Imagineering the future of work

Mar 05 2012 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Take a look around you and odds are the way you and your team work today is very different than how you imagined it just a couple of years ago. Virtual/matrixed teams, easy - even free - video conferencing, webinars and outsourcing have all taken forms that no one really imagined. This makes it really hard to project how you 'll work, and what you'll be working on, in the near future, never mind five or 10 years down the road.

Paradoxically, that uncertainty means we have to make smarter decisions, but based on what? Since we can't predict the future, and looking in the rear view mirror only tells you what has happened in the past, we are left to (for lack of a better term) take what my father would call a WAG (Wild ___ Guess).

John Blackwell has another term for it—imagineering. While I can't believe Disney hasn't copyrighted the term (it's what they call the people who design their rides and attractions) it really means the way most businesses assess their future needs. It's a combination of Engineering (stats, figures, the best research available) and Imagination (either trying to see the future themselves or relying on "futurists" like the ones they come across on this site).

I've interviewed John many times for the Cranky Middle Manager Show and will be talking to him again in another week or so and he's one of my favorite researchers on work trends and what's really going on out there. To his credit, he doesn't claim to know where we're headed, but his most recent research tells us where we are at the moment.

In his latest research paper, "Meeting the Future of Work", he has very little faith in our ability to guess how we'll be working. "The fundamental problem when trying to predict the future (of work or anything for that matter) is that no matter how much we try to imagine what lies ahead, all of our knowledge is in the past yet we're trying to make decisions about an unknown future – referred to as the discipline of epistemology."

"To dispel any doubt, just ask the question 'What jobs will exist in two years, three years or five years?' Five years ago, jobs such as app developers, social media strategists, and green funeral directors did not

exist. Given it is clearly impossible to predict what jobs will exist, then it's a Herculean task to predict major investments such as office space or design, emerging technologies, or innovative talent."

Okayyyyyy, so what are we supposed to do then? Well, at least we can help separate what we think is going on currently to what is really going on. In clarity lies understanding. Of course in wine lies truth but HR put the kibosh on that strategy.

Some of the myths he uncovers that impact how we work today, and have implications for the future include:

New workers are always whining about the need for more technology. Actually, according to the study, younger workers are 20% more likely to accept and use whatever your company has at its disposal than older workers. They're more comfortable with technology and have a greater understanding of its possibilities.

These kids today are all stuck on Corporate Social Responsibility and touchy feely stuff. In fact, younger workers are less obsessed with things like going green and how the company is perceived than older workers. They do, however, understand that social media plays a part in perception and are more sensitive to how the outside world perceives your organization. Basically, they aren't obsessed with CSR unless it negatively impacts them…then you'll hear from them.

The gender gap in new hires coming into the workplace still hasn't quite evened out in the management ranks. The numbers here are surprising. Over half of new hires in the corporate world are women, with young women far outstripping young men in grades and academic achievement coming out of universities today. Still, only 24% of managers are female. A simple look at demographics suggests that's likely to change (or someone you love will demand to know why).

While it's impossible to know exactly how this will change the way we work, the fact that it WILL change is undeniable.

You can learn more about John Blackwell's research by attending one of two upcoming webinars:

March 6, Creating Agile Organisations (you can view the recording if you miss it), and March 20th he'll be leading Debating the Future of Work.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.