The Future of Work: Four Trends to Watch


Get Shift Done: Management

Image by Bethany Legg

We live in fast-paced times. Jobs are being created and destroyed at an unprecedented rate. In order to understand these changes, there’s a whole new area of research and focus emerging, broadly known as the ‘Future of Work.’ It’s an essential topic to know about if you care about your relevance as a manager in 2017 and beyond.

Discussions around the future of work currently focus around four main areas:

  1. The demise of hierarchies
  2. Re-thinking where work takes place
  3. Workplace chat
  4. Mission-based work

Whether you’re a mid-level manager or in the C-Suite, these trends cut across existing structures and ways of doing things and will affect you.

1. The Demise of Hierarchies

A big buzz term over the last 18 months has been ‘holacracy,’ which is an organizational approach in which “authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a group of self-organizing teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy.” This approach has been adopted by Zappos, Precision Nutrition, and, until earlier this year, Medium.

“After predictions of its demise, the traditional office structure is crumbling. Only 38 percent of companies in a recent survey say they are “functionally organized.” For large companies with more than 50,000 employees, that number shrinks to 24 percent.” (Bloomberg)

Self-organizing is taken to its extreme, or logical conclusion, at Valve, the company best known for the Half-Life game series and ‘Steam’ store. Their handbook [PDF] for new employees explains that they hire people rather than roles, meaning people are “hired to constantly be looking around for the most valuable work [they] could be doing.” Hiring, firing, and new projects are all managed via a completely flat structure.

Metaphors are important in organizational structure, and many futurists use the idea of the network to explain their ideas. Esko Kilpi, for example, states that “the architecture of work is not the structure of a firm, but the structure of the network. The organization is not a given hierarchy, but an ongoing process of responsive organizing.” In a post examining why employees become disengaged, Stowe Boyd coins the term ‘circumvising’ to explain the shift from ‘supervising’ to a form of work where, “instead of a manager you report up to and who directs the work of those below, the social context…will constrain and support the worker from all around.”

2. Re-Thinking Where Work Takes Place

Over the past decade, open-plan offices have taken root in many forward thinking companies. While both the popular press and futurists embrace the concept, a survey carried out by The Center For The Built Environment, Berkley, discovered that around half of people in open office environments consider workplace acoustics negatively impact on their ability to get work done. Other factors, such as lighting, seat comfort, and air quality were also cited.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” — Winston Churchill

The assumption is that open-plan offices enable more serendipitous connections to take place. However, this is often at the expense of ‘deep work’ as noted by Cal Newport in his recent book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. It often leads to more introverted employees using headphones in order to concentrate and feel more comfortable.

Working at home addresses some of these problems and, indeed, many organizations have a ‘remote working’ policy, meaning some (or all) of their employees are based from wherever they happen to live.

Working from home requires a certain type of worker, with particular expectations around flexibility, availability, and digital skills. Implementing this kind of policy without training and explicit expectation-setting (for both office-based and remote workers) can lead to unnecessary misunderstanding and anxiety.

3. Workplace chat

Workplace chat is seen as the ‘new normal’:

“So this is one megatrend: the widespread adoption of tools based on the chat design metaphor across the board in personal and work life. Chat is the new normal for communication, displacing both email and social collaboration tools.” (Stowe Boyd)

The hot new technology that everyone is talking about is Slack, a workplace chat tool with APIs – it integrates with just about everything. Slack is already a billion-dollar business for at least two reasons. The first is a desire for employees in most organizations to get out of their inbox. Another is that it supports the move away from a static org chart and is more responsive to the true power dynamic within organizations.

There has been much discussion about the relative merits of workplace chat apps. Most futurists believe that adopting such tools is not a cure-all for current workplace problems, but instead a concrete way to demonstrate how teams can interact in a different way.

For example, the theory of ‘social crowding’ suggests that workplace chat is at its most effective when used by small teams of less than ten. This ensures that those who are doing the chatting are also the ones doing the work together.

4. Mission-based work

Often cited as a something particularly important to ‘Millennials’ (those who reached young adulthood around the year 2000), futurists see mission-based work as key to ensuring employee fulfillment at any age. Loyalty these days is often to the job rather than organization — so long as the job matches the ‘mission’ that the employee feels is central to their existence.

“Consider professional basketball, hockey, and soccer teams. They don’t just measure goals; they also track assists. Organizations should do the same, using tools such as network analysis, peer recognition programs, and value-added performance metrics.” (HBR)

Graduates are queuing up to work for brands that match their outlook on life, often foregoing higher salaries elsewhere to do so. Recent research from Gallup includes a survey of almost 50,000 business units showing that employee engagement is a key indicator of business success.

What this means for you

Ultimately, these trends are likely to affect various sectors, geographic areas, and age groups in different ways. Some people will notice very little practical difference in the few years before they retire. Others, perhaps those just entering the workforce in tech-dependent fields, will experience these changes more readily.

The key however, is to acquire or develop the appropriate knowledge, skills, and behaviors required to flourish in changing environments:

  • Ensure you’re up-to-speed on the latest technologies, if necessary testing them out with friends and co-workers during breaks.
  • Read up on different ways of organizing your teams, including where they’re based.
  • Finally, write a mission statement for your team — what do you exist to achieve?

These four trends are interlinked and new issues crop up all the time. Ensure you keep up to date by following some of the individuals mentioned in this post — and, of course, NewCo Shift!

The GSD Management channel is brought to you by Work Market, the leading labor automation platform. Work Market empowers businesses and skilled professionals to unlock new levels of productivity, engagement and growth across the entire lifecycle of work. Learn more at

Leave a Reply