2017 State of Work Webinar Q&A Follow Up

by Heather Hurst
, 12 min read
state of work report

After our recent webinar, “A Survival Guide for the Future Workplace,” where Sophie Wade, author and workforce innovator at Flexcel Network, James Wallman, author and work futurist at The Future is Here, and Alex Shootman, Workfront CEO discussed our 2017-2018 State of Enterprise Work Report and the future workplace, we received a lot of questions from our guests. We wanted to make sure we answered all of them, so here are the presenters' answers. Enjoy!

Not a question but, rather, more of a statement. I wish more people would just pick up the phone to handle something. If I can finalize something in a two-minute phone call rather than it taking 50 emails to figure out that would be great.

Alex Shootman: I think some of this is modern human nature. I just read an article that notes Digital Natives don’t like doorbells.

Sophie Wade: It’s very interesting how habits change as new tools and applications emerge. I now hardly ever call anyone unless it is scheduled in advance and I know so many others who do the same.

I think we can all improve what medium or tool we use to be most efficient and effective depending on the task at hand and whom we are working with. Different people prefer different means of communication and collaboration and it improves productivity to take this into account.

Don't miss our latest State of Enterprise Work Report, full of information about how email, meetings, and automation are shaping the future of work. To see it, click here.

What will the labor, with freed up time, work on?

Alex Shootman: I think that instead of digging through emails people will be able to work on higher value activities like researching customer desires, analyzing opportunities in market trends, and brainstorming improvements to the sales funnel. And then folks would have time to use their findings to develop innovative solutions for their companies.

Sophie Wade: Productivity has been low for years. With time freed up, we can start by bringing more focused attention back to our core work projects and will be able to do them more effectively.

Furthermore, human beings excel at non-sequential, non-linear thought and ideas and non-routine tasks—it would be beneficial to have time freed up for this type of work.

In addition, the marketplace is evolving more quickly these days, so we could use time to update our knowledge and reskill or upskill to develop our individual and corporate potential.

In addition to the non-stop emails we all receive, what is your take on the need and or expectation that we respond to those emails immediately? It's as if we have created a race!

Alex Shootman: I agree there is a lot of distraction, but some of that distraction is self-imposed as noted in this article in The Atlantic about personality types and whether or not you have a lot of unopened emails. At what point do we have to take responsibility for our own distractions?

James Wallman: Think back to the eighteenth century, when Ned Ludd and the Luddites were smashing machines. Their question is the question reverberating around the chattering classes now: what will happen to our jobs and livelihoods and what will we do once the machines do all our work?

But the weavers found new jobs, and their descendants did jobs they couldn’t have imagined. It’s very hard to see there from here.

Sophie Wade: Managing expectations is important to be able to build and maintain relationships, and managing email is important to be able to focus and work effectively.

Unless something is very urgent, then immediate response is not necessary and likely not productive for you as it will interrupt other tasks. Different strategies for managing email work for different people.

One method is proposed by Tim Ferriss (of The 4-Hour Workweek fame), I believe, who recommends having specific blocks of time to do emails—say 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.—and having an alert that any incoming email sender gets saying, "I will be reviewing my emails at 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. every day" to set people’s expectations.

You can also add what response time you anticipate to be able to respond within and what to do if anything is really urgent.

As robots and “cobots”—collaborative robots that work alongside us, both the invisible software bots and the very visible real-world robots—do more routine tasks, we’ll be freed up to do the more interesting tasks they can’t do. We’ll focus on more creative tasks, and tasks that require a human, “high-touch” approach.

Imagine, for instance, a world where you don’t have to worry about timings that have slipped, and the impact that has on the delivery date—because a piece of software is managing that—and instead can think about the quality of the output, and how to play your hand and marshall your resources to achieve a better outcome for you, your clients, and all stakeholders.

What about the nature of work from an employee’s perspective? Is the full-time job gone, and is staff augmentation going to be the model going forward?

Alex Shootman: I believe that the most amazing work gets done when people know their role, believe it matters and are proud of their work. To some degree, in the past, that was more easily accomplished with people in your own organization. I am not so sure of that in the future.

