Status Fluid: the Future of Work, Working and Us

Sure, the world as we knew it is rapidly morphing. But even so, my seventeen year old daughter recently started her first real summer job, a rite of passage in sad decline for many teens. Selling fancy shaved ice treats from a food truck on 100 degree days in Austin is teaching her a lot, and it points to some of the issues we’re all thinking about as we consider the Future of “Work”, so indulge me here a minute…

While wearing masks and gloves, she and her friends working in a 5’x12'ish trailer have come to appreciate that job security comes from being acknowledged as a “good problem solver” (one of her colleagues was let go early on for not being so). She is learning about customer service and pleased with how generously buyers tip when presented with the payment screen that makes it seem rude not to… as well as how right it feels to tell an elderly man walking by that he can enjoy the treat even though he didn’t bring quite enough cash that hot day; no need to ask a supervisor what to do.

When she does communicate with her boss, it’s via text and she chooses her work schedule a full week in advance (awesome!) via first-come group chat (not so awesome). He’s usually only at the location to open and close, so my daughter works under the guise of a security camera that while pointed at the customer, surprised her when it suddenly admonished playfully “no tiktok-ing” over the speaker during a slow moment last week (yes, she was mortally embarrassed, but not at being video’d or called out, but because he could see the dance!).

While I complain about the high prices they’re charging for flavored frozen water, each treat arrives in a compostable bowl, served with a bamboo spoon and is made with all natural ingredients, including the ginger mist and organic coconut shavings ontop (no lie). Nothing is blue or stains your mouth bright red (which actually bums out a few kids). And at $10/hour plus all those shared tips, my girl makes double the minimum wage, and then some. She is the beneficiary of an increasingly bipolar economy.

Aside from motherly pride, when I observe this as a futurist, I wonder how this early experience will shape her perspectives on Work: how will she feel being surveilled in any job from now on — from cameras, key cards and implants, to monitoring her keyboard strokes, heart rate or pupil dilation? Like the tip-nudging screen, how will technology shape and incentivize behaviors in whatever field she ultimately chooses? Will her expectations for engagement, empowerment and reassurance she is selling healthy stuff live up? Will she appreciate the advantages of a playing field sloped in her favor and try to level it for others? And as education gets an overdue revamp, could her summers off disappear altogether? I even wonder how this small business will look 5 or 10 years from now…can a robot make a sno-cone?

As I think about future and the sustainability of these kinds of jobs, how the work gets done and how she feels about her place in the world, I often see corporate leaders and policy makers conflate these three distinct concepts under the banner of FOW: The Future of Work. Unpacking them gives me a better look at the big opportunities now calling to us as a society, as organizations and as individuals.

The Disruption Mandate

For many years, future-forward advisors have been cajoling leaders to adopt more adaptive, sustainable, inclusive and humane approaches to work in anticipation of the breakdowns we could see emerging: hospitality, automotive and food service workers strike in fear of approaching automation; tech developers and designers walk out in protest of ethics breaches and callous environmental practices; and globally, people wouldn’t care if 77% of brands disappeared. And for decades Gallup has alerted us that as many as 70% of our workforce isn’t engaged, so it is not actually that surprising when a BCG study released this January forecast that 1 of 3 public companies would cease to exist in their current form [an important point] within 5 years; a rate that is six times higher than 40 years ago. Not only that but the gap between the most profitable quartile and the least continued to grow, nearly doubling over the past 30 years.

Though a rising stock market often muted the mandate for innovation and actively discouraged change, the pandemic and social justice awakenings have now put the need to transform our work front and center.

Like it or not, we now are all wide awake and actively trying to sort out where we go next. But rather than discussing the merits of plastic shields and home office allocations, let’s start by clarifying what we actually mean by “work”?

Defining “Work”

Not sure what Merriam Webster came up with, but as I see it, culturally we’ve come to define work as “energy expended for the benefit of and compensation by others”. Unfortunately, that is a very limiting definition, which blinds us to a much broader range of questions, issues and opportunities. There are many things we “do” that contribute indirect value as well. Even as a sole breadwinner, I, for example, have many roles on the planet including: mother of three, business owner, advisor/mentor, writer/content contributor, volunteer/community gatherer, learner, organizational strategist/futurist and keynote speaker. Only a few of these activities receive direct, monetary compensation and are therefore labeled as my “work”, but I’d offer they all contribute to societal wealth.

So what do we call the activity that creates value but isn’t paid for in the classic sense? I see it all as Work and propose we widen the definition to something like:

“Future of Work = incentivizing all expressions of value, worth and societal contribution.”

