The Future of Work

The Future Does Not Fit in the Containers of the Past. Edition 17.

Photo Art: Robot 2010 by Bára Prášilová

Work is central to the Human Experience.

It provides income, identity and meaning.

The trauma of a job loss is second only that to the death of a loved one.

Three inter-acting forces are sculpting a new terrain for the future of work.

1. Globalization which while creating wealth on the whole can be devastating for communities and industries in many regions. Both globalization itself and a backlash to it will shape the contours of opportunities (or their loss) for everyone

2. The three A’s of technology (automation, algorithms, artificial intelligence) which accelerate middle-class income job loss at speeds far greater than jobs they create. Another major factor will be how mobile devices and advanced measurement will change how work is compartmentalized and distributed.

3. Covid-shock driven behavioral and structural change: After more than a year of dispersed work forces, plummeting travel replaced by Zoom/Teams, the expectations, and behaviors of bosses, employees, and clients are going to be dramatically different. Like a champagne cork that once opened never fits back so too there is no going back to December 2019 but imagining forward.

The nature of work, how it is done and where it is done will be dramatically different in the coming years.

1. The nature of work: We are all going to be gig workers. The only difference is that the lucky ones will have longer, higher paying gigs with better benefits like a consultant at McKinsey or members of a movie/television crew who come together for as long as the project takes and then the disband and recombine in new ways on the next project. Many others will be working for Uber, DoorDash or on contract for tech and other companies (Google has many more contract workers than full time employees already and the divergence is growing).

The reason for this is three-fold:

Making costs variable: First, companies in a world of change are beginning to see that making costs variable is a key to success. The ability to shed costs with changing demand is what makes an Uber (which owns no cars, and its drivers are not employees) does better than a Hertz (which owns the cars and has employees on its payroll). Flexibility, Fluidity, and Optionality are three words I am hearing again and again which basically means how do we ensure we keep as many costs’ variable versus fixed.

The re-aggregated organization: In the early days of the World Wide Web, I explained the difference between Analog Media and Digital Media as the difference between Segmentation and Re-Aggregation. Traditional media takes large audiences and slices it into segments. Think broadcast television and narrowly targeted cable television or particular shows. I said its like taking a cow and hacking at it till you get a steak. The key with digital media is everyone comes to it one at a time. Millions of people do not show up at the same time on the same page or post. So, when you bid for say “Toyota” on search, you bid for one person at at time who searches for “Toyota”. Re-aggregated media is when you start with a piece of mince and get enough to make a hamburger. (Apologies to my vegetarian and vegan readers). Increasingly in a world of change and zero-based budgeting and with new companies starting with a fresh sheet of paper the modern organization is Re-aggregating skills at scale rather than hiring generalists and training them to be specialists. And based on demand it adds and subtracts what it needs.

One driving force of this are platforms. Not just the platforms that we are familiar with of Facebook and Amazon but also internal corporate platforms that allow a company to give employees everywhere training, connections but importantly opportunities they may not have had in their market. Companies now can re-aggregate customized solutions by choosing individuals from everywhere. Platforms are double edged swords. They open a world of opportunity and if you are not good they also offer Clients and your Employer a world of substitutes! While your opportunity is no longer limited to your market neither is the person who can do a better job than you! If you are good this is amazing. If you are not continuously improving watch out!

The diminishing half-life of skills: When I speak to students at schools, I share two key beliefs: 1) They need to prepare for 40-to -50 year careers since they will likely live healthy lives past their 80’s and for reasons of financial need, identity or pure joy they are likely to work for many decades. Therefore, it is important to frame all decisions with this in mind versus hopping from job to job every year or two (try if you can to stay at least 4 to 5 years (or 10 percent of your long term career) at a company to truly learn and have impact)or getting upset at a bad patch at work and 2) A company today remains in the S&P 500 for less than 14 years ( less than a third of their career) as the world changes quickly. They should make sure they invest in constant learning, so they do not get obsolete. The world is changing so fast that if you do not spend at least an hour day upgrading your skills you will be obsolete. Unfortunately, so few people especially in middle and senior management keep this in mind. Thus, more and more companies need to plug and play with external talent that brings to it modern skills.

