With this fifth article in the series, I want to explore the New Discourse of Work that is currently emerging. As with any emerging phenomenon, we will have to look for clues and weak signals. We will also need to accept that the result might take decades to consolidate finally, and might very well take a shape that is eventually different than what I describe. This post more than the others is meant to be a collection of ideas. However, I want also to move away from the narrative of the Future of Work that so many authors and futurologists are constantly nurturing. Why? Because, in many ways, that narrative often lives fully within the Discourse of Work as Job, and is focused on trends that are (or might be) statistically relevant.
All the items I will be mentioning, instead, are and will be still problematic for many to accept, which is in the concept itself of sense-making from weak signals present in the environment. Some many authors and contributors are adding, often unconsciously, breadcrumbs that point in the direction of this discourse. I hope that the picture I will try to paint will look coherent to some. And I truly hope I can count on your feedback and suggestions on this topic.
A few months ago, when I wrote Reinventing Work, I did a PESTLE analysis of how the world of work was changing, especially with the impact of Covid-19. Many of those elements evolved and are still evolving. However, I had noticed back then that there are some major disruptions underway in the way the concept of Work is being intended. As I am structuring this articles in a new way, I’m repurposing and updating that specific content here, before trying to frame the concept of the new Discourse. Note: some of the weak signals that we will see are still very much in line with the existing discourse of Work as Job. It is not improbable that the idea of this new discourse will really evolve as a Generally Accepted Definition fo Work. Many emerging assets in culture and society, don’t make it to the status of a true Discourse. Yet, I want to try this effort in looking after this concept and establishing this idea in a consolidated way.
Productivity is for machines, not for people.
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, page 48
Spotting the Weak Signals: New trends at Work.
I am going to use a traditional PESTLE analysis framework, to try to capture the trends and weak signals that are influencing the Discourse of Work. I’m especially interested in elements that are not just about work, but that could impact the narrative elements that support the creation of discourse. This analysis is heavily influenced by the Covid-19 Pandemics, which is what we are living in, as we can consider this as a true disruptor for many social narratives.
The current Political Discussion is engaging on several topics that were previously not acceptable (from increased debt to revised economic plans). Some political principles can potentially become more flexible. Governments have responded to the pandemic in a variety of different ways.
There are significant forces pushing governments for increased power of the State, primarily through nationalisation of critical assets (airlines in particular), and in general for intervention in portions of markets, particularly labour one.
For sure, economic and social issues will pull governments to focus inward. This has potentially unknown consequences, especially has some phenomena like migrations, have not been resolved at their roots. At the same time, the interconnectedness of international economies will push governments to seek the support of those foreign bodies (EU, ECB, IMF, WB, etc.). Still, existing rules seem to be already challenged.
The recession will be severe, probably only comparable to that of the Great Depression. Despite some hints to a recovery in summer, the increases in numbers of cases across the globe, are dumping previous optimistic forecasts. The first data coming in are really bleak, both for the US and the European Union. As the reasons for this are not solely financial, there are different scenarios based on length and implications for markets and businesses. The idea of a K-Shaped recession is taking ground, with some industries benefiting from the crisis, and others instead moving deep in the red.
This recession is, however, going to be different than in the past. It’s not caused by the implosion of a ‘bubble’, that ultimately pushes for clearing the less productive part of an economy. A lot of productive companies (especially small and medium-sized) are wiped-out simply because of the lockdown and the resulting changes in the behaviours of consumers.
The crisis has impacted some industries heavily already (Tourism, Airlines). For others, there are only estimates at the moment, and the situation is not clear. Companies with high debts (including banks) will probably pay the most significant toll in terms of rate of failures.
There is a pressure to redefine patenting regulations, especially related to the current vaccine exploitation. Some have called for open-source, some for patent pooling.
There is also pressure on redefining venture capital and in general funding, with more uncertainty dominating. With VC down, there is a risk to curtail innovation.
The world of Work is profoundly affected by the global virus pandemic. In addition to the threat to public health, the economic and social disruption threatens the long-term livelihoods and wellbeing of millions. Workplace closures, working hour losses and increasing rate of unemployment are a global issue by now, also in G-7 countries. In some countries, government stimuli are creating an artificial lag in terms of impact on employment, but all agree this will hit hard many economies.
There is already arapid reconfiguration of supply chains underway. Done based on risk management, but also pushed by new nationalistic considerations, this reconfiguration will have the critical effects on the countries that so far have been net suppliers. This will mean the disappearance of jobs in some regions of the world. Moreover, moving away from “just in time” approaches means reduction of efficiencies. This will also result in impacts on logistics.