Yet when we talk about the Future of Work (FOW), it seems we are usually just talking about how I get things done. Meaning, am I working full-time or not? Am I an employee or not? Which technologies do I use? Am I creating intellectual property, and if so, who owns it? Where am I doing this work? With whom? Do I feel safe? Do I feel good about what I create/produce? How much autonomy do I have? Etc. I label this bundle of considerations as “Working” and define them as:

“Future of Working = improving our ability to effectively sense and respond in order to create sustainable value”.

These definitions can likely use refinement, but digging in, we can begin to see the benefits of pulling these two concepts apart.

The Future of Work vs The Future of Working

Drawing this distinction between the two definitions allows us to look more closely at the trajectories of each. As we imagine a world heavily influenced by AI algorithms, robotics, and on-demand 3D printing — and enhanced with ubiquitous applications of spatial computing (via Augmented, Virtual and Mixed realities) — how will the concept of “work” and the ways we do it both shift?

Von Ton-Quinlivan, former Chancellor of the California Community Colleges and Future of Work resident for the Institute For the Future gave a compelling commencement address in 2018 which she wrapped up by asking these graduating students to consider this list of “what if’s…”:

And to this I’ll add:

What if emerging peer to peer networks radically shift the way we identify and create value and alter current ways of allocating and stewarding resources? (i.e, what if the corporation as we know it now ceases to become the primary coordinating entity for our work?)

With a similar outlook, Ginni Rometty, former CEO and now Chair of IBM (and champion of IBM Watson) predicts that 100% of us will need to be reskilled. I agree but also worry, because Harvard’s Future of Work team estimates that potentially more than 30% of the population will not be able to in time… a seriously daunting thought that deserves much more of our attention.

We are also beginning to see that those who are gamely trying to manage their demanding current jobs while they simultaneously build skills for the next are heaping huge pressure on themselves and their families. As we enthusiastically champion learning, we need to also beware of burnout.

In a society already filled with so much anxiety, what kinds of structures and approaches will support us through this time of radical change and ensure individuals, organizations, industries and society itself stays resilient, secure and healthy? This one question, raises many more that basically fall into two different buckets:

The Future of Work raises questions such as:

  • do we believe advancing technology will create more or less meaningful, paid work?
  • how we make societally beneficial work more economically visible/societally valuable?
  • how do our actions/choices contribute to sustainability and community wellbeing?
  • what is fair compensation? and what benefits are offered to whom and how are these equitably extended?
  • how are we equitably distributing technology enhanced gains in productivity?
  • what kinds of societal/fiscal scaffolding is necessary to ensure all have access to a safe, quality of life as our efforts are augmented or replaced by machines? Is a Universal Basic Income (or providing free transportation, housing, healthcare, childcare and education) viable?
  • how do we architect organizations to attract and recognize work contributions across a range of employment/learning statuses (is that a word?)
  • how will labor regulation, job classification and global tax laws need to change/catch-up?
  • how are we harnessing and incentivizing the full creative expression and sense of self for all?
  • what are the implications of positive degrowth?
  • who will fund and supply re/upskilling? how do we avoid burnout?
  • and what is the social contract between business and a shifting society; what is our commitment to the Commons; how do we defend our social license to operate?
  • what is the future — and value — of the corporation? What kinds of legal structures or new regulations will incentivize beneficial investment?
  • how does the relationship with education systems (K — college) need to be redesigned?

The Future of Work requires we prepare now for vast traditional unemployment (at least for a decade or so), shape a society that values and supports currently unpaid work of all kinds — from child rearing to community stewardship to invention — and incentivizes and rewards all of our desires to fully express and contribute our skills and ideas.

Alternatively, The Future of Working asks us to consider questions like:

  • what are the paid jobs of the future?
  • which skills + capacities will be needed? and how do we avoid burnout when reskilling?
  • what is our individual and collective ability to adapt?
  • what will the role of “mid-management” be as the nature of work changes?
  • which new tools, methods and practices need to be designed/incentivized?
  • what is our commitment to vastly improving diversity + inclusion + gender/ethnic/and racial justice?
  • how do we build cultures of resilience and respectful dissent?
  • how can we improve work/life integration, especially for parents and caregivers?
  • how do we balance transparency and safety with privacy; what is our approach to surveillance?
  • how do we feel about democratic workplaces and worker empowerment?
  • how can we structure our teams and talent to better sense change and respond quickly?
  • what is our comfort/tolerance for geographically remote work and talent autonomy?
  • what is our comfort with asynchronous collaborative work?
  • how do we ensure compensation/time for learning?
  • will the work week or work day be shortened? do “hours” worked even matter anymore?
  • what are the most relevant talent and productivity metrics?
  • and crucially, how do we ensure we are building ethically responsible solutions/code/business models?

