Living in a Historic Time: The Future of Work

For all the history of humankind, the nature and shape of work have evolved, as curiosity and innovation have allowed us to develop tools and technologies that advance nearly all aspects of work and play. In the past, these changes took place over long periods – centuries even. More recently, the pace of technology evolution – measured now in years not decades – made it seem like we were, once again, at one of those moments when fundamental change would take root.

Before the pandemic became a global and deadly event, conversations about the future of work focused around the 4th industrial revolution, brought about by technology innovation that made it possible for machines to do more and more for us. Now, as the pandemic continues to shape our daily after nearly 18 months, it appears that there is a much more existential question at stake and the future of work is at the heart of it: is there more to work than simply income and should we look at more at work as something that is a way to both earn a living and find fulfillment?

I believe the past year and a half of taught many of us what we value and where in our lives work should fit. There have been stories and business headlines recently about the “Great Resignation”, strikes at companies such as Frito-Lay and John Deere, and workers hanging “we’re closed” signs of the doors of fast food restaurants and walking off the job – all indications that something is happening – it remains to be seen though what exactly that is. The challenge is that, even as uncertainty is the only thing that seems certain, we have to adapt.

As I approach the end of my first year at a new company, trying to build a talented, hard-working and committed team to bring innovation to customers, there are several things I’ve come to appreciate that I believe will shape the future of work.

  • People connect best in person – and things move more smoothly and quickly. The remote work experience over the past year and a half has reinforced that collaboration over ZOOM or Microsoft Teams or Google Docs only goes so far. Finding ways to build human connection between all stakeholders – customers, employees and partners – in real ways will become the defining characteristic of successful organizations.
  • Opportunities to innovate, create and problem-solving are the kinds of opportunities that translate into fulfilling work. Companies that build artificial barriers or continue to enforce arcane models for when, where and how work is done will find that talent will go somewhere else.
  • Technology has always been enabler for improving the human condition and will continue to play an essential role in eliminating the work humans should not be doing.

The Keynesian vision for a 15-hour workweek may sound wonderful, but in truth, we are a long way from that level of freedom from the “rat race”. Speaking for myself, work is an important part of my purpose. Watching the news, seeing the changes in my own organization to accommodate virtual work at the very height of the pandemic – and now trying to navigate what a hybrid model will look like — it’s become crystal clear to me that we are living in a time when what is happening in our world will fuel substantial and sustainable change in what work looks like. I, for one, am intrigued by the possibility and excited about the potential to shape what the future of work looks like. And I would love to hear from you…tweet me @jim_lawton.