Changes in business models are also going to affect employment. For example, hospitality and restaurants, in particular, will have lasting effects linked to Covid19, and some might resort to moving to delivery only models.
The efficiency impact of supply chains disintegration and the rebounding home of some productions will probably push an acceleration on automation also in those industries that were still labour intense (like apparel and textile production).
Leisure, as an industry, including retail, is highly affected. Everything that is based on human contact has been and will be challenged. Theatre’s reopenings have been postponed for months, hotel and restaurants are struggling, and even if the Summer Season has shown some traction, especially through domestic travelling, this might not be sufficient to establish full recovery.
Citizenship has emerged as the key marker of belonging across the world. A new sense of social support has been emerging. This has been particularly visible in the rediscovery of local touristic destinations this summer. For sure, the border closures have affected this trend, but in general, a new form of localism is impacting societies. In some countries, this is bringing the need to develop new support tools for foreigners living in the country, and in general, there has been a harder stance on immigration.
The lockdown is putting the ‘family’, in its extended, modern meaning, at the centre of an entirely new social context. Remote working parents need to share their space and time with home-studying pupils. Families living in large cities have often less space available than those living in smaller villages, thus creating different experiences of the crisis itself. Domestic abuse has been on the rise; divorces have increased in Canada, China, Germany and the US. The initial expectation of a mini-baby-boom seems instead to be fading away, as anxiety towards the future is driving different behaviours. In general, signs are mixed, but the forced reality of having families spend more time together might have lasting effects.
There have been new examples of community cohesion, both through charities but also through simple interpersonal support, such as doing grocery shopping for the elderly. This might have positive lasting effects in the economic slowdown that follows.
There is an anticipation of new intergenerational tensions for multiple factors. Older people have been hit the most from the virus and will require more assistance. The crisis will move resources from older generations (for example, with lowering values of investments). Increased government spending will put an increased toll on younger generations, already challenged.
The lockdown has pushed some existing trends of media fruition at home (less cinema, more streaming). There have been increased sales in books, videogames and toys in general, but also new experiments in forms of entertainment and cultural consumption (for example virtual visits to museums).
There is a question mark about the future of Megacities. With more people able to work from home, will a new decentralisation happen? Current real estate market trends seem to point out to less attractiveness by large metropolis in favour of smaller, greener cities.
The pandemic has given a new twist on the danger of Fake News. Sources have reported that half of the news coming from Twitter on the topic came from bots. There is an increasing polarization of views, often with thorough conspiracy theories.
Work that is moved home (or virtually to any location) can profoundly change the relationships we build with our families and network of friends. There might also be a new shift in how performance and productivity are evaluated, moving away from the number of hours spent in the office, to a more results-focused evaluation.
The pandemic is also expanding the role of the employer as a safety net. Interventions on mental health, support for remote work arrangements, changes in benefits to support health-related ones, are all increasing trends that are being seen.
The pandemic is an accelerating trend by which employers need to establish a higher focus on skills, rather than roles of individuals. Companies are also elaborating new strategies in design, with less emphasis on efficiency and more on resilience.
We have already mentioned the deep impact of the pandemics on the Leisure sector. This also includes cultural and creative sectors (art, performing arts, etc.), which is heavily suffering from the closure of museums, theatres and exhibition venues.
The push for remote Work will help mature the possibility to run completely decentralised organisations. Distributed Workforce has been already in use in some sectors, and several companies had already adopted distributed models. This concept is, however, now being also investigated in some more traditional context. The focus on developing secure and distributed network technologies is, therefore growing.
Forced experimentation with online shopping will push even more technological effort in this industry, as online retailers will fight to differentiate. E-commerce penetration in most retail sectors has seen a rate of growth that was almost inconceivable, also creating a consumer that is more prone to switching brands.
Adoption of technology automation will probably increase, as seen, due to the rebounding of outsourced productions from low wage countries. RPA will have a push also in domains where it had fewer applications.
Work is challenged by the quick adoption of the new technologies, and the risk for automation. At the same time, there are new areas of opportunity that might be forming around the technology stack that needs to be maintained to enable remote working.
Remote Work is also seeing an expanded data collection from some employers on the working habits of their employees. Some of this is an intentional effort to control remote work; in other cases, it is linked to the adoption of new technologies. This also raises questions on privacy and data protection, but more in general on the effectiveness of traditional control practices. There is growing concern among employees in accepting these forms of control, and recent legislation also creates more risk in doing so.