In contrast to The Future of Work questions, The Future of Working focuses on how we build much more agile and adaptive organizations that are able to sense change and respond effectively at much faster rates, in ways that build trust and pull talent in.

And speaking of Talent, there is, of course, another really important factor to address: how can we better prepare ourselves and the people doing all this work for a world of so much change?

The Future of Us (as “Worker”, Citizen and Human)

In a world of flux, where the speed of technology adoption is hampered by the lack of talent with the right skills, we often start with the conversation about talent with the sprint to skill and reskill. Corporations are in a sprint to fill this growing gap not only for their own workforces, but also help others outside of their organizations. In designing their workforce for the future Walmart introduced 14,000 reskilling courses last year via a LinkedIn-style online-learning platform for its 1.4 million U.S. employees, while Microsoft recently pledged to help 25 million people worldwide. Similarly, PwC has made a $3B commitment to upskilling not only their own talent force, but government workers, teachers and those who hold our society together.

Given, however, that not everyone will be able to reskill or upskill in time (or at all), what kinds of societal scaffolding will we need to connect this economy to the next: Is a Universal Basic Income (UBI) inevitable? Will we revamp measures such as GDP to make unpaid work more visible…and thus valuable? And how will we conceive new, more inclusive ways to redistribute productivity such as compensating folks for the data they are creating or the attention they are giving? Will the cost of food, housing and energy even drop or be provided in regenerative ways that makes receiving a certain size paycheck less relevant overall?

Taking it a step further, even if our material needs can be met outside of paid employment, we still want to feel productive; we yearn to be of use. So how will we encourage citizens to express their unique curiosities and desire to create value, whether that is tinkering in their garage, creating a free community event, cleaning up our environment, or writing short stories… all things that improve our collective experience and as stated earlier, create societal wealth. And actually, how do we actively incentivize things like curiosity, resilience and drive given these capacities are starting to dwindle just when we need them most.

We also have an obligation to better prepare children for a fast moving, very different future — though where should the emphasis be? China is building AI education into grade school curriculum while around the world, we are becoming more sensitive to the role childhood trauma plays in blunting our ability to flourish. In the years ahead, emerging neuroscience will help us see the link between creativity, collaboration and curiosity and the first four years of a child’s development, shifting social policy and investment.

And just as we are beginning to see the importance of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in our schools, there is a need for the equivalent in our offices and in our homes. As the pandemic has shown us loud and clear, we are now expected to “figure it out” as we navigate through whole new territory. This need to “FIO” will continue and includes our careers themselves, as predictable career paths evaporate, opening entirely new options and possibilities for our work and our lives. And this will not slow down. So training and support to reduce feelings of overwhelm, stress and loneliness are needed to ensure rates of depression and “dis-ease” don’t skyrocket.

We will so find encouragement to expose our “shadow selves”, become comfortable with vulnerability, and enhance our ability to respectfully discuss a dissenting point of view because these capacities are all becoming foundational for success — both individually and organizationally. I suspect that just as we will begin assessing companies by the percent of budget that goes into L&D (Learning & Development), we, the talent, must accept our responsibility for developing a solid sense of self-awareness, an ability to handle change, and a desire to learn. All of which takes on great importance as our work futures shift from ascending a steady ladder to developing a dynamic, multi-faceted mosaic career, as futurist and human capital expert, Elatia Abate, so passionately describes.

We have to become okay without a prescribed career path and external markers of our self-worth. For some that may seem scary, but for others it is immensely liberating.

So, the Questions the Future of Us raises:

  • first and foremost, how can we build our own resilience?
  • do we recognize the importance of self-care, physically, emotionally and socially?
  • can we appreciate the value in lateral moves and even steps that seem backwards (i.e., can we be less ego-led and more heart/curiosity centered?)
  • how are we nourishing curiosity in ourselves and each other, esp children, given this is the key to creating value (and strong mental health) in the future?
  • how will we overcome feelings of imposter syndrome or dwindling confidence as we are challenged to continuously learn and “figure things out”?
  • do we recognize how important connection and community are? what are we each doing to build and support it?
  • how will we assess and validate our worth outside of only paid work or credentialed schools? what others systems will help us do so?
  • do we have the capacity to be self-directed and responsible for our own career/life work journeys? if not, how can we cultivate this in ourselves, our teams and our children?
  • do we appreciate how fundamental it is to offer compassion to ourselves and all others, as we all traverse such new and fast shifting terrain? do we reward kindness and are we building solutions with more empathy?
  • do we feel a sense of agency at being able to actively shape the future we each want to see? do we feel empowered inside our organizations (and society) to bring new ideas forward?
  • are we in-touch with our own thoughts/feelings/tendencies and curiosities? do we know both what triggers us and lights us up?
  • do we feel well held? do we feel overwhelmed or liberated… or both?