If the mission is big enough and people are given the right support to do great work, I could see people inside and outside the organization being motivated and passionate. I had friends that worked for IBM on the space program and not NASA and they were incredibly proud of the work they did as a contractor.

James Wallman: Full-time, full-employment only became a goal during the 1930s, in the teeth of the Depression. Before that, we just didn’t worry about it so much. In the future, we’ll worry less about “full-time” work, and focus less on inputs and—the worst example of this—presenteeism. Instead, we’ll be interested in outputs.

With the magic of the machines, we’ll see productivity increase. Because of this, and our changing roles—e.g., becoming more creative—the workweek and workday will become shorter. The optimum workday for creativity is around four hours… so here’s hoping that’s where we’re heading.

See Silicon Valley-based Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s excellent book Rest, and his research on work for more on this.

Sophie Wade: Full-time jobs will continue to exist as one of the options, as will part-time work, and increasing amounts of project work. Project work has increased 40-fold over the past 20 years, much to do with non-routine cognitive work becoming an increasing portion of the work composition.

Long-term (decades-long) jobs are mostly gone, and full-time jobs will likely be a few years at a time—sometimes a person may have more than one such job over time within the same company.

Within an individual’s career (one of their multiple careers), they will probably have periods of full-time employment and combinations of part-time and project work. The emphasis will be income, not jobs, for all of us.

With the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution—AI, automation, Big Data, etc.—how/what does a project manager need to do to remain competitive/employable?

Alex Shootman: I think the project manager of the future needs to think of themselves as a shepherd, rather than a dictator or a reporter.

The skills of forming the work well, managing and assessing the work will never go away. The manner in which it gets done will change in relation to the types of people that are now in the workforce.

James Wallman: Be more creative. Be a conductor. Counterintuitively, in an era where technology becomes ever more powerful, and incredible productivity becomes ever more possible, I think the liberal arts will become ever more important.

It isn’t me who says that; read "Liberal Arts in the Data Age: Why the Hard Sciences Need the Humanities" in Harvard Business Review or "Why We Need the Liberal Arts In Technology’s Age of Distraction" in TIME.

Sophie Wade: Following up on the above, there are a couple of interesting articles from the World Economic Forum just published about skills for the future of work. The top two skills identified for everyone are (a) interpersonal skills, (b) basic technical skills.

There is also new—sometimes urgent—attention on reskilling and frequent upskilling and training as the technology-accelerated marketplace evolves.

Learning and development initiatives are essential for workers first just to stay current and then adapt for the variety of changes, such as customer requirements, product/service focus, business models, and operational processes.

On the flextime front, how do you ensure true collaboration when people are not just in different locations, but different schedules. Can't that lead to unnecessary delays?

Alex Shootman: I think that flextime ends up requiring more of the project and program lead. The amount of preparation for status interactions goes up. Along with effective communications post status interactions (note I am purposely not saying meetings as I think those become challenging in flexible work environments).

So too does the need for effective use of whatever technology platform the team uses to manage the work. Finally, the leader needs to schedule and pay for mechanisms in which her/his team can get to know each other as people.

Sophie Wade: Countless studies show that flextime allows individuals to engage more in their work, be more productive, and perform better—they are less stressed and have fewer distractions, among other reasons.

As Alex notes, it takes initial thoughtful planning and coordination between team members, as well as appropriate tools/applications and management, then results are seen to be superior than before flextime was introduced.

In addition, the ability to work across geography and time zones can mean the ability to include experts and team members wherever they happen to be, and not be disrupted by other travel or distance, so delays can be reduced as well!

I like it, use it, but still think flextime could project negative perception to some.

James Wallman: Yes! Working with people who aren’t right there in the room with you on the same schedule as you can be so frustrating… but how about the magic of 24/7 working and 24/7 results?

People in my team range from Australia to Canada, via Russia, Portugal, India, Nigeria, and more. That means every time I come back to check in, more work has been done. And we get a wide variety of perspectives.

