“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.”
― Alvin Toffler
The Future of Work is full of predictions, but also contradictions.
There are many futures of work, not just one. Experts have mixed views on how AI and robotics will impact jobs, skills, and businesses.
Leaders must cut through the noise, as Gallup recommends.
Winning in the future of work requires more than disruptive technology.
The mindset and behaviors of your people define how the future will look like. Technology is straightforward — people are not.
69% of organizations have not yet reached digital maturity, according to MIT Sloan. They’ve failed to prepare their culture for the future.
All transformations are human, emotional, and messy. People need support and guidance to prepare for transitioning to the future.
Start future proofing your culture today.
Are you ready?
Transitioning to the Future of Work
“Our moral responsibility is not to stop the future, but to shape it — to channel our destiny in humane directions and to ease the trauma of transition.”
― Alvin Toffler
The future is here. Now.
We’ve made more progress in the past 5–8 years than in the previous 50. The notion of machines taking away work is not new at all — the speed of change is.
This acceleration creates a lot of concerns and anxiety.
The conventional wisdom is that employees are afraid of technology — their jobs could soon become obsolete.
However, a recent Harvard Business School study suggests that managers are more anxious and less prepared than their people.
Employees are optimistic about the future. They expect to get better wages and more enjoyable, meaningful jobs.
Leaders, on the other hand, are struggling to shape the workforce of the future. As the study shows, most haven’t yet figured out which forces of change they should prioritize.
“The CEO of one multinational told us he was so tormented by that last question that he had to seek counsel from his priest.”
The problem is that senior executives are focusing mostly on disruptive technologies. ‘Regular’ employees are more conscious about the impact of all change imperatives.
Researchers identified 17 disruption forces — grouped into six categories:
- Accelerating Technological Change
- Growing Demand for Skills
- Changing Employee Expectations
- Shifting Labor Demographics
- Transitioning Work Models
- Evolving Business Environment
People are more adaptive and optimistic about the future than their leaders think.
But they still need more support and guidance than their managers are providing.
The real transformation happens along the journey — not at the end.
Anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep’s framework provides a human-centered approach to understand how people deal with change.
As he explains in his book Rite of Passage, every transformation has a three-part structure: Separation, Liminality, and Reassimilation.
Separation requires letting go of the past identity. We must withdraw from our current status.
The Liminal phase is the transition. It requires navigating uncomfortable, unchartered waters. The journey is uncertain — there’s no script to follow.
The liminal space is stressful — that’s why most of us want to rush through change. Organizations must support employees along their emotional journey.
As Diana Wu David, author of Future Proof, wrote, “The future of work looks bewildering. The perpetual mention of accelerating change gives us motion sickness.”
Leaders must ease the trauma of transition, as Toffler suggested.
Digital Transformation Is People Transformation
Growth has always being CEOs number one priority. Now, digital transformation has become the path for growth, but also survival — according to Gartner.
Your organizational culture is the most critical obstacle to get there.
Most CEOs agree. 69 percent of C-level executives say transforming their organization’s culture is vital.
However, most companies are focusing on the technology part of the digital transformation — they fail to create a culture of change.
As futurist Cheryl Cran explains, “We underestimate the psychological part of people wanting to change for the purpose of creating the future of work.”
The author of Next Mapping, argues that, while most companies are going through a digital transformation, only a few are thinking about their people in the process.
Personal transformation is challenging for everyone — not just regular employees. Leaders must let go of past models too.
Managing the transition requires intellectual humility. Leaders cannot control the future — they don’t have all the answers.
Leaders must admit that they are struggling with leading change. And face, rather than suppress, their anxieties and fears.
Dealing with uncertainty is not easy.
No one needs to navigate it alone. Ask for others’ ideas and opinions. Involve frontline employees in the implementation of new technology. Help people understand how their work will be affected.
Technology should serve people, strategy, and innovation — not the other way around.
Carebots in Japan can lift and move patients around a hospital. These robots were created to address the leading cause of injury in healthcare: nurses lifting patients.
Many hospitals are using AI to diagnose diseases, giving doctors more time to focus on patient relationships.
