Status Fluid: the Future of Work and Working (… and Us)

Jul 15 2020

My seventeen year old daughter recently started her first real job. Selling fancy shaved ice treats from a food truck on 100 degree days in Austin is teaching her a lot, and raises some interesting questions for me.

While wearing masks and gloves, she and her friends working in a 5’x10’ trailer have come to appreciate the job security that comes from being acknowledged as a “good problem solver” (one of her colleagues was let go early on for not being so). She is learning about customer service and pleased with how generously buyers tip when presented with the payment screen that makes it seem rude not to… as well as how right it feels to tell an elderly man walking by that he can enjoy the treat even though he didn’t bring quite enough cash that hot day; no need to ask a supervisor what to do.

When she does communicate with her boss, it’s via text and she chooses her work schedule a week in advance via first-come group chat. He is only at the location to open and close, so my daughter works under the guise of a security camera that while pointed at the customer, surprised her when it suddenly admonished “no tik-tocking” over the speaker during a slow moment last week (yes, she was mortally embarrassed, but not at being video’d or called out, but because he could see the dance!). She can also tell you a lot about who raises their children to be respectful and who doesn’t… but that’s a separate post.

While I complain about the high prices, each treat arrives in a compostable bowl, served with a bamboo spoon and is made with all natural ingredients, including the ginger mist and organic coconut shavings that top them (no lie). Nothing is blue or stains your mouth bright red. And at $10/hour plus all those shared tips, my girl makes double minimum wage, and then some. She is the beneficiary of an increasingly bipolar economy.

Aside from motherly pride, I observe this as a futurist and wonder how this early experience will shape her perspectives on Work. How will she feel being surveilled in any job from now on – from cameras, key cards and implants, to monitoring her keyboard strokes, heart rate or pupil dilation? How will technology shape and incentivize behaviors in whatever field she ultimately chooses? Will her expectations for engagement, empowerment and reassurance in what she is providing to her customers live up? Will she appreciate the advantages of a playing field sloped in her favor and try to level it for others? As education gets a big revamp, could this be her last summer off? And how will even this business look 5 or 10 years from now…can a robot make a sno-cone?

While there are a growing library of books on this topic, I often see leaders and policy makers jumble three distinct “Future of Work” (FOW) concepts together. By unpacking them a bit here, we can better see the opportunities calling to us as a society, as organizations and as individuals.

The Disruption Mandate

For many years, future-forward advisors and thinkers have been cajoling leaders to adopt more adaptive, sustainable, inclusive and humane approaches to work in anticipation of the breakdowns we could see emerging. Hospitality, automotive and food service workers have been striking in fear of approaching automation, tech developers and designers have been walking out in protest of ethics breaches, and globally, people wouldn’t care if 77% of brands disappeared. For decades Gallup has alerted us that as many as 70% of our workforce isn't engaged and a BCG study released this January forecast that 1 of 3 public companies would cease to exist in their current form [an important point] within 5 years; a rate that is six times higher than 40 years ago. Not only that but the gap between the most profitable quartile and the least continued to grow, nearly doubling over the past 30 years. Though a rising stock market often muted the mandate for innovation and discouraged change, the pandemic and social justice awakenings have now put these needs front and center.

Like it or not, we now are all wide awake and actively thinking through what this collective insight means for where we go next. But as we focus more specifically on what work will look like, rather than discussing the merits of plastic shields and home office allocations, the place to start is by clarifying what we actually mean by “work”?


Defining “Work”

Not sure what Merriam Webster came up with, but as I see it, culturally we’ve come to define work as “energy expended for the benefit of and compensation by others”. Unfortunately, that is a very limiting definition which blinds us to a much broader range of questions, issues and opportunities. There are many things we do that contribute indirect value as well. I, for example, have many roles on the planet and even as the sole breadwinner I use my time and energy to express and produce value in at least seven or eight ways including: as a mother of three, business owner, advisor/mentor, writer/content contributor, volunteer/community gatherer, learner, organizational strategist/futurist and keynote speaker. Only a few of these activities receive direct, monetary compensation, but I’d offer they all contribute to societal wealth.

