How can we define the future of work? Perpetual reinvention

Originally published in the Globe & Mail December 30, 2022

The phrase “future of work” has been used to describe many things over the years: Prior to the pandemic, it may have conjured sci-fi-like images of robots taking over the world or, more simply, open-concept office layouts. Postpandemic, the future of work has been synonymous with new ways of working, or “hybrid work,” which focuses on the where and when work gets done.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Ravin Jesuthasan, a global thought leader, futurist and bestselling author on the future of work. His word association for the future of work? Perpetual reinvention, which is perhaps a thread that connects of all of the above. With the recent public release of chatbot ChatGPT, and its ability to automate many higher-skilled tasks, some predict artificial intelligence will significantly affect work as early as 2023. This means, we need to get better at perpetual reinvention very quickly.

In his new book Work without Jobs, co-written with John Boudreau, Mr. Jesuthasan challenges the traditional relationship between a job and a job holder, advocating for more agile and dynamic ways of getting work done. This “new work operating system” starts with defining the work, deconstructs work into tasks, and then matches skills to work in a variety of ways (for example, through systems known as talent platforms or marketplaces), tapping into a broad worker ecosystem that includes full-time, part-time, permanent, temporary and digital/bot workers.

This approach not only allows for automation of tasks that are mundane or repetitive and/or less desirable (for example, unsafe) for humans, but it also alleviates the rigidity imposed by many traditionally defined jobs. It seeks to reduce the frictional cost of work, enabling talent to flow to work continuously rather than being confined to the static requirements of a job description and internal (and often slow) “hiring” processes. Instead of starting with a job and role description, and then hiring “the perfect” candidate for the role, starting with the work allows organizations to connect work to workers in a more flexible way, which enables them to respond more quickly to automation and threats such as the pandemic.

For this model to succeed at scale, a new system is needed that lets as many people as possible engage with the organization’s mission and enterprise. For example, Mr. Jesuthasan shared, Unilever started with defining its “North Star” in the form of its framework for the future of work and aligning all future of work programs and initiatives, including its talent marketplace to it. In creating an agile enterprise, aligned to its North Star, it is now easier for anyone to bring their skills to the organization. For example, retirees stay engaged with Unilever’s work ecosystem and continue to contribute to its mission, in exchange for a stipend aligned to their previous wage.

According to Mr. Jesuthasan, the role of leaders in this new work operating system will also fundamentally change. Namely, leaders will be required to:

Shift from leading with authority to leading with empowerment and alignment. As work becomes democratized and more distributed (across an ecosystem of employees and non-employees), empowering individuals to opt in to work that best aligns with their skills, versus dictating specific jobs and job requirements, will be a better way to engage workers, drive outcomes and achieve goals.

Manage diversity, equity and inclusion on a continuous versus an episodic basis. Traditionally, DEI has been considered for key events throughout the employee lifecycle (for example, hiring, on-boarding, development or restructuring). In this new paradigm, leaders should always be thinking about how to be as inclusive as possible: how to empower many to engage with the organization’s purpose and get work done. For example, as shared by Mr. Jesuthasan, a large health care organization deconstructed its nursing work, noticing that, burned out by the pandemic, most nurses didn’t want to work eight-hour shifts. In deconstructing the work and creating opportunities for eight people (not just nurses – as some of the work did not require nursing skills) to work one-hour shifts, they were able to meet business needs while attracting a more diverse talent pool and protecting workers’ well-being.

Connect people to projects versus executing process. For the past several decades, we have been managing through process execution: Hiring, onboarding, performance management or development are all processes with a regular cadence and a defined beginning, middle and end. In the new work operating system, business leaders become facilitators and curators of agile teams. They, in partnership with HR, need to become experts in work design and adept at defining skills needed to execute the various tasks that comprise the work, and then coach workers to seek work that best leverages their skills and develops them for future work.

Perpetual reinvention is indeed the name of the game in this new world of work. Organizations, leaders and individuals who can continuously adapt to new, agile ways of working, will be able to align and realign to their North Star and thrive more effectively.