The Future of Work: Let’s stop anticipating the unknown and start creating a future we choose

The Future of Work: Let’s stop anticipating the unknown and start creating a future we choose

This article is part of the Forum Network series on the Digitalisation and reflects on discussions that took place at OECD Forum 2019 in Paris. But it doesn't stop there – wherever you are, become a member of the global Forum Network community to comment below and continue the conversation!

These days, it seems like everyone is talking about the future of work. Every month, every week, a new seminar, conference or publication reminds us how fast the world is changing – and how irreversible these changes are for the world of work. You would have thought that it’s been thoroughly explored by now.

Google search results for “future of work”

But let’s be honest: all this discussion hasn’t actually helped us to find a clear way forward so far.

Two reasons why the future of work is still unclear

First, we’ve been trying to tackle this topic using old ways of thinking and doing. 

This creates some paradoxes. For example, how can we create new and open working collectives when we’re limited by the current legal structures of companies? How can we expect employees to be creative and innovate when we’re also asking them to continuously execute tasks without questioning their instructions? How can we create collective work environments when we’ve been taught to withhold information from others? 

Second, we’ve gotten stuck in a loop, rehashing the same predictions despite our best efforts. 

We’ve come to simply accept popular (and sometimes contradictory) ideas, such as that our jobs will all be done by robots or that salaried work will disappear in favor of freelancing. Full automation, the singularity, the leisure society: our vision of the future of work is obstructed by forecasts that are sensational, but not very useful to us right now.

"We’ve come to simply accept ideas such as that our jobs will all be done by robots"

How can the future of work become a topic that gives us tools for moving forward, that inspires us? How can we make the future of work a desirable one? 

To begin, we have to admit that we can’t actually know what the future will bring. Instead, we face permanent change in a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Harold Jarche points out that because transformation cycles are always getting faster and more complex, and because repetitive tasks are being automated, we need to evolve into what he calls perpetual beta mode.

"Harold Jarche points out that we need to evolve into what he calls perpetual beta mode"
Image: Harold Jarche

The real challenge we face, then, is how to stop simply anticipating the future and instead learn to reinvent work continuously. 

Two possible approaches for a desirable future of work 

One possible approach to finding a positive path forward is through work itself: more specifically, through training how to work together

Most of us never actually learn how to work in a team. We get training for technical skills, maybe even cognitive skills, but group interactions are a blind spot. How should we manage interactions and conflicts? How should we make decisions, and with whom? How should we evaluate and measure the contributions of team members? 

The stakes are huge for workers to be able to understand and adapt their work practices to their own goals and contexts. It’s essential that each worker knows that a pyramid organisational structure isn’t the only kind: that it’s possible to organise ourselves in tribes or in circles, horizontally or in networks. And that each model has its own advantages and limitations. It’s essential that workers know that decisions can be made in different ways, and that they be aware of their cognitive biases.

"It’s essential that each worker knows that it’s possible to organise ourselves in tribes or in circles, horizontally or in networks"

It’s true that we need to improve digital literacy, as the OECD rightly encourages, but this won’t be enough if we don’t also guide our collaborators toward an understanding of the collective nature of work. This applies not just to managers but also everyone who works — employees, independent workers, entrepreneurs… all of us. How can we move towards “team-work literacy”? 

Another possible approach is to explore the idea of collective employability

Today, we usually look at the consequences of permanent change through two different lenses. 

First, through the lens of companies that need to roll out new models that their workers then need to adapt to, whether they’re top executives or purely operational teams. 

Second, through the lens of the individual and his or her need to develop adaptability. Many reports and programmes highlight our individual responsibility for our employability.

Yuval Noah Harari: “To succeed in such a daunting task, you need to work hard on getting to know your operating system better”

This individual responsibility is necessary of course, but it’s not enough. In this way of seeing things, companies risk limiting themselves to looking at their profitability, at having the “right” workers in the “right” places in a “good enough” approach to performance. 

As for individuals, they’re looking for job security in the face of more and more frequent shakeups in their career paths. One in three workers feels exposed to the risk of losing his or her job, and just one in two workers feels prepared for the coming evolutions in his or her profession [read the BPI group report in French]. 

For the future of work to be desirable, we need to construct another path, one in which the employability of each of us is our collective responsibility. And the only way to find out if this path exists is to start exploring it.

  • How can we show compassion to others while advancing on our individual paths?
  • How can all of us (governments, companies, workers…) share responsibility for employability?
  • What tools can we use to make information and guidance about professional transitions accessible to all?
  • What kinds of training should we be using?
  • What tools can we use to reward companies that are most active in guiding their employees?
  • Should we create a reciprocal duty concerning employability?

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Related Topics

Future of Education & Skills New Jobs & Occupations OECD Forum 2019

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OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

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