Please take the long-term perspective to your career. Like long term investing it is the only thing that guarantees great returns. It is probably why the most popular thing I have written -with the exception of my book- is 12 Career Lessons where I share key insights from people who have had successful multi-decade careers. You can read it here:

2. How work is done: Almost all work will be instrumented and technologically augmented. Today everything is measured including page views and interactions with each piece written by an online writer, time spent answering a tele-marketing call or billable time spent by doctors in seeing patients or lawyers in seeing Clients. If there is an emission of data it will be used to stack, compare, enhance, iterate, and improve.

Photo (Measures) by Montgomery Bass

Earlier this week Amazon announced Monitron which they describe thus: “Amazon Monitron is an end-to-end system that uses machine learning (ML) to detect abnormal behavior in industrial machinery, enabling you to implement predictive maintenance and reduce unplanned downtime.” Now add to this that all of us the reality that we are getting work done through technological augmentation whether it be our mobile phones or computers or online resources. All of these are measured so you are tethered to “machinery” and your “abnormal behavior” will be measured and remedial plans will be put into action to “reduced unplanned downtime”, including sending you down to the Unemployment office for an unplanned loss of a job.

Today we may be people using machines. Tomorrow we will be helpers attached to machines to do what we can do more cost effectively like pick produce and enter a building to drop things off or add a bit of empathy so we can connect with other analog, carbon-based feeling appendages of digital, silicon-based, computing machines. The machines will advance at the rate of improvement in chips and machine learning which means getting twice as good every six months to eighteen months while we humans improve far slower.

3. Where work is done: The ‘office” of 2019 will become like a typewriter did three decades ago in the age of computers and Microsoft Office. A collectible and a romantic notion of a time past.Or movie theater chains believing that people will flock back to their locations to see movies at the same frequency as before despite every blockbuster being available at home the same day as part of subscription service.

The future does not fit the containers of the past and the old office tower with open seating or cubicle farms where we did email and edit documents with headphones on to block out distractions is going away like the dodo bird.

Work was already dispersed as the increasingly advanced and miniaturized machines and communication devices we use (computers, sensors, smart phones, connected automobiles) allowed us to do work away from the office. The Third Connected Age ( AI, 5G, Voice/Augmented Realty and Cloud Computing) is going to dramatically scale the distribution and dispersion of this trend.

Covid has forced every company not only to invest in remote work at scale and see its impact over a one-year period but has broken the inertia and habit that kept us moving our meat-encased brains in carbon-burning, time-wasting, stress-inducing rituals of going back and forth to work like some hamsters on a wheel.

If someone were to design how work should be done in 2020, it is very unlikely they would replicate the current office structures which were developed in the 1950’s long before computers, the Internet, smart phones and cloud computing.

Photo: Three Men Tied to Trees, Brunswick, Georgia 2001 by Rodney Smith.

Covid has allowed every company to re-think the nature of where work gets done and many firms are considering whether to return to the old way versus starting with a fresh sheet of paper. Some firms worry that as new entrants enter the arena or competitors use this crisis to re-think their structures they might find themselves at a competitive disadvantage with inflated cost structures or an inability to retain and attract top talent. While some employees are eagerly looking forward to returning to work many others have found a new freedom and productivity in not having to go to a physical place of work every day.

Every firm is likely evaluating their future plans.