So what do we call the activity that creates value but isn’t paid for in the classic sense? I see it all as Work and propose we widen the definition to something like:

“Future of Work = incentivizing our unique expression of value, self-worth and societal contribution.”

Yet when we talk about the Future of Work (FOW), are we really talking about how I get things done across any of these outlets? Meaning, is it full-time or not? Which technologies do I use? Am I creating IP, and if so, who owns it? Where am I doing this work? With whom? Do I feel safe? Do I feel good about what I create/produce? How much autonomy do I have? Etc. I label this “Working” and define it as:

“Future of Working = improving our ability to effectively sense and respond in order to create sustainable value”.

These definitions can use refinement, but hopefully they begin to show the benefits of pulling these two concepts apart.  

The Future of Work vs The Future of Working

Drawing this distinction between the two definitions allows us to look more closely at what the future needs and expects from each. As we imagine a world heavily influenced by AI algorithms, robotics, and on-demand 3D printing—and enhanced with ubiquitous applications of spatial computing (via Augmented, Virtual and Mixed realities)—how will our experiences and roles shift?

Von Ton-Quinlivan, former Chancellor of the California Community Colleges and Future of Work resident for the Institute For the Future gave a compelling commencement address in 2018 which she wrapped up by asking these graduating students to consider what if:

  • Everything rote and repetitive in your profession is automated and done by the machines?
  • Your colleagues can be humans, robots, or avatars?
  • Technology platforms and their algorithms become the new middle management to assign and match work?
  • You self identify through a personalized learning record not tied to any education institution or employers?
  • Workers increasingly go independent?
  • Environmental stressors become so pronounced that carbon emission becomes strictly enforced?
  • Because of distrust of the pervasive algorithms, organizations emphasize transparency, meaning everything you type/text/walk to becomes visible to the rest of the organization?
  • And to this I added:
  • Emerging peer to peer networks radically shift the way we identify and create value and alter current ways of allocating and stewarding resources? (i.e, what if the corporation as we know it now ceases to become the primary coordinating entity for our work?)

And to this I’ll add:

  • Emerging peer to peer networks radically shift the way we identify and create value and alter current ways of allocating and stewarding resources? (i.e, what if the corporation as we know it now ceases to become the primary coordinating entity for our work?)

Sharing a similar worldview, Ginni Rometty, former CEO and now Chair of IBM (and champion of IBM Watson) predicts that 100% of us will need to be reskilled. I agree but also worry, because Harvard’s Future of Work team estimates that potentially more than 30% of the population will not be able to reskill in time… a seriously daunting thought that deserves much more of our attention. 

We are also beginning to see that those who are gamely trying to manage their current jobs while they build skills for the next are heaping huge pressure on themselves and their families.

In a society already filled with so much anxiety, what kinds of structures and approaches will support us through this time of radical change and ensure individuals, organizations, industries and society itself stays resilient, secure and healthy? We have to zoom out and take a much broader look at what is happening so that we can then zoom in more deeply and focus our attention more effectively. There many more questions this all raises and they fall into two different buckets:  

The Future of Work raises questions such as:

  • do we believe advancing technology will create more or less meaningful, paid work?
  • how we make societally beneficial work more economically visible/societally valuable?
  • how do our actions/choices contribute to sustainability and community wellbeing?
  • what is fair compensation? and what benefits are offered to whom and how are these equitably extended?
  • how are we equitably distributing technology enhanced gains in productivity?
  • what kinds of societal/fiscal scaffolding is necessary to ensure all have access to a safe, quality of life as our efforts are augmented or replaced by machines? Is a Universal Basic Income (or providing free transportation, housing, healthcare, childcare and education) viable?
  • how do we architect organizations to attract and recognize work contributions across a range of employment/learning statuses (is that a word?)
  • how will labor regulation, job classification and global tax laws need to change/catch-up?
  • how are we harnessing and incentivizing the full creative expression and sense of self for all?
  • what are the implications of positive degrowth?
  • who will fund and supply re/upskilling?
  • and what is the social contract between business and a shifting society; what is our commitment to the Commons; how do we defend our social license to operate?
  • what is the future – and value—of the corporation? What kinds of legal structures or new regulations will incentivize beneficial investment?
  • how does the relationship with education systems (K – college) need to be redesigned? 