This, however, does not mean we can keep lasting results. The low price of Oil potentially might reduce investments in clean energy unless actions are taken. Moreover, focus on restarting companies and the removal as mentioned above of “red-tape” legislation, might cause stepping back on some environmental achievements.
There is a risk that current financial recovery efforts for the economy, will leave fewer resources available on environmental-related investments.
Covid-19 has also played an interesting “simulation” of possible impacts on labour that global warming can have. The increase in temperatures will alter the paths of tourism, probably not bringing a global halt, but definitely impacting some regions more than others.
That is a long list of trends affecting society as a whole. But there are some other clues that we need to address and consider, and that I will try to summarise.
The environment is less and less predictable. The concept of “VUCA”, so, widely used today, is having an enormous impact on how organisations of all shapes and form “work”. The Covid-19 crisis is the perfect example of an unannounced storm with rippling effects across the world. Technology has accelerated part of this scenario, allowing for small events to have much faster and much broader effects. It effectively acts as an amplifier of volatility. At the core, however, is a mental transition from a deterministic model, where we were taught that a cause would always, linearly, derive an effect, to a random one. The Lorenz Effect is becoming every day more visible, and the Covid-19 pandemic has also shown us how much Science is not deterministic anymore.
Acceleration is difficult to grasp. As human beings, we have difficulties in grasping some concepts. We tend to reason in terms of linear progressions, yet current Acceleration is often exponential. Billions of people have been now exposed to an exponential progression of a disease, consolidating the difficulty to adapt our way of thinking to such an event. Yet, this is having a profound impact, hopefully also on some other processes underway, such as Global Warming.
Automation is real. It has been from the 70ies. Despite the recent focus on machine learning and AI, what is truly visible today is that the focus of process-efficiency has finally brought to the decision to eliminate the human factor from those processes, where this was perceived as a burden on the efficiency itself. This trend is continuing with RPA tools and the technology development around them. Machine Learning is also looking at repeatable tasks that can be done faster than a human being would. The reductionist approach to process efficiency from Taylor is coming to its highest goal, eliminate the risk of human mistake from the processes. Areas where humans still act are simply linked to cost: in certain conditions, it is still cheaper to have a human than a robotic operator or a software.
The rise of the Knowledge Worker. The domains in which linear efficiency can be applied are reducing. Exactly because of the VUCA world conditions and the acceleration we are seeing, there is an expanding layer of choices that need to be human. As mentioned, technology acts as an amplifier, and we’re seeing many demonstrations whereby AI algorithms only propagate the bias of the programmers. At the same time, companies need more creativity, more innovation, more soft skills to pursue their objectives. This as created what is known as the Knowledge Worker, which broadly indicates a class of worker that contribute to the organisation results, not in terms of process efficiency, but in terms o intangible contribution. The biggest contribution is in the broad concept of problem-solving, whereby a Knowledge Worker is able to apply both convergent and divergent thinking. This is where the concept of Knowledge Worker does not match the tayloristic idea of Manager, whereby the manager was solely focused on engineering efficiency, through convergent thinking.
Fading concept of Employment. The quest for flexibility by many organisations has brought up the need for many to identify a new relationship of work, outside the traditional employee – self-employed dichotomy. New forms of labour have been appearing already since the seventies, often in line with the considerable waves of outsourcing that happened, but it is in the last decade that we are seeing more innovation in this area, particularly into what has been labelled as Gig Workers. Technology has enabled platform to grow, creating new work opportunities, but also often challenging existing ones (the example of Uber vs taxi-drivers is key here). The legislation is not adapting enough to this model, that puts in question the concept itself of employment as known in the past.
Unbundling of Work from Jobs. Linked to the fading concept of employment, is also the fact that organisations are more and more after access to selective competencies, which do not necessarily roll up to a role. Crowdsourcing of innovation, collaboration effort, collaborative platforms where a problem is proposed looking for a solution (e.g. Kaggle), as well as the implementation of new ways of working such as agile and DevOps, are all challenging the narrative of clearly defined Jobs. The same unbundling process is also happening in some collateral industries: education, benefits and social welfare, exactly to enable to Work trend focused on competencies and less formalised contracts.
Organising for Adaptability and Resilience. Organisations are moving away from a pure efficiency target, and are experimenting into alternative organisation models. There is a fight against the bureaucracy that is consolidating across different models, and the general perception of viewing organisations as living organisms rather than mechanisms is moving choices that are more about the individual than the processes. Adaptability and Resilience can only be seen through more systemic thinking approaches. Still, too many of these experiments do not expand beyond the initial component, as too many of the decision-making processes are still based on replicating best practices. Intentional Design as a collective sense-making process is needed to pursue wider collaboration on change.