And even if you’re in the same office but work different schedules, smart working isn’t about weird outdated rules that were created to make sure factory production worked well. Smart working is allowing people to be the best version of themselves they can be.

Treat people like school children, you’ll get one result. Treat them like grown-ups, you’ll get an entirely different result.

Happiness has been shown—by Andrew Oswald at Warwick Business School—to increase productivity by 12%. That’s worth letting Ray leave early on Mondays for baseball practice, and letting Janet arrive later so she can go to her favorite yoga class, isn’t it?

The key to making flextime work is good management, a sense of team, and a good team ethic.

Sophie Wade: There are certainly companies where some executives and managers are wary of flextime, thinking that some people may slack off if they are not in the office. The reality is that those workers are likely not to be productive wherever they are working!

Benchmarking previous office-based performance to results when working flexibly can demonstrate continued productivity and diminish concerns. Trials of new flextime arrangements can also ensure someone’s chosen setup is appropriate for them as there are many flextime options.

Certain people might select flexible hours or a compressed workweek at the office rather than working from home if they are better suited to working in a team environment. Other people can focus much better when not distracted by anyone and do best when working in a more isolated setting.

In addition, different support and management is suited to specific scenarios, people, and businesses. Furthermore, it is beneficial for a company to transition to outcome-focused performance metrics so the results can prove any negative perception is unfounded.

For Sophie: Do you believe that for most people having times every day in which they are totally disconnected is helpful? Are there definitive studies in this area?  

Sophie Wade: Yes, I certainly do. Taking breaks is important for many reasons—focus, creativity, and productivity.

Studies have revealed that we focus optimally in periods of 45-52 minutes followed by a break to disconnect from the task at hand. A break may often be stepping away from the computer to take a walk or have a chat with colleagues. It could also be browsing cute cat videos—the important thing is for the brain to be occupied differently.

In addition, a study about creativity showed that “initial conscious thought is followed by a period during which one refrains from task-related conscious thought.” In this case, a break could also be the start of an incubation period that is an essential part of the creative process.

A Cornell study demonstrated that setting alerts to remind people to take breaks was found to increase productivity.

When I was working on my teaching certificate, a speaker told us that a challenge was that we were educating students for jobs that don't exist yet. Your thoughts? What challenges does this present?

Alex Shootman: I have not been a teacher nor studied for or received a teaching certificate so to some degree this is an opinion from the cheap seats.

I think that the two main skills that need to be learned to be effective in any role are 1) ability to take care of oneself and 2) ability to learn. And so I think continuing to coach people in those skills will never go out of style.

Regina Brett is an author who said, “no matter how you feel, get up, dress up, and show up.” Intellectual curiosity, grit, interpersonal warmth, and willingness to finish what you start never go out of style.

James Wallman: Good education shouldn’t only be learning some skills that are useful today. It should be about how to live, how to be flexible, how to think.

My first degree was in the classics at Oxford. I have rarely found the ability to cite Virgil or Homer or Catullus useful at work. (Actually, never useful!) Similarly, what I learned in philosophy of mind and the idea of possible worlds.

But the ability to analyze, to think, to discuss, to hear the other side, and to persevere when things are hard—invaluable. My school’s motto was “omnia vinces perseverando”—you will conquer all things through perseverance. It turns out that’s true; see Angela Duckworth’s fantastic book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Sophie Wade: In 2007, the National Academies Press published Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth which cited the U.S. Department of Education’s estimation that “60 percent of the new jobs that will open in the 21st Century will require skills possessed by only 20 percent of the current workforce.”

Schools have been starting to focus on teaching skills that will allow students to adapt for whatever jobs will be relevant when they enter the workforce, but there is a long way to go. These skills include critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration.

Two recent articles from the World Economic Forum are very helpful in discussing future needs for reskilling and upskilling the current workforce as well as students’ education continuing once they start working with lifelong learning being critical to keep workers’ knowledge and skills current. Two essential skills going forward are predicted to be (a) interpersonal skills and (b) basic technical skills.

To watch the entire on-demand webinar, called A Survival Guide for the Future Workplace, where these questions came from, click here.

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