In most cases there will be a role for offices and in some cases the need for lots of office space, but companies should be grappling with three simple questions:

a) Why do we need people to congregate in offices? Early indications from these Covid months point to the need for training and skill building (particularly younger folks), collaboration/relationship enhancement and access to specialized tools (eg. manufacturing equipment, medical instruments, editing rigs)

b) How much time is needed in the office?: If training, collaboration and access to tools is what offices are for can this be done once every two weeks or once a month or one week a quarter? Companies from Automattic to Basecamp have for many years combined remote work forces with periodic physical gatherings for training, ideating and relationship building and have created offices and protocols for these three areas. Culture, training, retention all have remained intact. Do read Remote by Jason Fried to understand why many excuses as to why remote working does not work do not hold water.

c) Where should offices be? Many companies no longer need to have stacks of floors in an urban central downtown area. Maybe a couple of beautifully designed floors designed for Client Meetings and Team Meetings is enough and many satellite offices (or WeWork/Regus/Convene) contracts closer to where clusters of employees live may be more beneficial to employees who need to be outside their home, but now can do so without major commutes and remain close to their children. The savings in Real-Estate costs (which can be as high as $15,000 per year per worker in a major city) can be distributed between investing in upgrading capabilities at home (specialized training, technology and broadband support), or providing employees with an “office stipend” that they can use to rent space from a co-sharing space. (Clearly, given long term lease commitments the evolution to a much smaller/distributed office footprint will take both time and some painful write-offs but a sunk cost is a sunk cost and cannot be an anchor that holds back the future.)

Clearly, the need for offices will vary not just by the nature of Industry but Country. In many Asian countries a combination of culture and very limited living space at home will require a larger role for offices.

4. What every individual should do to prepare for a gig like, tech augmented, distributed future of work?

When I conducted research for my book a question that I asked is why do people work and who are the most fulfilled people at work? Initially people work for three important motivations: Money, Fame (Recognition), and Power (Autonomy).

The people who succeed in the long run also seek and find three other motivations which are Purpose (alignment with the goals of the company, finding meaning at work), Growth (learning, becoming better, new skills) and Connections ( Connection to people they work with and the communities they work with)

My advice would be to focus on these three latter goals because they are most Human and everlasting, and in the Second Machine Age when we need to work alongside machines what we add is uniquely human. To gain and seek connections you need to be collaborative and empathetic which will allow you to plug and play in a distributed and re-aggregated economy. To grow you need to keep learning and expanding your skills. To find purpose in a goal besides getting a task done is something no machine will compute.

To be a great leader do things that do not compute. People choose with their heart and use numbers to justify what they just did. So said Blaise Pascal a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer and Catholic theologian.

Also remember that even if you are in a company of thousands and plan to stay forever in a company of thousands (I did very happily and successfully for 38 years), you need to operate as if you are a company of one in building a reputation/brand for yourself, be responsible for your own continued skill enhancement and learning and be a world class team player. These skills will allow you to thrive in the company you love because you will be more valuable to them and at the same time because of these skills should things change in ways you do not like you will never be forced to stay at the firm. The more options you and your employees have the more loyal people turn out to be.

To help those interested in specific ways to optimize your growth here are three small e-booklets (each a 10-minute read) that I have put together. Each with six actionable steps that you may find useful. (They have been praised not only by students and people who are at the early or middle phases of their careers but even by many CEO’s of Fortune 500/FTSE 100 companies. They also are easy to share and wonderful to look at due to the design skills of my colleague Ben Damiano).

6 Ways to Grow Yourself:

6 Ways to Grow Your Career:

6 Thoughts for the Next Six Months:

The future is bright and the future of work can be far more full filling than ever but it requires us to keep growing and learning and changing and chasing possibilities…

Photo: Gary and Henry Chasing Butterfly. Beaufort. South Carolina, 1996 by Rodney Smith

Rishad Tobaccowala (@rishad) is the author of the bestselling “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” published by HarperCollins globally in January 2020. It has been described as an “operating manual” for managing people, teams and careers in the age we live in and The Economist Magazine called it perhaps the best recent book on Stakeholder Capitalism. Business and Strategy named it among the best business books of the year and the best book on Marketing in 2020. Rishad is a sought-after speaker, teacher and advisor who helps people think, feel and see differently about how to grow their companies, their teams and themselves. More at