The Future of Work

9781118660638_cover.inddFor a short period of time I employed a millennial. Frustrated the hell out of me! But, I learned something very valuable.

At one point I had asked her to sit in on a seminar at a conference and take notes. I was at the same conference but was sitting in on another seminar and could not be in two places at once. However, about half way through my seminar, I slipped out the back of the room to answer the call of nature. I walked past the session she was in and became infuriated.

Instead of listening and taking notes, she was merrily texting away to friends, family, whoever. At the end of the session she saw me in the back and came over with her notebook in hand. To my surprise, she not only had taken thorough notes, but was able to provide a good verbal summary of the session. Maybe these millennials are on to something here.

One of the most foolish things that people do is to try to predict the future. However, that doesn’t prevent the vast majority of us from doing so. I’m sure it’s a survival instinct. We think that if we know what’s coming we can prepare for it. If we are prepared for it, we have a better chance of surviving or perhaps even capitalizing on the future. That’s the premise of every “prepper” out there today.

While our accurate predictions about on par with the Magic-8 ball, there are trends that are definitely happening in the workplace that give us some indicators of possibilities of the future.

In The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work, author Scott Berkun chronicles the time he spent as participant journalist at one of the most different workplaces in business today. It’s different, but is it progressive? Does it really work? Is it the future of work? Too early to tell, but what seems certain is that it works for WordPress right now – in their culture and in their context.

WordPress powers 20% of the websites in the world along with the top 100 blogs (and countless others including this one). It was built and is run by millennials and their model challenges all of the conventional wisdom about how companies, corporations and offices presently work.

By most accounts, I’m an unconventional worker sort of guy. I teach part online and part in classrooms, I’m comfortable with webinars, both doing and participating, and when I’m not in front of an audience, I prefer my home office, Starbucks or Barnes & Noble, to my campus office or any other formalized place of business. I’m always looking for ways to do work differently and more effectively.

But, just as I didn’t understand my millennial employee, many Baby Boomers who grew up in the industrial age, and their kids, the Gen Xers (including me) have a hard time with the WordPress model. You won’t see large corporate offices and fields of cubicles at the company, and you won’t see employees punching time clocks and gathering at the water cooler to figure out new ways to look busy without actually doing anything. To many Boomers and Xers, time in the office means you’re getting work done. To the next generation, it’s about actually producing something, not marking time at the cubicle.

The very idea of working remotely is still trying to gain traction in the mainstream, particularly since Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ordered all of her remote workers back into the office building. However, a large majority of time in a traditional workspace (i.e. brick and mortar buildings) is spent working in solitary confinement, in front of a computer (Berkun 6). But Mayer didn’t get to be CEO because she’s clueless. She knows that in a for-profit operation or even a not-for-profit but where departments are measured by their productivity, collaboration is a key component. So, this begs the question, can progressive work styles be implemented and STILL have the benefit of collaboration?

Of course, not all jobs are suited for remote work. Anything where you have to get your hands dirty, police officer, fire fighter, plumber, and still much of the retail industry etc., someone still has to be present to do the job. So, what we’re talking about here are those jobs that you literally can do from anywhere, as long as you have a computer, wifi access, a power outlet and coffee.

Also, very important, is that the WordPress model may just not work for you or your office. Not because you do hands-on work, but that you have a different culture.

“A great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results,” Berkun.

When I was getting out of the Coast Guard in the early 90s, the buzz phrase back then was Total Quality Management, pioneered in Japan by an American, Edward Deming. I was told that to get a job I needed to know TQM otherwise I was hopelessly lost. So, I bought a book on it, read it and went ‘hmm, you need quality control,’ got it.

Later TQM would be renamed or replaced by everything from Six Sigma, to Agile, to matrixed organizations (Berkun 29). As soon as one company finds something successful that another company is doing, they try to just plug it in and assume it will work at their company as well, completely failing to understand the culture, or even the slight variations in the produce or service. 

If you’re looking for a good example, just go ask the folks at JCPenny’s how their recently ousted top executive, Ron Johnson, who was a superstar at Apple Computers, worked out for them. I guess just because you’re good at running a tech giant, doesn’t mean you have the skills to run a retail clothing giant.

Another example is the federal hiring process for Senior Executive positions. The feds hired a company awhile back to identify the qualities of top executives, then designed a hiring process around that model. This minimizes a critical element in the hiring process – knowing the product or service. Common sense sort of dictates that to be a successful leader, manager or salesperson, you should probably understand the product or service you’re producing.

 

So what have I learned already about the future of work?

  • The best results come from analyzing the culture, then figuring out the systems that will help it function (Berkun 29).

You have to Add Value or You Don’t Work

  • Something I’m constantly stressing to my students is that in their cover letters, resumes and interviews, is to show how they’ve added value in the past, and how they can add value in the future. WordPress’ hiring system takes it a step further. Rather than the usual “tell me about a time,” interview questions the company’s interview process is to give you the tools and asks you do develop a real project (Berkun 9). Do well and you get the job. Don’t do well and you don’t get an offer.

Tapping into Talent that is Otherwise beyond your Reach

  • One distinct advantage of working remotely is that its easier to hire talent (Berkun 6). Picking up the family and moving them to the latest corporate HQ is less and less desirable, particularly for the Gen Xers who are trying to keep the kids in the good school districts.

Transversely, Not Allowing People to Work Remotely May Cost you Top Talent

  • The Internet was filled with stories about how Mayer is making a bad call and could ultimately lose top talent due to her policy. Time will likely tell whether this is true.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t equate time in the office with productivity. I’m sure I frustrate the Boomers and some of my fellow Gen Xers who were raised with that philosophy, just as much as my millennial employee frustrated me. Nothing like tasting your own medicine.

Berkun, Scott. The Year without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2013. Print.

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