“In space no one can hear you scream;
and in a black hole, no one can see you disappear.”
— Professor Stephen Hawking
“What’s the future of work?”… “How will a return to office work?”… “How do we make hybrid work, work?”
I don’t know the answer to any of those questions.
No one does.
If you poll academics and business professors, management gurus, CEOs and consultants, they’ll all tell you different things. This means no one knows. We’ve never done this before; we’ve never lived this before. And the honest ones will tell you that.
You, or me, have just as much chance of being correct in our predictions as the next guy or gal. We have to experiment our way through this and figure out what works. That’s how we figure out the question.
And to do that, we have to anchor ourselves on what is true.
Truth #1. We are in the middle of two revolutions.
The fourth industrial revolution, and the revolution in the future of work, have both come at us at once.
Source: Google Ngram Viewer
Although consultants like to call them revolutions, the actual pace of change is relatively slow. The first industrial revolution took place across the course of 80 years. The fourth industrial revolution — of AI, automation, and extreme connectivity, is looming. We’ve been talking about the “future of work” since 1980 (although to be fair, it only really took off over the last eight years.)
Two years of Covid, and the ‘future of work’ has turned into ‘today’.
Truth #2: COVID turned a slow burn into a dumpster fire.
Industry reaction to a global pandemic was a massive accelerant to both revolutions.
The joke is that the biggest driver of Digital Transformation at your company is not your CEO or CIO; it’s a tiny virus. Almost overnight, business responded. Workers worked from home. Zooming (and zoom fatigue) entered the vocabulary, and it worked.
The wave of one revolution crashes into the other. Patents for technology supporting remote and hybrid work more than doubled in 2020.
The work from home genie is out of the bottle. Employees don’t want it put back.
Truth #3. We are in this for the long haul.
There is no return to office date. You can’t schedule 20th April 2022, pencil it in, and think, “ok, everything will go back to the way it was then.”
When we all retire, we will think of our professional careers in two parts — before-COVID, and after-COVID. That bit in the middle, between pre and post, isn’t a day; it isn’t quick, it isn’t easy. It will be chaotic. And we should be thinking in terms of years, not days.
There isn’t a date when this will all “go back to normal.”
Truth #4. You don’t have to outrun the bear.
If you’re in a large organization, fretting about how #hybridwork will work, then you don’t have to outrun the bear. You do however have to outrun the competition. You don’t have to be the first to figure this out, but you do have to be quick in your competitive category.
If you sell commercial real estate, it makes sense that you would value offices and work out of them. But if you’re a tech play, and you compete against Google, or Twitter, or Snowflake for talent, you have to look at what they’re doing and be better.
The interesting one here is Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, who has decreed compulsory “back to the office.” This contrasts sharply to Citi Group’s CEO, Jane Fraser, who sees flexible work as an advantage over her rivals.
Let’s see who wins that war for scarce talent.
Truth #5. The winners will create a talent suck.
There will be winners and losers.
The winner — the competitor that outruns you — will create a talent black hole. Some people will want to work in an office, and that’s fine. But the workplace that can offer the most flexibility will have a bigger talent catchment pool.
Companies are placing their bets. “Remote-first,” “Work from Office,” or “Hybrid” The talent is visibly doing likewise. The great resignation, great reshuffle, or great reset, call it what you will — is happening.
Talent is voting with its feet, as people add flexibility, health, and wellness to a sense of purpose and belonging when they think of work.
Your choices, about the future of work, will decide how many of those feet choose to head your way.
Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience.