The future of work has been on our collective minds for some time.
Technically, you never arrive in the future. It’s always, by definition, ahead of you. Yet months into a global pandemic that has triggered major changes to how we work, many experts are saying the future of work is hurtling towards us.
I sat down with Vice President of People and Communities at Cisco Systems, Elaine Mason. Elaine is a well-read deep thinker on the subject of the future of work, and I invited her to share her own research-based reflections on the changes we’ve seen so far, and what may still be to come.
And no matter what your job, career stage, or aspiration, Elaine shared plenty of tangible advice you can put to work today to prepare for your future professional success.
We focused our conversation on four trends that have been particularly relevant in 2020. These were:
- The remote workforce
- Diversity and Inclusion as part of corporate strategy
- Movement in the gig economy
- Shifts in corporate structure and hierarchy
The future of work and the remote workforce
Remote work could be here to stay
As I write this piece in my dining room—while my kids homeschool in their bedrooms—I’m aware that working virtually has become the norm for many across the globe.
Prior to the pandemic, company philosophies on remote work were all over the map. Some organizations have worked virtually for years. Many others resisted the trend.
The world of work has probably fundamentally changed.
But as Elaine describes the current state of virtual work, “With the rare exceptions of lab work, manufacturing, healthcare, [and other frontline professions] the majority of us are now [commuting]… seven feet from our beds to our offices.”
“The world of work has probably fundamentally changed,” she says.
Companies that had previously been cynical of virtual work have been forced to acknowledge that things are getting done. In many cases, executives report higher levels of productivity than ever.
But Elaine warns that studies on productivity are not yet conclusive. Some show productivity is up. Others, however, contend that work time is up, but actual productivity is down. The jury remains out.
So what’s next in the world of virtual work and productivity?
The purpose of the traditional office will evolve
Elaine predicts that virtual work is here to stay … sort of. The way we use the traditional office will likely shift.
"Workspaces will be used more like community service centers," she said. "What you're [likely] to see is those large campuses for a lot of organizations… will probably shrink, and the use of that space will be more event-based or point-in-time-based."
Workspaces will be used more like community service centers … and the use of that space will be more event-based or point-in-time-based.
In other words, there will be an office to go to, but it won’t necessarily be everyone’s default. You’ll go if and when a project or occasion calls for an in-person working session.
The good news? “If you're a new Yorker,” she offers, “that's been dying to live in Wyoming, this [may be] your chance.”
The concept of productivity will evolve
As Elaine points out, the measurement of virtual productivity is messy. Many companies measure by the amount of time employees spend on screens. By that measure, productivity is going up. But so is burnout.
Wearable technologies (think augmented and virtual reality) will allow companies to better measure how employees engage with their work.
In the future, she explains, we will begin to see a shift toward wearable technologies (think augmented and virtual reality) that will allow companies to better measure how employees engage with their work beyond staring at screens.
We’ll see a more complex definition of productivity grounded in actual outcomes versus just minutes online.
HOW YOU CAN PREPARE
- Rethink your geography. If you want to make a move, this may be your moment.
- Consider your priorities. Let go of the mindset that busyness equals productiveness. What impact do you want to have, and what work do you need to prioritize in service of that?
The future of work and Diversity and Inclusion
While the pandemic has challenged companies to figure out remote work on the fly, social justice happenings have pushed Diversity and Inclusion to the forefront of corporate priorities.
Progressive organizations are weaving Diversity and Inclusion into the fabric of their business strategies.
Elain says, "Companies are focusing on the triple bottom line: People, Profit, Planet… putting social justice into how they operate.”
So what does this look like in practice?
According to Elaine, companies are moving away from having standalone diversity strategies and departments. Progressive organizations are weaving Diversity and Inclusion into the fabric of their business strategies.
Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s) are a great example of this trend. ERG’s are voluntary, employee-led groups within organizations that aim to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace. Each group typically includes participants who share a characteristic such as gender identification or ethnicity.
Employee Resource Groups are no longer just there to serve participants—they are informing company investment decisions.
At Cisco, Elaine says, the executive leadership team has started meeting quarterly with ERG’s to understand their experiences and incorporate their ideas into business decisions. These ERG’s, in other words, are no longer just there to serve participants—they are informing company investment decisions.
ERG recommendations are helping to shape product development and positioning and marketing strategy, all of which contribute to top and bottom lines.
Organizations like Twitter are beginning to compensate ERG leaders—historically these have been volunteer roles—in recognition of their strategic value.
HOW YOU CAN PREPARE
- Lean into diversity. Don’t just pay it lip service, but be proactive in engaging with a variety of voices and experiences.
- Be humble. Know you’ll make mistakes along the way. “Listen. And assume you don’t know [things],” Elaine says.
The future of work and the gig economy
“Gig is having fits and starts,” Elaine said. She described the tension that many American workers face between desiring the independence of gig work but also relying on the healthcare and benefits provided by full-time employment.
Job insecurity will continue to push people to consider going out on their own, while the need for employer-provided health insurance will challenge that choice.
And she believes that tension will keep the gig economy in the US in fits-and-starts mode. Job insecurity will continue to push people to consider going out on their own, while the need for employer-provided health insurance will challenge that choice.
HOW YOU CAN PREPARE
- Be incredibly clear about what you’re qualified to do. What do you want to do? Where those things overlap? “This requires a good degree of self-awareness and an understanding of what [you’re] known for today."
- Decide where you need to invest. Are there experiences, credentials, references you need to accumulate? Do those things early.
- Focus on standing out. If you do business strategy consulting, for example, is there a unique angle you can offer to help yourself stand out from other such consultants? Differentiation will matter more as the gig economy grows.
The future of work and shifts in corporate structure and hierarchy
Recent years have revealed a good deal of pendulum swinging when it comes to how much structure and hierarchy is best.
“There was a real trend in the last decade,” Elaine explained “of breaking down structures [and] silos.” She described how online shoe-retailer Zappos experimented with the Holocracy—a means of giving decision authority to groups and teams rather than individuals. (Spoiler: they’ve since moved away from this un-structure.)
Companies, in Elaine’s opinion, are working to determine the ideal balance of hierarchy and freedom. And the previous trends we discussed are having a big impact on that decision.
Everyone is trying to design for agility and resilience, two of today’s buzziest words.
So while some companies are leaning toward structure and hierarchy while others lean away, the common thread she sees is that everyone is trying to design for agility and resilience, two of today’s buzziest words.
There’s nothing like a global pandemic to remind a company that it needs to be ready for absolutely anything. As organizations assess how they’re organized, they’re asking questions like “How fast can we recover? What contingencies do we have in place? What plan Bs and plan Cs do we have?”
Elaine doesn’t know exactly what structure the organization of the future will take on. But she does offer some actionable wisdom.
HOW YOU CAN PREPARE
- Gain new skills. Whatever your role, function, or industry, upskill yourself on being ready for change at any moment
- Think broadly about what “career progression” means for you. As companies evolve, titles and promotions may no longer be the thing to shoot for.
For Elaine, she measures her own progression through three lenses that you too might consider:
- Economic. How much money do you want or need to make?
- Impact. "How close are you to positions of power and authority that allow you to make the largest impact on an organization?"
- Personal growth. Are you learning new things as you go?
And there you have it. No one, not even the great Elaine Mason, can predict the future. But there are some actions you can take that will be sure to serve you, no matter what the years ahead might look like.