kind of problems IBM solves is not optimal for a remote-based environment. However, the article outlines how other types of work, like call centers, that may benefit from a remote setting.

Many important lessons can be gleaned from IBM’s decision, (e.g. change management and corporate communication), but it is particularly useful as Industry 4.0 looms ever nearer. More specifically, it is a cautionary tale about chasing new organizational trends without examining the implications for a specific culture. While many of IBM’s younger competitors may have shown tremendous success with a remote strategy, those cultures never bought into traditional corporate structures in the first place. Remote work was just an offshoot of deeper assumptions about what work could and should be. Without a sufficient strategic vision for how a dispersed workforce fit IBM’s unique culture, the decision had little chance at long-term success despite billions in short-term gains.

IBM is a Fortune 40 tech company. They have some of the best and brightest minds in the industry along with access to all the latest tools and platforms to ensure success. They even advised other companies on how to operate a remote work model. Nevertheless, they failed to ask a key question at the right time – Does this make sense for us?

With the prospect of game-changing technology and unprecedented productivity, the future of work begs similar questions for every business in its sights. Does product X make sense for us? How will this impact our employees day to day? What training will this require? How does it fit within our culture? How does it take us to where we need to be? What’s our strategy for adopting it?

Perhaps more importantly, it demands a new perspective. If the digital age has taught us anything it’s that technology is only as good as the person or people using it. The work of the future cannot afford to forget that people, not products, are at the core of successful business. From remote work to artificial intelligence, decisions focused solely on outcomes rather than the people producing and benefitting from those outcomes are not sustainable.

A future where work looks more like a sci-fi movie than an excel spreadsheet is exciting to promulgate. But amongst all the kerfuffle it can be easy to forget that a future with more mindful leaders, more accountable organizations, and more fulfilling missions is one we don’t have to wait to start building. Rather than focusing our attention on the products the future could bring, let's instead focus on the perspective the future should bring – one that centers on increasing empathy, not merely reducing entropy.