The last few years have been marked by generation-defining crises — political, economic, societal, and environmental. Much that we once took for granted about the world of work has been called into question, and much that was previously unimaginable is now an everyday fact of life. But the churn is far from over. As a recent recruit at a global consulting firm told us, “We are at the beginning, not the end, of massive upheavals in our work lives.”
These upheavals have prompted all sorts of questions about the future of work. Where are we headed? What does the future hold, and how can leaders prepare? What should they focus on as they move their organizations forward? Digitalization and the rapidly growing capabilities of AI? The many repercussions of the shift to hybrid work? Employee wellbeing? The changing priorities of millennials and boomers? Questions of social and environmental responsibility? The unstable geopolitical context and our unclear economic future?
Faced with these multiple competing — yet interdependent — issues, leaders are feeling understandably overwhelmed. “I have done all I can to hold this firm together through the pandemic,” the CEO of the above-mentioned consulting firm told us. “When I contemplate the scale of the challenges that lie ahead, I feel I have nothing left to give.”
We’re scholars of leadership, sustainability, and organizational change. In recent years we have focused our attention on how leaders and organizations can best rise to meet these challenges. And what we’ve learned, in both our academic research and our professional consulting, is that if leaders hope to understand and adapt to the forces that are reshaping work, they’re going to need to start thinking more specifically about three important areas of concern: 1) the future of workers, 2) the future of working, and 3) the future of work itself.
In other words, the who, the what, and the why of work.
Three Areas of Concern
The who, what and why of work are deeply connected. Thinking about how they are related won’t help us accurately predict the future, but it will help us prepare for it. So let’s consider each in turn.
The future of workers (the who).
Pandemic-induced introspection and the frame-breaking experience of lockdown have caused a lot of people to question the role of work in their lives. They’re asking profound questions about what their organizations are demanding of them and questioning whether their organizations are worthy of their commitment. At the same time, they’re often demanding the right to bring more of their “whole selves” to work, which has forced leaders to pay much more attention than in the past to questions concerning, among other topics, employees’ gender, race, religion, and sexuality.
But leaders who become too focused on addressing diverse individual needs can lose sight of the bigger picture. Employees’ questions and concerns about work arise from a collision between two powerful forces: today’s macro socio-economic realities, on the one hand, and long-accepted understandings of what belonging to an organization and doing “good” work look like, on the other. Any reflections on the future of work must take stock of this evolving status of the who and how it relates to the what and why.
The future of working (the what).
Hybrid, remote, and flexible working are here to stay. In spite of attempts to compel staff to return to the office, levels of remote working remain four to five times higher than before the pandemic. These new practices fundamentally alter how people work, where they work, and when they work, but their consequences are not yet fully understood.
Leaders feel themselves under pressure to announce “standardized” policies, as a way of providing some reassuring certainty in the midst of uncomfortable ambiguity. But in the current unsettled macro context, a sense of certainty about how we should work can only be illusory and transient.
Meanwhile digitalization is rapidly reshaping the ways people and machines interact, affecting the tasks we do, the roles we fulfill, and the organizational arrangements that guide and support us. By the mid 2030s, up to 30% of jobs may be at risk of automation, and today’s rapid developments in AI have brought the future into the present much faster than most predicted. How can leaders shape work environments and employee tasks that are in constant flux as a result of rapidly evolving technological systems?
The future of work (the why).
Long-term macro forces and short-term shocks are creating a host of new demands on business as we adapt to new energy infrastructures, aging populations, and a hotter, more turbulent planet. Supply-chain disruptions are becoming increasingly frequent. Political events are also galvanizing rapid shifts in public sentiment — about racial inequality, for example, or business relations with Russia and China. Alongside these macro shifts, people’s desires and actions are evolving, reflecting deepening differences in values, aspirations, and life choices.
Some leaders are responding with renewed statements of purpose, defining how they will serve societal needs alongside shareholders’ increasingly diverse expectations. But these attempts to take the long view are fraught with short-term ambiguities, as moves toward redefining the role of business in society trigger backlash. This is to be expected as we work through cultural shifts and start to develop a new understanding of “what good business looks like,” and hence what good work comprises.
We Have More Agency Than We Realize
The upheavals that are reshaping the who, what and why of work feel beyond our control, and to some extent that will continue. Even if the direction of travel is clear, no one can predict with certainty when and where the next operational or human crisis will arise, nor whether it will be triggered by technology, war, climate, or social unrest. Regaining agency starts with recognizing our role in this complex system, and noting how workers, working, and work itself are intertwined. Ultimately, the future of work is not “out there.” It’s within us and our organizations, and we can help shape it with our colleagues through the steps outlined below.
Lead collectively through uncertainty.
For complex environmental and geopolitical challenges, it’s generally accepted that localized action can only have a limited effect, and that the solutions lie in collective action. Just as nations acting alone are weak and ineffective at dealing with complex system-level challenges, so too are leaders in organizations. To address the challenges of the future of work, leaders need to understand that theirs is not an individual responsibility but rather a collective one that brings together a complex coalition of colleagues across the organization. Collective leadership is a core component of the future of work.
Remember the exhausted consulting-firm CEO we mentioned at the start of this article, who feels he has “nothing left to give”? He is overburdened by his sense of responsibility for shaping the future of work in his organization. But he shouldn’t have to bear that responsibility alone. The burden is collective. His job is to bring together potential leaders at all levels across the organization to work on this issue, to expand collective insight, and contain emotional uncertainty.
Expand collective insight.
The current complexity of challenges in the world of work cut across hierarchies, generations, functions, and geographies. They can only be addressed by bringing together multiple sets of stakeholders with competing interests who collectively can generate a broad set of insights and help the organization and its leaders successfully navigate uncertainty. By definition those at the top of an organization have the most to lose in the short term and so may be resistant to asking the most challenging questions about the future. Meanwhile, the youngest employees have the most to gain in the long term, because the status quo is of little value to them. For this reason, many of the organizations we work with are exploring ways of integrating new and unfamiliar voices into their leadership discussions.
Contain emotional uncertainty.
While leaders need to reach out across their organization to instigate and sustain leadership initiatives, they also need to create some emotional guard rails. A key role for leaders at any time is to work out how best to balance individuals’ need for autonomy with their organization’s need for control. While younger colleagues in particular may crave autonomy and opportunities to pursue their passions at work, they still need the reassurance of believing in the collective identity of their organization and their position within it. Leaders should remind employees of the best aspects of their organization’s past, to reaffirm their cultural identity and to provide a firm base from which to build a collective future.
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Ultimately, we all want to belong to something greater than ourselves that is worth committing to. But the organizations we belong to have changed, and so have we. Faced with cumulatively overwhelming challenges, it is tempting to turn away from them and try just to carry on as “normal.” But when the old sense of normal is no longer relevant, as is the case today in the world of work, we have to learn how to think clearly about what’s happening. We have to recognize that we will ultimately make sense of this difficult and exciting transformative period only by creating a new sense of normal for ourselves, one that accommodates rather than resists ambiguity and ongoing uncertainty. That’s simply not something we can do in isolation. But within our organizations, focusing on collective leadership, we can begin to do it together.