The future of work?

The future of work?

History as a predictor of future outcomes? Cliodynamics may be a new discipline, but drawing on data that describes what happened in the past to anticipate what will happen next is not exactly novel. From risk management, to medical sciences the past often serves as a reliable predictor of future. Five years ago I started applying this transdisciplinary approach to an area to which we dedicate about a half of our waking life: work. What I discovered alarmed me.

The research (which will be published in my upcoming book: Split Second) showed that 4 seemingly unrelated social indicators experienced turning points during the late 2000s.

Historically, such developments have served as leading signals of turmoil. My research indicated that the worsening of collective mental and physical health would peak in the 2030s. Gallup’s finding that 87% of workers worldwide are disengaged, unfortunately, confirms this forecast.

I tracked a number of factors. Some that have been noticed and extensively discussed: employee engagement and motivation, depression, overweight and suicide rates. But most analysts and scientist tend to focus on a particular aspect of the problem. It’s not typically acknowledged that these developments are interconnected. We’ve heard of the domino effect, but we rarely appreciate that different events in our lives are the cumulative result of one falling “domino”.

In addition to this, there is another important development that has been overlooked by the HR experts: the demands of the new economy on people’s energy reserves. Technology has enabled us to increase production by approximately 97 percent since the 1960s. The omnipresence of media and the internet are showering us daily with an equivalent amount of information that is a sufficient to overload a laptop within one week. As a result, our brains are changing, our behavior is changing, we consume more (Human consumption is outpacing earth’s capacity). We are metabolically challenged to sustain these demands. On top of that, employers incessantly demand that employees juggle concepts such as “change,” “teamwork” and “performance management”; They are seemingly presenting new opportunities for prosperity, but in reality, all of these factors combined, undermine our health. This happens because the old management style of command and control, although incompatible with the participation economy we live in, still prevails. Management and business experts, fall into old patterns in their attempts to reshape the organizing principles of the workplace. The process itself is far from participatory.

From scanning our own groceries to building our own bookshelves, we live in a do-it-yourself (DIY) economy. From self-service restaurants, to self-service tills in the supermarkets, we participate, we co-create, we co-produce. Customer is not longer king. Instead, we are both, consumers and producers; we are ‘conducers’.

Consumers want meaningful experiences; the participation economy expedites that. They want to have control and feel empowered; the participation economy promotes that. The DIY economy is both, cost-effective and drives engagement.

One place where companies are clearly failing to inculcate engagement is on the work floor itself. Customers are getting ever more generously rewarded for reviews and peer affirmation, while employees are getting penalized when they try to participate, or have a say in how their workplace is organized. One of the most recent examples is the Google memo scandal, where engineer James Damore got sacked for expressing critical views of the company’s diversity efforts. What such cases go to show, is that on one hand, people are eager to help reshape the workplace; but that on the other hand, the employer is still etched in outmoded top-down models of management.

The research presented in Burnout to Breakthrough , shows that failing to factor the reality of the new economy into the way we organize our workplace is a recipe for a collective burnout.

The fact that reports like Gallup’s State of the American Workplace warn that, “Employees are pushing employers to forgo traditional structures” changes nothing in this equation. The “social pump” creating new top-down methods for performance continues to operate full steam. If it’s not Agile, it’s Lean; if it’s not Scrum, it’s Kanban; if it’s not Cultural Transformation, it’s Engagement; if it’s not discipline, it’s disruption; if it’s not Esprit de Corps, it’s holocracy; if it’s not Sustainability, it’s Innovation; if it’s not Reorganization, it’s Gamification; if it’s not the carrot, it’s the stick.

At the beginning of this year, I predicted that, the “on-my-own-terms” ethos will become notorious. Only half of the largest companies believe that their executives know how to build a culture of engagement. 31% of employees feel unappreciated by their boss and 20% say their boss has little or no integrity. Employees are disengaged and uninspired, not by work as such, they are uninspired to work for a boss.

“The Power of the people is greater than the people in power.” This is an ethos that will be commonplace in the years to come. “On-my-own-terms” is about to become the internal equivalent of the do-it-yourself (DIY) economy.

But this not a “prophecy”. It is a forecast based on statistics. The details can be found in my upcoming book, The War of Work.

So what’s to be done? The only way forward is through a collective discussion and resolution of these problems, and collective action to implement them. We need to understand the urgency and take responsibility for reshaping the things that no longer serve us. That’s the only way to drive lasting positive change. In Lincoln’s words, “The best way to predict future is to create it.”


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