New Concepts of Sustainability. Growing environmental conscience is affecting also the consumerisation of society that happened in the past century. New models of circulareconomy are challenging the idea of “production for consumption”, and are creating space for new grass-root work at local community level. Agriculture is also redefining its role around smaller sustainable production, with the growing perception of global movements of food as negative for the environment. The growing population will still pose a big challenge on how agriculture can feed the world, but the idea that it will solely be a technology challenge is being challenged.
Changing Relevance of Work location. With Remote Work developing, the concept of Work is not linked to a location anymore. Factories are more and more automated, requiring fewer humans for their operations, and now also offices are challenged as the main locations where work happens. This unbundling process can have far-reaching consequences on the way our economy work, for example in terms of impact on large locations. But it drives also a much far-reaching consequence: work is becoming, again, a much more personal and individual experience.
New Worker Expectations. In the years, more and more surveys are showing that levels of employee engagement are deteriorating. People simply have different expectations for their work. After about a century of assimilation of motivation as a factor of production, there is a collective realisation that workers, in general, have different expectations. The recent push on employee experience is reverting the supplier-client perspective on work as a consequence of this realisation. People want a “whole life”, which encompasses public and private moments, of work and socialisation. This goes also through full discredit of social discrimination towards women and minorities. More fluid roles at work are allowing to interpret work as a form of self-realisation.
Consolidating all these elements together, it’s a clear sign we have the possibility to identify an entirely new Discourse of Work, clearly based on the last prominent element we have just seen: Personal Realisation.
Our era demands more of our human talents – empathy, creativity, sociability – and raises the spectre of a future in which we’ll need others, like drive, determination and resilience.
Alex Beard, Natural Born Learners: Our incredible capacity to learn and how we can harness it
Rebels at Work
There is a mass of clues also in a rather relevant group of authors and thinkers, that we have come to know in recent times also through some of my readings. I have created a Rebel at Work List of Books which looks exactly into these authors: Corporate Rebels, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Ed Catmull, Ricardo Semler, Gerard Fairtlough, Frederic Laloux, Lars Koling and Jacob Bøtter, Matthew Syed, David Epstein, Francesca Gino, Frank J. Barrett, Amy Edmondson, Simon Sinek, Kim Scott, and many more.
They have all contributed to planting seeds about the necessities to think of Organisations and Work in new and different terms, abolishing bureaucracy, thinking in terms of Deliberate Development, Freedom, Candour and Agile Leadership. Each has contributed with a fragment of a new reality that is building under our eyes. All are asking themselves how to think of employee motivation in different terms.
These, together with many others, are the people that have inspired this search for the Meaning of Work.
Today we’re all Rebel, because we are building a New World of Work
Personal Realisation at work
This new discourse focus ties in an entirely new concept. Work is not anymore about contributing to some transcendent objective, whether religious (like in the Salvation discourse) or Ethical (like in the Job discourse), nor it is perceived as Punishment. It is also not about pure sustenance, because there is an idea that there is also a spiritual growth of the individual through self-realisation. With this discourse, there is the recovery of an important principle we have seen, that of Mastery. But differently. The development of technologies has made knowledge a much more distributed well. Whereas Guilds looked for protection of their inside knowledge, today we are looking at transparency as an asset and collective growth as a goal.
reimagining work for the twenty-first century requires us to find ways to generate the psychological, emotional, and economic benefits of work outside a traditional employment context.
Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, page 134.
All these elements together create a unique possibility for the true development of a new discourse.
The consequences of this are profound. Let’s try to see them together.
In this case, metaphors are useful to be able to imagine the future. As such, they are a lot less rooted in visualising a current state, and much more in imagining a possible outcome.
The Worker Metaphor for this Discourse is that of the Sustainable Entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is not a new factor, it existed for ages. What is new here is that this is not as much as investing financial capital, but about investing competence and knowledge. It’s the live visualisation of building yourself as a deliberately developmental actor, both with your own personal skillset and that of the networks of people that will get in touch with you.
The dominant Organisational Type will become that ofResponsible Autonomy. Both Hierarchy and Heterarchy models will still exist, but in a networked structure, each autonomous node will take decisions on its domain autonomously. This will allow more resilience and adaptability, as each node of the network will be able to act alone in case of need. This development will carry important transformation that can be mutated from science, for example, in terms of peer control and support processes, instead of a focus on collective decision making.