The Future of Us is tied directly to the health and well-being of society, and so our work is to rely much less on a prescribed path and historic expectations, and instead fully embrace our own callings and ideas, cultivate our ability to create value in a range of different ways and truly hold ourselves and each other well.

Whew-eee! As we’re just beginning to see, simultaneous shifts in the value of work, the ways we are working and our needs and expectations as humans are emerging and converging, which begs the next big question: how can enterprises better prepare?

Shaping the Enterprise of the Future

The pandemic acted as a very loud starting gun that forced us all to jump in the race, but rather than get to “the other side”, we are sliding into an accelerating period of change in which old systems are breaking down and new ones have yet to be created.

And the demands will continue to increase, because shaping the healthy enterprise (and thriving society) of the future will require our attention in all these areas:

Clearly we’re no longer making cogs on an assembly line, mechanicially laying out a daily newspaper, or teaching from last year’s syllabus. As we strive to take on all this, we are making a radical flip from slow and steady growth for consistent short-term profitability to fast innovation to ensure long-term viability. We are in full-on reinvention mode which requires high levels of creativity, collaboration, and complex coordination with talent “inside” and “outside” our enterprises, in all kinds of varying roles and for different stints. So why are we working the same ways when speed, empathy, inventiveness, trust and agility increasingly dictate our success?

Fresh alternatives are challenging long held beliefs about how we need to organize work. Microsoft has been experimenting with a shorter work week and is seeing a 40% lift in productivity. Fully remote organizations such as technology company Automattic (who run WordPress and Tumblr) are sharing their lessons learned and offering guidance on the Five Levels of Autonomy for Distributed Work. And importantly, a shift to ROWE (a result-only-work-environment) management and tools like Kanban boards, shared work repositories like Github, etc and a more sophisticated understanding of culture and organizational cohesion, will allow us to coordinate confidently rather than“manage”. The expansion of these and many more new tools will help us break away from the need to measure our productivity in hours per day or per week and offers encouragement as experiments with open, fully distributed organizations start to grow.

Importantly, these shifts in how we work won’t just make our roles today more effective; they are actually laying the foundation necessary for work that will become increasingly augmented by — and takes place in — the metaverse. Curious? Futurist and writer Cathy Hackl offers a fascinating peek into a work day in 2028 here.

Bottomline: the future is fluid and so are our teams, our roles and ourselves. They have to be.

From Binary Rules to Status Fluidity

Fluidity, however, can be challenging for many. Without a clear map, rigid structure or linear timeline to follow, we need to become more confident navigating in ambiguity and trusting ourselves to act. As our roles and workflow become more dependent on context and need than on a one dimensional label or hierarchical title, we must become comfortable shifting from a binary choice between this OR that into a status fluid world in which we are able to label and account for things with more dimension, nuance and flexibility so we can successfully adapt as conditions warrant.

My friend and visionary hospitality leader, Chip Conley often talks about becoming both intern and mentor when he joined Airbnb to work with CEO Brian Chesky. Just like a super-positioned quantum atom (I think), we need to be able to hold two potentials at the same time:

Will we work from home and onsite? YES. Will we classify talent in many more ways and see the benefits of partial contributors across broad ecosystems? YES. Should we invest in being both well-rounded people and in mastering our work? YES. Will we need to embrace being both student and leader simultaneously? YES. Will we be a part of huge organizations and self-organize our work/teams? YES. Will we work along side robots and avatars. YES. Will we eagerly adopt new technologies yet also be comfortable drawing clear lines for privacy and fairness? YES. Do we work for a paycheck and spend time making the world run better (or fill it with art?) YES. Will we need everyone in the organization to learn to lead in order to sense and respond more effectively? Most definitely YES.

The list goes on, but the point is that hard and fast rules will be replaced with clear beliefs, strong ethics, much more supportive structures, and permeable boundaries that help us more successfully define and express how we work, why we work, with whom we work… and what we, as a society, value and champion broadly as “work” overall.

Including, we hope, giving a kid the opportunity to learn and contribute as she enthusiastically serves us a refreshing sno-cone.

described as endlessly optimistic, Nancy is a strategic futurist, gatherer and author of LeaderING: The Way Visionary Leaders Play Bigger (avail Feb 14, 2021)