The future of work is today. Are you ready?

Ignore the pessimists. The future is brighter than the past, write Linda Sharkey and Morag Barrett

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Look out! In workplaces across the globe, conventional wisdom is being thrown out of the window. Everything around us seems to be in flux – from how we conduct ourselves, to how we manage others.

In our work with business leaders and teams around the world, we see too many companies missing out. They are still operating according to 20th-century mindsets, practices and technologies.

We also see the careers of too many gifted individuals needlessly stalled, and ended, because of ignorance or fearful resistance. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. The drivers of change in the workplace are hiding in plain sight. Six factors of change are emerging in the management landscape:



We are all leaders now

More has been written about leadership than probably any other business topic. Still, for some reason, we often get it wrong. We’ve seen management in the financial sector ignore technology, choosing to resist computerization with the excuse of not wanting to disrupt their employees. As a result, entire departments, and companies, were wiped out.

In the end, company success boils down to leaders: what they value and how they behave. And as a manager, you are a leader.

In the previous century, leadership referred to the C-suite. But business leadership exists in every department, and inside every person. The 21st century demands a shift in leadership to be one of engagement, collaboration and adaptability. These are also the hallmarks of organizations that can innovate.

Leadership is the critical factor to future-proof your company and career. Without a shift in our leadership mindset and our leadership behaviour, none of the following factors will be future-proofed.


Values become foundations

In the late 20th century, the notion of ‘corporate culture’ was beginning to get some traction. Leaders realized they could have the best strategy on earth, but if the organizational culture failed to embrace the strategy, it was going nowhere.

We interviewed leaders many years ago about trust, respect and other factors that affect culture. Very few got it. When there was a deeper understanding of company culture, it focused around uniformity, respectability and conformity. In the 21st century, most organizations understand that culture and values have everything to do with profitability. As Peter Drucker put it: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Leaders now realize that values are the underpinnings of their culture. If they want a culture that truly empowers people, they must behave consistently within those values. Culture, and living the values in daily behaviours, is essential for growth, adaptability and innovation.


Collaboration kicks in

The organizing principles of ‘mission, vision and strategy’ sometimes had ‘values’ tacked on to the framework. But in the 20th century, almost every medium to large organization had to have a mission and vision. You’d read the same verbiage on the walls: “We are collaborative” declared the posters written by the chief executive, without input from employees. Everyone knew the real focus was profit and shareholder value.

Today, a compelling and impactful purpose, around which teams can get excited, is key. People need, and always have needed, an emotional connection to what they do. People want to contribute to the greater good and take pride in what they do, whether they are keeping an airport bathroom clean, or figuring out how to provide clean water for everyone on the planet.


Emotions matter

Historically, many organizations played down the role of personal relationships at work. Work was a place where you did your job and got paid in return. Relationships and social connections happened outside the office.

Now a greater understanding of the role of relationships, not only at work but in business in general, is coming to light. Google began an interesting study in 2012 to examine its high-performing teams and determine exactly what made them great. As it turned out, results had nothing to do with the order that was put in place to keep teams on track, and everything to do with the emotional connection between team members. This emotional connection made all the difference to what appeared, in some cases, to be a very messy team process.


Bias is recognized

Let’s be frank. Diversity has been the focus of many organizations in the later part of the 20th century, largely because of government mandates and laws – not necessarily because we value differences.

Meeting quotas seemed to be the prevailing approach of many companies at that time, and still is now. Companies have indeed met the quotas, but diversity is always at the lower levels of the organization – and seems to remain there.

With all the policies, programmes and quotas put in place over the years, the diversity barometer has changed only modestly. The proportion of women chief executives has increased by just 17% since the late 20th century. The figure for minorities is similar. We have to understand the root reasons why the needle has not moved substantially.

Based on my research and experience, the root cause is unconscious bias. And by the way, we all have bias, even the most forward-thinking managers. The brain is wired to take mental shortcuts and react quickly to the 11,000 cues we receive per minute. Our mind and emotions react before we’re even aware of it.

Is it any wonder organizational change is so challenging? In order to create a truly inclusive environment with a level playing field for all, we need to understand the role of unconscious bias, and the role the brain plays in our ability to connect with people who are different from us.


Digital goes mainstream

In the 20th century, computing technology was in its infancy. It was used to speed communication, make information more readily accessible, and improve work processes. Efficiency was the primary goal, and sometimes the only goal.

The 20th century breakthrough in technology was largely missed: the ability to communicate, collaborate and enjoy our work. But it’s not too late. The 21st-century breakthrough in IT is about discovering patterns that were previously invisible. For example, predicting certain outcomes, particularly in medicine, will forever change healthcare.

In the 20th century, technology was relegated to the chief technical officer and the IT department. Today, we’re all technology officers. And, as a manager, technology must be a crucial component of your approach – leveraging every tool to enhance communication and collaboration.

Distribute the future

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”  – William Gibson, The Economist

Your job as a manager is to distribute the future. These times, if embraced with human purpose, can make a difference in your workplace and create a profitable company where everyone matters. The future isn’t for the chosen few, but for those who care enough to help others transform their lives.


– Linda Sharkey, leadership development expert, is global managing director of Achieveblue. Morag Barrett is chief executive of SkyeTeam