30 companies join forces to search out the future of work

There is no shortage of pundits prepared to have a pop at telling us what the world will look like in five, 10 or 15 years’ time. But, while many make one-off predictions, Lynda Gratton is one who sees predicting the future as a more continuous process. As the subtitle of her latest book, “The Shift” (Harper Collins), has it, “The future of work is already here”. It is also evolving and – while the overall direction in which it is headed can probably be anticipated – there are likely to be a few deviations along the way. It is in an effort to understand all this better that Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, has convened the Future of Work Research Consortium.

ALL WORKED OUT

The third phase of the group’s work involving representatives of organisations as varied as BT Global Services and Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower from countries all over the world has recently been launched in London, New York and Singapore. It will be managed by the Hot Spots Movement, a research programme that takes its name from an earlier Gratton book – “Hot Spots. Why Some Companies Buzz With Energy and Innovation – And Others Don’t”, and will collect information, insights and experiences through face-to-face meetings and internet-based discussions. These activities are designed to drive research over the next six months around the themes of technology and productivity, complex collaboration, generational cohesion and future leaders.

Lynda Gratton of London Business School

Gratton herself might be reckoned to have a pretty good handle on much of this stuff already. “The Shift” describes “the five forces” that are changing our world at such a staggering rate – technology, globalisation, demography and longevity, energy resources and society. The first four we all know about in general terms at least. It is the last – society – that is perhaps most interesting since it, of course, is influenced by and is to a degree the result of the first four.

As Gratton points out, mankind has changed in the past and will continue to do so in the future. “If we look back to the first Industrial Revolution,” she writes, “huge swathes of people moved from the countryside to the towns to work in factories. These experiences transformed the way that people saw their lives and their communities. They changed the way people thought about themselves, they changed the way they thought about others, and they changed their hopes and aspirations for work.” The question is how the current revolution will change things.                

At the London launch of the latest phase of the research consortium’s work, Gratton talked of the rather rosy future presented by technology companies and presented a short film that in her view offered a more realistic vision of what life would be like in a few years’ time once communications devices had developed to the point where they could be overlayed on tables, bathroom mirrors, fridge doors and the like. Apart from demonstrating how the subject of the film was constantly assailed by messages and calls it illustrated how it is not just work that is doing this to us. Constant communication is an integral part of all aspects of our lives. If we buy something over the internet, we provide contact details, which mean that the seller can contact us at all hours of day and night with special offers even if that purchase was a one-off. Equally, our children’s schools communicate with us – and expect us to be involved through attending meetings about all aspects of the curriculum and beyond – than was ever the case before.

This “always on” aspect is just one feature of the revolution in society. Gratton sets out several others that, she says, “will play a central role in shaping the future of work”. Among them are the rearranging of families – with family groups becoming smaller and “rearranged” as stepparents, stepbrothers and stepsisters taking over from the traditional family structures of the past; women taking on more prominent roles in the management and leadership of businesses; men reassessing their roles in life – and in some cases opting to spend more time at home while their partners assume more prominent positions; a growing distrust of institutions; a decline in happiness despite generally increasing standards of living; and a readiness to spend leisure time more productively than had previously been the case – working on community projects, say, rather than watching television.

Gratton explains that the process by which the world will change as a result of trends such as these is not straightforward.  “The future will be elusive when it comes to predicting human behaviour and aspirations,” she writes. “Yes, we want to be ourselves and autonomous … but wait, we also want to be part of a regenerative community. Yes, we are excited about technology and connectivity … but we also yearn to be comforted and crave time on our own.”

As she says, these are important paradoxes. They are not easy to resolve, but it could be that over time the choices involved may become less stark. In the meantime, research like that being conducted through the consortium can only help shed light on rapid and deep changes that affect us all – not just in our work but in all aspects of our lives. After all, perhaps the most profound effect of the development of new technology is the “blurring” of the boundaries between work and the rest of our lives. We may be “always on”, but we do not necessarily have to be “always there” anymore. And there might be where opportunities lie.

References:
London Business School – http://www.london.edu <http://www.london.edu/>
http://www.hotspotsmovement.com <http://www.hotspotsmovement.com/>

Comments

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