Design Your Future Now
1. Solve a People Problem
Start by identifying the human problems that get in the way of organizational transformation.
HR folks are hungry for new technology — they feel their CEOs pressure for digital transformation. But, adopting a new technology, process, or method won’t fix human problems.
Take Slack’s recent backlash as an example. The poster child of real-time collaboration is now blamed for harming productivity.
The problem is not Slack or any tool for that matter — but people.
Over-communication is usually a symptom of an unsafe culture. Fear makes people want to protect themselves. Slack simply multiplies the established practice of cc’ing everyone on every email.
Technology doesn’t solve a culture problem. It accelerates both positive and negative behaviors
2. Define Your Future of Work
There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all. Define what the future of work is going to look like for your organization.
Start by assessing what your starting point is — be honest.
Identify what’s driving the need for adaptation. And what the obstacles are — internal and external. The Permanent Whitewater canvas can guide your analysis.
What forces are driving the need for transformation?
How is your emotional culture enabling or slowing down change?
What are the beliefs that you must let go of to embrace the future?
Avoid fads. What works for another company might not work for yours. Define your future of work — don’t replicate someone else’s.
3. Build Networks, Not Hierarchies
An effective transformation requires an inside-out approach rather than a top-down. Think of your organization of a network of circles — teams — rather than vertical hierarchies.
People must play an active role rather than being simple spectators.
As Richard Branson said, “The future of leadership will see employees being given far more freedom and opportunity. The days of successful leaders being overly controlling are numbered.”
Virgin’s Group success was built on promoting autonomy. The company trusts its employees and lets them do their jobs.
How can we make our work more meaningful and impactful?
How can we work smarter, not just faster?
How can we roll out new initiatives better?
Invite people and involve them along the journey — not once all decisions have been made.
Treat your team as adults. Dumb rules limit people’s potential — they get stuck in the past rather than building a better future.
4. Create a Future Proof Culture
Learning is a force for change.
Thriving in the future of work is not about the skills your team has but the ones they can develop. Learning how to learn is a critical meta-skill.
As Alvin Toffler wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
Turn curiosity into fuel for growth. Research by Bersin shows that organizations that promote a learning culture are — at least — 30% more likely to be market leaders in their industries.
Lead as if you are right but listen as if you are not. Questions promote transparency and curiosity. They also invite participation — questions provide a safe space for quiet people.
What’s not working at our organization?
What’s working at our organization?
If you were the CEO, what would you do?
If you work for our competitors, how would you put our company out of business?
Curiosity keeps our minds open. Rather than sticking to what we know, we explore what is possible.
The ability to adapt is a competitive advantage to thrive in the 21st Century, as I wrote here.
Equip leaders with the skills they need to guide their workforce through digital transformation. Help your people develop self-awareness, creativity, and resilience.
5. Design the Transition
Organizations believe that the transformational process is rational — but it’s not.
Most change initiatives fail because leaders want to control the transformation. Success requires more than the right business model or technology. Don’t underestimate the emotional journey.
Adapting requires facing the transition, instead of running away from it.
Both leaders and employees have a hard time dealing with the future. Not being in control makes everyone anxious. Research shows that we prefer a certain bad outcome than an uncertain one.
Pause. Learn to read and understand change — welcome the transition.
Purposefully design the transformation journey. Involve people during the process — not at the end.
Take care of the emotional culture of your organization. Your team needs guidance and coaching to deal with uncertainty.
Change creates anxiety; the transition should not. Your emotional culture should speed up transformation — not slow it down.
Every transformation begins with an ending.
Start by letting go of the current state. Prepare your team for the transition. Develop a culture that’s self-aware, curious, adaptive — make your organization future proof.
All transformations are people transformation. Technology is straightforward — humans are not.
Get ready. Now. Build a culture that pushes your organization into the future.
Want free advice in your inbox once a week? Subscribe to Positive Change insights.
Gustavo Razzetti is a change instigator who builds cultures that push your organization forward — not backward. He advises, writes, and speaks on team development and culture transformation.