Alternatively, The Future of Working asks us to consider questions like:

  • what are the jobs of the future?
  • which skills + capacities will be needed?
  • what is our individual and collective ability to adapt?
  • what will the role of “mid-management” be as the nature of work changes?
  • which new tools, methods and practices need to be designed/incentivized?
  • what is our commitment to vastly improving diversity + inclusion + gender/ethnic/and racial justice?
  • how do we build cultures of resilience and respectful dissent?
  • how can we improve work/life integration, especially for parents and caregivers?
  • how do we balance transparency and safety with privacy; what is our approach to surveillance?
  • how do we feel about democratic workplaces and worker empowerment?
  • how can we structure our teams and talent to better sense change and respond quickly?
  • what is our comfort/tolerance for geographically remote work and talent autonomy?
  • what is our comfort with asynchronous collaborative work?
  • how do we ensure compensation/time for learning?
  • will the work week or work day be shortened? do “hours” worked even matter anymore?
  • what are the most relevant talent and productivity metrics?
  • and crucially, how do we ensure we are building ethically responsible solutions/code/business models?

There is, of course, another really important factor to address: how we better prepare ourselves and our teams for a world of so much change.

The Future of the “Worker” and Society

In a world of flux, where the speed of technology adoption is hampered by the lack of talent with the right skills, corporations are in a sprint to re-skill and up-skill not only their own workforces, but also help others outside of their organizations to acquire the digital understanding necessary for an exponential economy. Microsoft recently pledged to help 25 million people worldwide, and in designing their workforce for the future initiative, Walmart introduced 14,000 reskilling courses last year via a LinkedIn-style online-learning platform for its 1.4 million U.S. employees. Similarly, PwC has made a $3B commitment to upskilling not only their own talent force, but government workers, teachers and those who hold our society together.

However, not everyone will be able to re-skill or up-skill in time, so what kinds of societal scaffolding will we need: Is a UBI mandatory? Will we revamp measures such as GDP to make unpaid work more visible (and thus valuable)? And how will we conceive new, more inclusive ways to redistribute productivity such as compensating folks for the data they are creating or the attention they are giving? Will the cost of food, housing and energy even drop or be provided in a regenerative way that makes receiving a certain size paycheck less relevant overall?

Taking it a step further, even if our material needs can be met outside of paid employment, we still want to feel productive; we yearn to feel useful. So how will we better incentivize citizens to express their unique curiosities and desire to create value, whether that is tinkering in their garage, creating a free community event, cleaning up our environment, or writing short stories… all things that improve our collective experience and as stated earlier, create societal wealth.

As importantly, we also have an obligation to better prepare children for a fast moving, very different future - so where should the emphasis be? China is building AI education into grade school curriculum and around the world, we are becoming more sensitive to the role childhood trauma plays in blunting our ability to flourish. In the years ahead, emerging neuroscience will help us see the link between creativity, collaboration and curiosity and the first four years of a child’s development.

As we’re just beginning to see, simultaneous shifts in the value of work, the ways we are working, and our needs and expectations as workers are emerging, so how can enterprises better prepare?

Shaping the Enterprise of the Future

The pandemic and social justice movement have made clear that change can happen much faster and much more radically than we can imagine. So when futurists say things like “Retail will change more in the next 5 years than it has in the last 50” or “Society will change more in the next 20 than in the last 300 years” or “50% of all species will be facing extinction by the end of the century if don’t address climate change” or even that e-gaming will become an Olympic sport, we hopefully now can better appreciate these aren’t hyperbolic statements.

