We would all like to see the future more clearly. In times of cataclysmic change, the desire to look into the future is more important than ever. That is why the question “What is the future of work?” is the most important question for leaders to consider right now. While the future will come whether we ask the question or not, those who think about and plan for that future have the best chance for success.
Here is my short answer: the future of work is flexible.
What does that mean, exactly?
It means that in most every way we think about work there will be more options and approaches than we have ever seen before. There will fewer givens and more considerations. There will be fewer standards and prevalent assumptions. More questions will have multiple right answers.
Here are a few of the things we must consider and think about as we step forward and scan for clues to our success in the future of work. Because the future of work is flexible, there isn’t a common one-size-fits-all answer – rather it is our job to find the answers that best serve our customers, organization, team, team members and ourselves.
- Where will we work? The pandemic forced this question on many of us, and many were pleasantly surprised at what we learned. Many found that work doesn’t have to be on-site and in-the-office to be successful. And many more found that even with challenges, working remotely is desirable, even if it isn’t every day. The challenge now isn’t to rush back to what we had before, or simply to create a new policy. The opportunities will be found in actively testing, trying and adapting to new locations and mixes of where the work collectively and individually takes place.
- When will we work? Those who focus solely on the old model of a common shift for everyone, a “9-5 mentality” will lose opportunity, and likely lose team members too. With globalization of work teams, and less focus on a common where of work, there are new options for flexibility in where people do their work. Successful leaders and organizations will seek out and try new options to provide flexibility for when great work can be done.
- How will we work? This is the question of processes, planning, but also the question of culture and communication. The future of work will require more time and attention on clear agreements, expectations and work processes. It will also place a greater responsibility and increased visibility on organizational culture as a lynchpin for success in results as well as attracting and retaining talent. Organizations and leaders that continue to define, refine and base decisions on their aspirational culture will win.
- Why does work matter? The answer to the why question has never been more important. In times of change, understanding the purpose or the why of the work is the bedrock on which all else rests. In this time of change, the why of work has taken on a more personal context too. Individuals are asking more deeply about the role of work in their lives and why work matters to them. Now that people are asking that question, they won’t stop. Organizations and leaders that embrace the search for purpose will tap into a level of commitment and energy that many feel has been lost forever. As we answer the why question at all levels, we have the chance to tap into a powerful source of our future success.
Answering these questions effectively won’t be a one-time event, nor a personal decision. The leaders who discover the future of work most effectively will continue to consider these questions, rethinking them with broad input from their team, organization and customers.
So far, I have mostly answered my initial question by asking more questions. I know that might be frustrating, but that feeling and experience is itself a picture of the future. We will find a clearer picture of the future by continuing to scan, by being flexible, adaptable, open to change and resilient. The future of work – and our success in it – will not be found in immediate answers, put by continuing to look for new and more effective approaches.
The confluence of lessons learned, and changes caused by the pandemic, the continued rise of technology, the shifts in demographics and more make this a moment that matters. Ignoring the signs and not asking these questions will, at best doom you and your organization to reduced success. At worst, moving forward with a status quo view of the world and future of work will mark the beginning of your descent into irrelevance or failure.
The future of work will come. The organizations and leaders that embrace the flexibility and continue to adapt will win. The choice belongs to all of us, and we are making that choice each day.
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