4 Keys to the Future of Work

by Steve ZoBell
, 5 min read
future of work

In the enduring French historical novel Les Misérables, Victor Hugo writes:

“There is nothing like a dream to create the future.”

I want to talk about the future. While my previous post discussed the forces that are changing the modern enterprise of today—digitization, millennials, and declining productivity—this post will discuss my beliefs about the enterprise of the future, and the four keys to creating that future.

Let’s begin.


See our post "LEAP Panel: The Future of Work, According to Four Very Smart People" to learn what industry thought leaders think the future of work will look like.


1. All Knowledge Work is Project Work

Work is becoming more like how Hollywood makes movies: a project is defined; a team is assembled; it works together for precisely as long as is needed to complete the project; then the team disbands.

The problem is that most companies are still structured in traditional teams and do not have the systems in place to form effective ad-hoc teams, which is how most of modern work is done.

The future enterprise recognizes that all knowledge work is project work, executed at differing scales, whether it is a small team collaborating to solve an urgent business need, or an entire enterprise working across all departments on a key initiative.

Marketplace velocity is faster than ever, placing an even higher premium on reducing friction and increasing connectivity between internal teams.

Future enterprises look to automation and AI to unlock the immense creative power of their knowledge workers so that these workers can focus on creative, revenue-producing results. Bain & Company, a global consultancy, wrote about this concept in their article "The Firm of the Future:"

“With most activity automated or outsourced, almost all remaining roles will be mission-critical.

"Most work will be project-based, with Agile teams the dominant organizational unit; such teams will blend internal and external resources to provide the right skills as needed.

"Teams will be self-managed, leading to a vast reduction in the number of traditional managers.”

The irony is that while all future work will be considered project work, most team members will not be formally trained project managers, nor follow the PMI norms of project management.

Future enterprises will look to systems that automate essential project management functions so team members can concentrate on the actual work they need to do. This translates to enabling self-management across the workforce.

The right work automation technology will be needed to support that self-management philosophy.

project management future steve zobell workfront

2. Digital Natives (and Digital Immigrants)

The future enterprise will be dominated by digital natives. Our CEO describes these team members as egalitarian, flexible, and task-switching with just-in-time skills.

They are highly networked and tech do-it-yourselfers who are extremely comfortable with virtual teammates and virtual relationships. Putting infrastructure in place to support these requirements will not be a nice-to-have, it’s going to be non-negotiable.

Two out of three digital natives expect to leave their current employer in less than three years. They will flow to the work environment that matches who they are.

Digital immigrants, while diminishing in proportion to natives, will still be key contributors to, and leaders in, the future enterprise.

Digital immigrants come from generations known for being people-savvy team players, adaptable due to the changes they have experienced in their careers, and entrepreneurial. Leadership must shape this workforce into a unified team that can seamlessly collaborate and innovate together.

Additionally, leaders must create harmonious human-machine teaming as AI takes its place alongside these human team members.

3. Boundaryless Systems

Enterprise technology will have to look like consumer technology and match how the digital native works and lives.

The digital native assembles knowledge from various sources and does not expect that everything is in one system. In fact, that would not be trusted because everything has to be cross-referenced. 

However, this does mean that integration has to be a zero-friction activity, or the digital native moves on.

The enterprise is made up of hundreds or thousands of systems and data sources, such as this martech stack shared by Cisco, below. It is an enormous challenge to harmonize a frictionless flow of work across all of these different systems.

Gone are the days of IT being the gatekeeper of all tools used in the business. Individuals and teams bring in solutions where needed through shadow IT; some are then supported as enterprise-endorsed solutions.

Either way, the purpose is the same: building a tech stack that takes an idea from inception to intended impact with as much velocity and as little friction as possible.

Too long have work processes been system-centric or silo-centric. The future enterprise will be built around the true human-centric workflow. A human will be able to execute their task from beginning to end without being forced out of their flow, despite the involvement of various digital solutions.

That is the promise of boundaryless systems enabled by digital work automation.

4. Transformational Leadership

The future enterprise will require transformational leadership attributes that include the ability to pursue both purpose and profit, as well as authentically reflecting the egalitarian nature of team members by appreciating them as individuals and as employees.

There must also be a natural bias towards transparency and collaboration.

Future leaders also need to have critical-thinking skills for evaluating the performance of a project-based business, utilization of direct and indirect resources, planning and control of projects and programs, and the capacity to communicate effectively across a diverse, distributed workforce.

This also means that leaders at all levels want to give and receive real-time feedback on work quality and effectiveness while leading resources towards an outcome by focusing on direction and momentum rather than being forced to micromanage the administrative tasks associated with that work.

Effective work automation can free up leadership to focus on the right things with real market impact.

future business leadership quote steve zobell

Because Work Matters

It is a mistake to go into the future thinking about the workplace as exclusively about work. That is just not the case any longer. It is about purpose.

For past generations, life was largely about work. For rising generations, life is about purpose. Work is an essential component of that quest for purpose, because work matters.

The concept of work-life balance has largely been obliterated and replaced with work-life fusion. Work is no longer bound by time and place.

The future enterprise will empower the individual to pursue their chosen purpose by allowing work and life and purpose to fuse together seamlessly, at the choosing of the individual. The future knowledge worker will flow to that environment, as will I. As will we all.

This is the future I believe in. This is the future I want to create.


Watch our on-demand webinar, "The Future of Marketing: What to Expect in 2017 & Beyond," to hear more about the future of work from Mark Schaefer, Alex Shootman, Ann Handley, and Ian Cleary.

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