What we really need from ‘the future of work’
As we mark the one-year anniversary of the zombie apocalypse, the future of work is today’s topic of discussion for companies everywhere.
There’s been talk of returning to the office in the spring—well, maybe June—but on a “flextime” schedule, with almost a third of workers saying they prefer to stay remote long-term, according to a recent Gallup survey.
Will the company or employees decide? Will there be consistency within industries or variance based on management’s whims? Clients are risk-averse and agencies are fast-followers, and nobody wants to get it wrong. Somebody has to make the first move, but it won’t be based on knowing. It will be a leap of faith.
When historians look back on the professional pandemonium caused by the pandemic, they will be shocked at how much time was wasted trying to guess what the future might be hiding behind its back in its sweaty little palm.
Management consultants love slapping “the future of” onto any report because it makes them sound visionary and automatically gives them a pass if their predictions turn out to be hogwash. If they get it wrong, they blame unforeseen occurrences.
Still, they hedge their bets. Take a recent report from McKinsey on the future of work that suggests “the world of work is changing” and goes on to share the blistering insight that “while some jobs will be lost, and many others created, almost all will change.”
Read that again, and if you think it tells you anything you didn’t already know, sober up immediately.
We should know better. Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who gave us the model for the atom, said it best: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
Now there’s a smart man. (And an honest one.)
So rather than paint myself into a corner telling you that sustainable supply chains and a hybrid workforce will become the new buzzwords once we’re all vaccinated, I’ll devote the remainder of this column to making wishes instead of predictions.
My wish list is a reflection on lessons from last year, because, as Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward.”
Meet less, collaborate more
Zoom and all the other platforms that force you to sit still, lean forward and try not to blink, necessitate endless meetings. Calls keep multiplying, but few actual interactions are taking place. Ideas thrive on entropy, so when you head back to an office, keep things unstructured, unscheduled and organic. The work, and the people doing it, will feel better.
This past year was full of hopeful comments about empathy returning to business relationships now that we can see our co-workers’ homes, dogs and kids. Sounds lovely, but like so many things about videoconferencing, it’s only on the surface. How else do you explain the extraordinary rise in ghosting—agencies by clients, candidates by employers, colleagues by colleagues? If you’re a client who’s ghosted an agency, rest assured there is a special circle of hell reserved just for you. If you’re an agency person who ghosted a candidate or abandoned a client, may the radiation exposure from your screen cause permanent memory loss, so you’ll forget what an asshole you are. Knock it off. Just because you can leave a meeting by clicking a button doesn’t mean you can leave people behind. When we’re all face-to-face, try to remember it’s a small industry, and this is a people business.
When politicians try to pass a piece of legislation called the “Education-First Bill,” you just know they’re going to cut funding to your local school. Orwell taught us that, but since schools aren’t teaching Orwell anymore, I’m telling you now: Big companies, like politicians, communicate how they want to be perceived, not what they’re actually doing. So “investing in the right talent” usually means a client or agency is laying people off in huge numbers while they scramble to fill the critical roles they can’t do without. Half the jargon in the marketing industry operates at this level, which erodes trust. Try being candid, and you’ll find most professionals are, well, professional, and can make their own choices. Loyalty just might be your reward.
I have a longer wish list—as long as my last Zoom call—but for now let’s prioritize Ideas, People and Truth. Start now, before tomorrow becomes today.
Three words might not sound like something you’d pay a consultant to tell you, but they sure sound like a future I could work with.