The Organisation Metaphor will be that of the Distributed Organisation, whereby each individual constitutes a node in a. network of relationship. Due to the fluid nature of work, detached itself from the concept of Role, each sustainable entrepreneur will be part of multiplenetworks at the same time, contributing to each with its competence capital. This will make the separation of organisations more difficult from a conceptual point of view, creating new concepts of “open organisations” to life. Physical artefacts such as factories and offices will still exist, but always in the concept of nodes of a network. New platform mentality will further distinguish operations and execution, separating them from physical resources. A single factory will be part of the network to different organisational entities, not however in the current supply chain relationship status, but in new collaborative ways.
The LeadershipMetaphor is definitely that of the servant leader, because the deconstruction of hierarchy ladders will imply extended support needs. The eco-system leadership that Simon Western advocates is another way of seeing this model in action, because it extended the responsibility of what I have defined as Sustainable Entrepreneur to the entire ecology of the surrounding environment.
The Defining Antagonism of this discourse will be that between Meaning and Inanity. Each work has the potential to define a meaning for the individual. The concept of a hierarchical layering of types of work will slowly disappear, in favour of a distinction between work that can enable meaning and work that cannot. That will be pushed even more in domains of automation. Note that the meaning itself of work will reconquer spaces that the “job” concept had cut off. Whoever decides to work only for their family at home, will be perfectly able to move in the area of a meaningful life. Elements like the Universal Basic Income will support models by which self-realisation does not necessarily pass through waged retribution. Compensation mechanisms will therefore need to be adapted depending on the value creation mechanics, as these are counterbalancing the creation of meanings for individuals (which is at the basis of this long series of posts).
The Needs Fulfilment is greatly linked to what Maslow had initially described as Self–Actualisation. Holistically, I believe there is also an element of Self-Transcendence, as also identified by the late Maslow. Not necessarily in the sense of a religious dimension, but as an element that goes beyond the individual extraction of value, and moves into the creation of value for the good of society.
A sense of purpose, the focus on creativity and trust, the raising interest on effectiveness vs efficiency are already some of the visible Social Constructs of this discourse of work that is developing.
The Impacts on Society
This new Discourse will have important effects on Society as we know it. It is difficult to anticipate exactly what will happen, but the most important impact area will come from the receding power of Work as an ethical element within current ideologies. Partially this has already started to happen: the old fracture between left and right was also on two different ways to intend work. New movements instead are wrapping themselves around other issues. There are three elements that I think we should consider:
End to the financialisation of society. The new discourse of Work also underpins a new discourse on Value, capable of moving away from value extraction and into production again. This will carry many impacts. I’m not sure if this will come as a consequence to a new global financial crisis, or through a different, softer mechanism, but definitely needs to happen also to enable the Discourse of Work as Personal Realisation we are seeing. This means that ideas of richness, success and development will all change, adapted to a new concept.
Move from Education to Development. The new focus on mastery and a new idea of becoming deliberately developmental means that Education needs to be reinvented from scratch. Knowledge is becoming more quickly obsolete. People need to be trained in how to acquire knowledge, rather than in piling up stock of notions themselves. A focus on new citizenship might also be needed to guide people to the sustainability we have mentioned before.
A New Role for Leisure. Less focus on financialisation also means less focus on consumerism. This will be a consequence also of the focus on sustainability. Leisure will become more an integral part of the individual life experience, consolidating a trend that already exists (with more focus on wellbeing and care).
What happens to organisations?
All of the above will have an important impact on the form and shape of organisations. Probably also on the meaning itself of what an organisation is. In the next article of this series, I will examine exactly this aspect, looking at the concept of Work Design as an essential element to positively live this transition phase.
We need to consider also what needs to be done in terms of adaptation to the environment. The legal framework needs to evolve to support the new discourse. Moreover, we need to understand the impact that this transition will have on the different clusters of workers that exist today. This will be the focus of the (rewriting) of the Reinventing Work article, that I will fully integrate into this series.
A new meaning of work is forming. It is time to embrace this change, and understand its impact in terms of radical shift. I believe that the slowness in adoption of new organisation model by companies, is partly due to the missed understanding of the changing nature of this important component: Work.
Is probably a possible summary of this Discourse. A good conclusion for this very long article, that I hope you have enjoyed.
This article is the fifth in a series of seven posts on the Meaning of Work. Please feel free to add any feedback to this article in the comment section.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6ADNHtY6jc I've recently had the pleasure of speaking about The Intentional Organisation with Carlo Marchesi,… Read More
1 year ago
About Sergio Caredda
I am an experienced and innovative HR professional dedicated in improving the way organizations achieve results through their people. You can read more about me here or get in touch for more information.
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