We should also be inspired that advances in precision medicine and early diagnosis mean we can cure not only cancer but as stated in Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s book, The Future Is Faster Than You Think, may also prevent 16,000 other fatal illnesses. Falling prices for renewable energy and stunning advances in bioengineering will make healthy foods and resilient, self-sustaining communities much more accessible and affordable. And providing internet access to another 2 billion people—including refugees—will continue to unlock extraordinary potential and talent around the world. Fair to say: things will look mighty different ahead.

Many, including Bill Gates tried to warn us about the pandemic and begged us to prepare, but most of us couldn't imagine it was possible. That said, the organizations and institutions that had invested time, resources and curiosity in piloting things like remote work, cloud data management, strong cultures of support and communication, and new relationships with ecosystem partners, were able to pivot so much more successfully. School districts that had the foresight and funding to begin one-to-one tablet-enabled learning and frequent dialogue with families served students so much better. Communities that had reliable broadband access and caring neighborhood support are recovering faster. And those municipalities that had a framework in place for privacy and data management were able to build digital solutions such as contact tracing apps that garnered quick trust… versus those that didn’t.

We can continue to learn from those on the horizon: Microsoft has been experimenting with a shorter work week and is seeing a 40% lift in productivity. Fully remote organizations such as technology company Automattic (who run WordPress and Tumblr) are sharing their lessons learned and offering guidance on the Five Levels of Autonomy for Distributed Work. A shift to ROWE (a result-only-work-environment) management is growing and offers encouragement as experiments with open, fully distributed organizations start to grow. 

And our current wrestle with how to support displaced workers foreshadows a much more permanent shift, as we now begin to think about how to more equitably allocate “algorithmically enhanced productivity” (eg, efficiency gains from things like autonomous trucking and robotic burger chefs). In response to ongoing worker displacement, the mayors of ten US cities have joined a coalition called the Mayors For A Guaranteed Income and have begun their own UBI pilots. We are opening our minds to new conversations and fresh ideas about the work we do, how we do it and the ways we better support society through this transition.

The pandemic acted as a very loud starting gun that forced us all to start the race, but rather than get to “the other side”, we are sliding into an accelerating period of change in which old systems are breaking down and new ones have yet to be created. And the demands will continue to increase, because shaping the healthy enterprise (and thriving society) of the future will require our attention in all these areas:

  • Actively addressing climate stability
  • Accelerating talent development and up-skilling
  • Addressing systemic biases: gender, race, ethnicity, age
  • Investing in digital transformation and new technologies
  • Transforming business model and revenue delivery
  • Cultivating a more resilient, agile and respectful culture
  • Fortifying the overall wellbeing of self, teams and society

From Binary Rules to Status Fluidity

In this limbic gap between now and next, we won't have a clear map or linear timeline to follow, so we need to become more confident navigating in ambiguity; to being in multiple forms and states of evolution at the same time that depend more on context or need than on a reliable playbook. This means becoming much more comfortable shifting from a binary choice between this OR that into a status fluid world in which we will have to label and account for things with more dimension, nuance and possibility in order to successfully adapt as conditions warrant. There is no yes or no answer to things like whether to adopt AI or remote work, or even whether to rely on permanent teams or dynamic ones; the question instead is how?

Will we work from home and onsite? YES. Will we classify talent in many more ways and see the benefits of partial contributors across broad ecosystems? YES. Should we invest in being both well-rounded people and in mastering our work? YES. Will we need to embrace being both student and contributor simultaneously? YES. Will we be a part of huge organizations and self-organize our work/teams? YES. Will we eagerly adopt new technologies yet also be comfortable drawing clear lines for privacy and fairness? YES. Do we work for a paycheck and spend time making the world run better (or fill it with art?) YES. Will we need everyone in the organization to learn to lead in order to sense and respond more effectively? YES.

The list goes on, but the point is that hard and fast rules will be replaced with clear beliefs, strong ethics, much more supportive structures, and permeable boundaries that help us more successfully define and express how we work, why we work, with whom we work… and what we, as a society, value and champion broadly as “work” overall. Including, we hope, being able to buy a refreshing summer sno-cone.