The future of work is flexibility: of culture, skills and attitude

Work is changing. Our management styles need to change to match — and so does our sense of what an "a" grade player looks like.

A generation ago, the answer to the question “what is the future of work?” would have been “more of the same”, quite possibly delivered with a grimace. Today, anyone who gives that same answer is either ignorant or stupid. The role of work has changed beyond all recognition multiple times in the last few decades — and that pace of change is only accelerating. Just the last few years have birthed the gig economy, and seen a massive surge in self-employment.

So yes, so far we’re in really familiar digital disruption territory. Install a head of digital change or innovation, and get on with it, right?


As Apple’s Tim Cook once said:

A lot of companies have innovation departments, and this is always a sign that something is wrong when you have a VP of innovation or something. You know, put a for-sale sign on the door.

In an era of on-going change, innovation can’t just be pasted on top of a business. There’s a fundamental difference between incremental change and revolutionary change – and management styles suited to one certainly aren’t suited to the other.  Many of our existing structures were designed for radically different management challenges, as Tricia Wang explained at NEXT17. Indeed, one could argue that the biggest problem for most established businesses in weathering the storms of digital disruption is that they’d led by managers who were very good at handling small regular changes in existing processes.

This is the distinction between management and leadership. Managers keep things running, leaders inspire people to go into completely new places.

Working at Next Conference

Much of the focus of attention has been on information businesses — but if, as Marc Andreessen suggested, software is eating the world, then digital disruption is coming for the most unlikely of industries.

Haulage? Autonomous driving is coming for you. Manufacturing? 3D printing, the internet of things and more will change how you work. Change is coming for all of us.

Change is coming for you all

Thus, all of us need to accept that the skills we enter the workforce with may not be the skills we’re using at the end of our careers. While this has always been true – in particular, many people need up swapping craft skills for management skills as they rise up the corporate tree, it’s more extreme now, as whole fields disappear and are replaced by some combination of software and hardware.

This process has been going on for decades — think of the floors full of bookkeepers replaced by a single Excel spreadsheet, or the hot metal typesetters of the pre-desktop publishing age. These careers have been diminished or changed utterly by new technology.

Hell, even writing may be under threat. But hopefully not writing like this… 😀

There are two real opportunities here:

  1. Look for the work machines can’t do.
  2. Look for new work opportunities facilitated by tech (think: YouTube celebrities, digital nomads)

Defeating the corporate immune system

However, either way you need a culture that supports that change – and most corporate cultures actively resist change. As consultant Neil Perkin wrote:

One way to think about introducing a foreign culture (like agile) into an organisation is the metaphor of the human body, which releases antibodies that are designed to eliminate foreign elements. Similarly, an organisation can reject the introduction of a foreign culture system and work hard in order to maintain the status quo. So ‘adapters’ or ‘translators’ around the foreign culture might help protect it, and avoid triggering the antibodies, and the new culture might eventually be a powerful force for change.

This is a really useful way to think about implementing change: you have to protect it from that natural inertia of organisations. And that falls to the corporate leaders to create that culture.

Laura-Jane Parker explored this idea in some depth:

Leaders must be comfortable not knowing the right answer, but know what questions to ask of their team so they can experiment with solutions. Leaders must focus on ensuring their teams know the what and why, but are more than happy for them to figure out the how, supporting them through coaching and removing blockers. Leaders must build influence and persuasion through connectedness and inclusion, sharing work in progress and inviting input. And, most of all, leaders must have the digital fluency to leverage technology to supercharge all of the above.

That takes both confidence and bravery. So much of business culture revolves around not showing weakness, and many would see an admission of ignorance if a weakness. The very nature of digital change makes us all ignorant — nobody knows what the latest innovation will cause, least of all the people who create it.

Corporate cultures which punish lack of knowledge are no longer fit for purpose. They’re just as bad as culture where people take pride in their ignorance of tech. What we need is culture that celebrate an admission of lack of knowledge, and which praise proactive attempt to acquire that knowledge through training or experimentation.

The new “a” grade players


Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

In effect, your “a” grade players are less defined by their existing skills, but by their ability and willingness to acquire new ones. That’s a core talent that will be of greater value to your business over the long term than competences that might well prove to be of a moment.

You might call this self-directed lifelong learning. You can no longer rely on training courses or “best practice” to deliver what your business — or your career — needs. The companies and the workers who will lead the way are those who define and set the best practice, not merely following it. And that attitude to do that? It starts right back in school.

Lead Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

Martin explored how the future of work is what can’t be done by machines