While there is a lot of literature on the Future of Work from an organisation’s perspective, let us focus on the individual. How could employees thrive in the new age of work?
On the one hand, new technologies and possibilities generate excitement and a sense of wonder. On the other hand, we feel anxiety when faced with multiple emerging trends, uncertainty, and change.
How can organisations guide employees to navigate a jungle still growing wild? Above all, how can we achieve a sense of inner calm and perform purpose-led, deep-work?
Predict vs Prepare
There is no dearth of predictions about the Future of Work, especially how AI and automation would transform man’s relationship with work and life as such. Even a century ago in 1932, renowned philosopher Bertrand Russel said, “in a soon-to-be automated world, ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting” and even lose their “taste for war”.
Around the same time, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the early 21st century, we would work only 15 hours per week. Alas, we now know economic prosperity does not necessarily lead to more kindness. Nor that automation has led to less hours of work per day. It serves us well to prepare for the future than to predict it.
However, if we are to construct a view of future work and skills landscape, we better step back in time to gain a broader perspective, using the lens of our evolutionary past. James Suzman, through his fascinating book: Work – A History of How We Spend Our Time – takes us back by 300 thousand years to illustrate a strong correlation between work and our evolution.
He explains how for our ancestors, work wasn’t a way to spend energy, rather to capture it from the environment (by mastering fire and cooking). The work they did and tools they created shaped Homo Sapiens physically and neurologically. As a species we “became skilled at acquiring skills”. Another key insight is how we adapted to change by being generalists.
This is relevant for us here and now. David Epstein’s recent book: Range – how Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World – extols the virtues of ” breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, in a world that increasingly incentivises, even demands, hyperspecialisation”. Meta-learning, cross-domain knowledge, curiosity, and grit are essential for the new age worker.
Radar and Navigator
My own radar equipment is my curiosity. I pay attention to contemporary best practices and practitioners – books like Tribe of Mentors and podcasts like The Knowledge Podcast. One cannot fail to notice frequent references to neurochemistry, with fresh ideas on personal mastery and peak performance made easily consumable by the likes of Andrew Huberman and Steven Kotler.
To navigate the unknown and uncertain, I leverage my network. Being part of a large and diverse organisation enriches the individual. Reaching out and tapping the collective intelligence has helped me deal with complex situations at work. After all, we are social animals, and we thrive when our peers validate our ideas.
Organisations that facilitate serendipitous networking in teams across boundaries stand to gain in the long term. I particularly remember my earliest trip to the SAP headquarters when my manager made me work out of the coffee area for a week, to nudge me to connect with many team members. SAP’s recent research into this topic includes Network as one of the six drivers for Future of Corporate Learning.
In the new age of work, individuals accomplish personal mastery, while the team achieves collective differentiation to stay ahead of time.
Back to the future
In the end, there is no crystal ball to predict what the future of work holds for each of us. Learning from history, we know we are learning machines. And we have the radars and navigators to rely on. With a refined focus and clear vision, possessing the curiosity of a child, let us embrace the new age of work.
William Gibson said, “The Future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed”. It is time to bring everyone, across organisations to be ready for the future. Let us ride along with Marty McFly and Doc Brown, powering up the DeLorean to get Back to the Future.