There’s a Lot of Hype about the Future of Work
I’m seeing more and more feel-good “future of work” infographics like these popping up all over the interwebz. They’re thought-provoking, but from an organizational perspective, they feel overly simplistic.
Let’s be real: All these implied shifts are worthy goals, so we should be considering them. But we should also acknowledge the enormous barriers and huge effort needed to make them. Because of those challenges, none of these shifts is guaranteed to happen, and they certainly have not already happened in most businesses. In fact, a lot of people currently considering these changes are going to discover they just don’t fit their specific organizational context.
Question Future of Work Rhetoric
Before you invest a ton of time, labor, and passion into ushering in the future of work at your organization, consider just a few examples of why these “new realities” might not be very realistic:
Flexible working hours? More flexible than 9-5, sure. But in most organizations, collaboration is still going to require team members be online during some of the same hours every day/week. And non-office workers…? They’re probably not getting much flexibility.
Remote culture? Most companies are actually talking hybrid culture right now, not remote vs office. The practical folks are about the both/and, not the either/or.
Work anywhere? I want desperately to move home to West Virginia, but internet there is… spotty. So “anywhere” is something of an exaggeration. Even for office workers, the need to stay connected will continue to restrict our future of work. Less than before, sure—but still restricted.
Use any device? :sigh: One word: Security. Though many companies have BYOD policies these days, many others do not, because their IT teams can’t handle the extra complexity of securing company data on devices their company did not issue. Industry (and IT investment) make a big difference here.
Employee experience? It sounds so heart-warming, but the vast majority of companies just adopt the new catchphrase and keep doing what they were always doing—employee engagement.
Collaborative platforms? No doubt these are becoming more important. But replace email? We’ve been saying that for over a decade. Email is the cockroach of the corporate world: Nobody has figured out a way to kill it.
Working together? Working together is not new, and silos are far from obsolete. I talk every day with Communications and Marketing leaders who want to break down silos. In many cases, we can’t eliminate them; the best we can do is manage them.
One voice? We are seeing the wall between internal and external communications crumble. And whereas everything we say externally gets heard by employees, there will probably always be some things we say only to internal audiences. We are, though, focusing more on consistency of messaging across audiences. (Good for us.)
Engaging learning? That would be nice, but as a former head of L&D, I understand why most companies just continue to crank out one-to-many “classroom” trainings. Actually embedding learning, gamifying it, reinforcing it, and otherwise making it interesting and effective is incredibly resource-intensive in the corporate context—and most companies feel traditional training is “good enough”. 
Employees are people? There’s no question they are. But we’re probably going to see dramatic variation in how much they’re treated as people first and workers second across industries, classes, and individual businesses. Plus, businesses are powered by work, so there’s a limit to how far this pendulum can swing.
Work/life integration? For some, this will surely become an option. But whether integrating work and life is even possible depends on the nature of the work itself (back-to-back meetings vs independent creation, for example). And people also have preferences here: I don’t want to go for a jog in the middle of the day. I want to sit down, put in my 8 hours, and then close my computer. I’m a work/life balance kind of person. Who knows what the majority will choose?
What Should Your Future of Work Look Like?
Your #1 guide to post-pandemic change efforts should be the nature of your work. Don’t let future of work infographics like these tell you what you should be striving for. They make for highly clickable content, but they can also set unreasonable expectations that lead to disappointment.
The pandemic has us all questioning what’s necessary—and what’s possible—at work. That’s a good thing, but we should recognize that the answers will differ for each of us, both as individuals and as businesses.