Back to the future

Nov 02 2010 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

As someone whose job it is to find and share the latest trends in management, I confess to suffering some burnout. In fact, I'm just plain pooped out. With all the books, blogs and bombast coming at me this time of year it can be a bit overwhelming.

Last month, I mentioned that the top trend in management books was "Living Your Values". There's another topic that runs a close second, and that's "Management of the Future" and this is the one that initially had me frantically taking notes, and now has me sleeping a lot better.

Maybe it's the fact that this year ends in a "10" but a lot of people are taking this opportunity to project ten years into the future. Books like Jeanne Meister's "The 2020 Workplace" and "Manager Redefined" by Davenport and Harding point out the trends that will (and I paraphrase) "radically change the way we think about management forever".

Since we haven't exactly gotten our arms comfortably around how we should be managing now, the idea that it is somehow changing again is no great comfort.

But here is the comforting thought. The management of the future is NOT going to change the world as we know it - and here's why. The challenges look different than ever before, but the underlying issues are as old as history. Here are some of the trends coming at us - and where we've seen them before.

More people working from home rather than commuting to the office. Hmmmm, that is a problem – if you run an office. For all but the last 80 years of human existence people worked from home…it's what work was. If you were a blacksmith you lived over the shop. If you were a farmer you worked out in the field and slept in your own bed.

So your worklife balance was achieved by analyzing what needed to be done. During planting season there were a lot of long days… when winter came you had plenty of time to rest. And management was simple…if you didn't work unsupervised you and your family went hungry. People did what they had to do. The biggest problem I see here is explaining to your parents that you DO have a job, thank you very much, even if you don't have leave home to get there.

Dispersed workforces will make it difficult to drive strategy. Really? The Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, Spanish and the British all had huge empires that spanned multiple countries and cultures at a time when there was no WebEx or Blackberry to serve as umbilical cord. They also lasted far longer than any company listed on the public exchanges today.

What they had was a clear reporting structure, an obvious mission and a set of consequences for failure (most, I admit, would be a violation of HR laws today but that's more a reason to examine the HR policies than to stress about remote workers). How is your company doing on that scorecard?

The rise of temp workers means the end of employee engagement. In the next two years, 25%or so of the US workforce will be part-time, temporary or contract workers. This sound ominous. Yet for most of human history, the great armies were not made up of full time staff. They were made up of temporary workers and mercenaries (you and I would call them independent contractors) who were loyal as long as the money came and the mission was successful.

When things got weird, they got tired of the Duke's nonsense or the money stopped, they would simply find work elsewhere. A smart leader kept his people happy and gainfully employed. When needed, he could rely on them to work for him and not the opposition. So what's changed, exactly?

The location of the educated workforce is changing. Let me ask you a question. How many world-class businesses are based in the Olduvai Gorge in Africa? You know why? People moved to where the food and jobs were. We are a seeking, restless, mobile species. Individuals either found a way to succeed where they were or they moved on. The fact that you can move on without actually getting away from your keyboard is a complicating factor, not a fundamental change.

Social networks will radically change the way we bond and form teams. Really? You work with people you know and trust. Whether it's the old village grange or your intranet you need to get to know, trust and have confidence in the people you interact with. Tools like Yammer, Facebook, Twitter and the rest are simply ways of getting to know the people you work with or for.

Use them well and you'll form lasting, effective bonds. An added bonus- in electronic social networks you have a pretty large measure of control over who you communicate with. If you have neighbors and kinfolk like mine, real interaction is a tad overrated anyway.

All the cosmetic changes to the way we work can be overwhelming, but if managers focus on knowing the people they work with, giving them work that matters, treating them well and making the relationship mutally beneficial we'll find a way to cope. Well, at least as well as we have for the last 4,000 years or so.

Maybe that's not such a comfort after all.

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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.