future of work
July 30, 2018

The Future of Work Is What You Make It: 3 Questions to Lay the Right Foundation

What will work look like in the year 2030?

Will most jobs be automated? Will we enter a period of 30-hour work weeks, driven by increased productivity and automated processes? Will the concept of work as we know it today be eliminated altogether?

What will work look like?

That’s the question at the heart of PwC’s report “Workforce of the future: The competing forces shaping 2030.”

According to PwC, the future of work will be shaped by megatrends that consist of two sets of complementary opposites — also known as polarities.

First, there’s the polarity of fragmentation and integration, which measures whether the economy will be dominated by tens of thousands of (fragmented) small businesses or dominated by a few (integrated) megacorporations. 

Second, there’s the polarity of collectivism and individualism, which measures whether we will focus on social good and environmental sustainability or innovation and individual consumer choice.

In their report, PwC places these two sets of polarities on a single quadrant to illustrate four views of the future. Then they label each view with a color: yellow, red, green, and blue.

  • The Yellow World: “Social-first and community businesses prosper.”

  • The Red World: “Organisations and individuals race to give consumers what they want.”

  • The Green World: “Social responsibility and trust dominate the corporate agenda.”

  • The Blue World: “Big company capitalism rules as organisations continue to grow bigger.”

Yellow, red, green, and blue. There’s a lot here that can help us make sense of the future and change our work habits today accordingly.

To start, it’s worth noting that there’s nothing inherently “right” about collectivism, individualism, fragmentation, or integration. There are tradeoffs to the pursuit of each, and the upside or downside of each depends on the context. Because of this, what’s most important is opening a dialogue between these opposites.

Once we open up this dialogue, what immediately becomes clear is that the future of work is what we make it. Whether we head toward a yellow, red, green, or blue world hinges on our choices today. It’s also clear that no matter which version of the future we end up creating, we’ll need work management best practices. After all, each one of these worldviews require deep thinking and careful planning, coupled with the right operational system of record.

In light of this, here are 3 questions to help us lay the right foundation for the future, followed by an exploration of what best practices for work management will look like regardless of which worldview we choose.

3 Questions to Lay the Right Foundation

1. What do we really want?

According to PwC, the intent of the red world is to “give consumers what they want.”

In response, the yellow and green worlds might ask, “What do consumers really want?”

For instance, we all want to be healthy. But how does that square with the desire for convenient, sugar-infused food? What do consumers really want?

In a similar vein, we all want friendship — or at least to not feel lonely. And yet we also want the convenience of digital connections and digital devices, which research has repeatedly shown can make us feel lonelier (see here, here, and here). A popular article from The Atlantic suggests that widespread smartphone adoption around 2010 may be contributing to a sharp rise in loneliness for high schoolers.

Or take the desire for environmental sustainability. How does that desire contrast with the  desire to use plastic bags and single-use water bottles, both of which contribute to the more than 1.3 billion tons of trash produced around the world each year?

The point here isn’t that we should do away with convenient food, smartphones, and plastic products. The point is that by naming the tension between the desire for convenience and the desire for what’s best for our long-term interests (including physical and mental health), we can be more deliberate about creating the future we want.

In short, if we want to avoid work that ultimately hurts us in the process, we must always first ask, What do we really want? We can only discover the answer by deliberately and repeatedly asking that question.

2. Why do we want it?

When it comes to the laying the foundation for the possible futures outlined by PwC, nothing can help us more than simply asking why. This question is always most effective (and most difficult) when it comes from those who oppose our worldview. In this way we can find alignment and common ground, which enables us to move forward regardless of which worldview we personally prefer.

For instance, people who have a yellow worldview might ask those with a red worldview why they want innovation for the sake of innovation. Or those with a green worldview might ask blue why they favor shareholders over the long-term health of the planet, while blue asks red why they oppose big business while leaders at small companies are fighting to become big businesses themselves.

These are pesky questions. But if we’re going to lay the foundation for the future of work, we have to face them. We have to be sure we’re engaging with the most difficult questions from those whose worldviews differ from our own.

This process can and should be replicated at the company level as well. As the writer Simon Sinek says, “Very few people or companies can clearly articulate why they do what they do. … People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

This question — why? — is among the most important questions we can ask when creating work of the future.

3. How much is enough?

No matter which vision of the future we favor, we must always be prepared to admit when pursuits have gone too far.

For instance, think of the recent bicycle graveyard fiasco in China, where companies competed in a race to dominate the bike sharing market. Investment poured into these companies, which enabled each of them to produce bicycles at a scale previously unseen anywhere in the world.

Within months there were so many bicycles on streets and sidewalks that they essentially became unusable.

china bicycle graveyard

As a result, city officials had to ship thousands upon thousands of the bicycles (new and unused) off to graveyards where they’ll likely ever be ridden.

china bicycle graveyard

It’s an example of capital improperly allocated, a demonstration of how the innovation that the red and blue worldviews crave can go wrong when pursued in excess.

Something similar can happen for any worldview. To lay the right foundation, we must therefore be attuned to when a polarity gets out of balance. When that happens, we must work as a society to wrestle things back.

Above all, we must start with laying the right foundation because at a deep level, we all sense that technology alone can’t fix the major problems we’re facing. We need to figure out why we’re doing what we’re doing, and then create a process that works effectively.

Building on the Foundation

To enable effective work in all possible futures, companies will need to follow best work management practices regardless of worldview.

That said, each worldview will likely emphasis a different aspect of work management. Those with a yellow worldview might emphasize collaborating across departments (and even across companies) to counteract the downsides that can come with the fragmentation of small businesses, while those with a red worldview might double down on agile work management practices to most effectively disrupt large incumbent businesses, and so on.

While each worldview will emphasize a different aspect of effective work management, the truth is that the principles of effective work management will be at the heart of every one of these worldviews. There’s simply not a version of the future that doesn’t integrate these work management principles in some way, which means that companies that adopt these principles now — regardless of their worldview — will have the upperhand in reaching their goals.

Whatever worldview dominates the future, the three questions outlined here (coupled with work management best practices) will be key to human progress.

Above all, the future of work is what we make it.

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