“Future of work” has become a meme – a phrase that has a rich set of associations that may vary considerably from the words it is made up of. “Future of work” vision videos often involve unexpected wonders, like walls of video glass and instant worldwide communications. As far as the outcomes of all these wonders one can only guess by the workers in these videos who seem calm and mildly happy. But why?
Too often, “future of work” is used to extrapolate current trends to a future state in a pristine, “all other things held constant” sort of way. In these futures, current trends such as AI, ever-thinner devices, or pico projectors are “completed”, new trends haven’t emerged, and we can see what that world would look like. It’s more of a future lab environment than a future world.
Maybe these visions should be called “Future of today’s work trends”?
Consider a different approach: think about the future of work starting from the desired outcome and working backward rather than turning the crank on a set of known trends. Right away you’re faced with a choice of taking a utopian or dystopian path. The dystopian path can be very enlightening, but I’m feeling utopian today – work in the Garden of Eden. (Yes, there was still work there. Adam was “put in the Garden of Eden to work it.”)
What do we want work to be? If we start there maybe it can help us ignore some current trends that are a distraction. For example, if having high powered pico projectors built into smart watches doesn’t push us further to that goal, then it isn’t going to be in my vision of the future of work no matter how cool it is. Ditto for all the smooth, translucent surfaces and modern design. And maybe thinking along those lines can add some necessary paths to that future that aren’t current trends.
Perhaps the future of work is just something that rewards workers with a good life for them and their families while improving the world we leave to the next generation. To me, the future of work is spending most of the day on nonroutine highly valued work. “Valued” here includes affordances (lots of great stuff that work brings) and self-actualization.
Have you ever been in a zone where you feel you’re zooming along a thread of valuable, creative, unique work? There are no annoying barriers in the way like tools adding constraints or unnecessary steps, there are no interruptions. You can feel the “progress bar” of your work moving along with a concrete end in sight. Co-workers, tools, and environment do their part to enable completion, but not get in the way or guide its outcome. It’s enjoyable and fulfilling, leaving you with a sense of accomplishment and establishes your role in the furthering of a larger, worthy goal. I hope at some point you’ve experienced that feeling, but I’ll bet it was too fleeting. My future of work vision is that your work is always like that.
The job of all those fancy tools is to quietly enable us and then get the heck out of the way.
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