Updated: May 17
Reflections on Future Work Scenarios 21 - Part 1 Grantley Morgan
Future Work Scenarios 21 (FWS 21) brought together some of the world’s leading minds to explore our changing relationship with the workplace and the impact of technology on our work. Set within an unprecedented context of sweeping digital transformation, global health crises, social justice movements and environmental challenges, it’s easy to assume our futures aren’t fully within our control. Yet featured companies acted boldly to merge purpose, wellbeing, DE&I, digital transformation and learning initiatives in response to forced adjustments to their workplaces and often business models, simultaneously. Many also did this whilst providing essential or key services. What can we learn from them?
We can and should create frameworks to make the disruptive impacts of AI and automation visible, and present workers with choice and ownership over the shape of their future careers.
Learning continuously at the pace of change can help us move and stay ahead of unstable technologies, which will continue to accelerate the rate of skills obsolescence.
Workplaces have simultaneously become more and less equitable due to the dislocation of work from place and time – we should retain positive changes whilst seeking to balance out negative consequences.
Our rediscovery of collective action has distributed ownership of workplace wellbeing at multiple levels, requiring leaders to set the tone and equip managers to shape a culture of dialogue and support.
Post-pandemic workplace design is likely to further reflect this new-found collective focus, as the office becomes a hub for connection, collaboration, and community building. Teams rather than individuals should be the focus of workspace allocation.
Above all, purpose-led companies continue to trailblaze new business and governance models that prove doing good does not come at the expense of growth, innovation, productivity or profit.
Our work futures are a set of connected choices and decisions shaped by the narratives we create and are owned at all levels. The future will be what we make it.
In Part 1 of the Reflections series, we will recap the first 3 themes: AI and Digital Transformation, Learning and DE&I.
When thinking about the future, it’s too easy to assume that someone else will take care of it for us. Whether as individuals, companies, or governments, taking ownership of the future is the first step towards meeting the systemic challenges we face. Over 21-22 April, FWS 21 brought together a panel of the world's leading minds to consider our changing relationship with the workplace and the broader impact of technology on work. Distributed ownership was a common theme across topics ranging from digital transformation and learning, through equity and wellbeing, to workplace design and purpose.
Rather than absolving companies of the need to act, distributed ownership asks them to create and reinforce the strategies, frameworks and support mechanisms through which everyone can make their preferred future a reality. Whether that's wellness at work, skills for secure work or purposeful participation in ecosystems capable of solving our greatest challenges. Here are my takeaways on how ownership of 6 future work themes can be distributed at every level.
1. AI and Digital Transformation is an opportunity for all of us
“The workplace is not a room you step in, but one you build.” Ambros Scope applies the same perspective to AI. Frequently asked ‘what skills will be most valuable in the future?’, Ambros reminds us that there is no one single answer – rather millions of situational combinations relative to the individual, company, country etc. Our work futures will be shaped by choices we make at all levels of organisations and society, and the narratives we build will go a long way to informing those choices. Taylor Stockton reminded me of John Hagel’s opportunity narratives, that we are all now serial learners searching for opportunities in a world where technology isn’t stabilising and the skills that have powered our careers to date can grow obsolete at an alarmingly fast rate.
Workers increasingly expect employers to help them navigate the impact of AI and Automation and empower their reskilling choices within agile, fluid constructs of work. My own take, informed by Shipley and McGowan’s The Adaptation Advantage, is that we aren’t preparing workers for one job transition but multiple adaptive cycles over the next decade. Emerging skills intelligence and talent marketplaces are an important step on that journey, but often lack the strategic foresight needed to integrate business strategy setting and individual learning choices. I fully expect the skills intelligence surge will be won by platforms that can help guide choices not once but repeatedly over time, enabling individual ownership of skills attainment and career shaping.
Leaders orchestrate this framework and set the tech narrative. JonRobert Tartaglione reminded us to focus on what AI should do, not what it could do. Integrating AI where we know it excels and using AI to augment human ingenuity where it doesn’t, saves us from a losing formula – the tech evolution being too fast to provide many with a sustainable competitive advantage. JonRobert provided several examples where AI can augment leadership behaviours as we navigate uncertainty, including:
Improve message framing
Better catalyse motivation through co-creation of vision, purpose and goals
Exhibit greater empathy through body language and mirroring coaching
Elicit greater trust through privilege sharing and collaborative engagement practices
Inspire more through better storytelling.
This led me to reflect on the re-emergence of Microsoft under Satya Nadella’s leadership. There is no doubt that Microsoft has doubled down on cloud and collaboration technologies since Satya became CEO. However, just as importantly, Satya has brought a deep empathy to all levels of Microsoft and continued focus on relationship building across an ecosystem of acquisitions and partners. The benchmark for business leadership has perhaps never been higher.
2. A new learning mindset
In our rapidly changing world of work, continuous learning is both a framework for navigating multiple futures and a vehicle for innovation. Changes to how we learn, who we learn with, and the role of learners as peer-educators all accelerate learning within broader ecosystems. Wagner Denuzzo described how strategic visioning, capability development and redeployment programs combine at Prudential to create a powerful opportunity narrative around AI-fuelled growth. You can dive deeper on Prudential’s story via this HBR podcast.
So how can we foster a culture of intentional, agile learning? Shelley Osborne, author of The Upskilling Imperative, outlined 5 steps:
i. Develop and foster agile learners: Empower employees to adopt constant learning in the same way our apps and smartphones receive constant updates.
ii. Turn feedback into fuel: Create multi-directional feedback loops, where necessary teaching people how to give and receive feedback.
iii. Think like marketers: Use the same techniques to incentivise learning that we are accustomed to as customers.
iv. Learn in the flow of work: Make learning as big or small as it needs to be for timely, accessible consumption in moments of need.
v. Signal the value of learning: Set learning as an expectation, reinforced by leadership.
Taylor Stockton of FutureFit AI and Rob Lauber of XLO Global referenced the continued expansion of learning delivery models as an enabler of an always-on, continuous learning culture. Audio, AR/VR and text-based learning were referenced as emerging channels. However, for me the real potential exists in peer-to-peer learning – capable of restoring connections lost to remote work, deepening purpose within teams and work groups, and embedding learning within ecosystems. Clubhouse, Medley and Quantic all signal the future of learning in distinct ways.
3. Our journey to workplace equity is progressive yet incomplete
Turning our focus to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace, Karen Brown encouraged the group to build back better by incorporating employee stories into DE&I programmes and amplifying role models. Karen shared 4 practical actions to provide understanding and improve morale:
i. Align action with business goals and executive priorities: How can minority executives start new LOBs which take corporations into new, unmet marketplaces? E.g., banking services directed at the Hispanic community in the US, opening up markets the company was previously inactive within.
ii. Build partnerships with key stakeholders: Close gaps between executives, middle managers, and workplace activists to minimise and mitigate negative responses to diversity initiatives among majority workforce groups.
iii. Cultivate a culture of role models: Identify exec role models who want to move from admiring DE&I issues to taking meaningful actions.
iv. Blend data with stories to create a common language: Data can help us understand gaps, opportunities and metrics that matter to stakeholders; stories enable us to move beyond the math by sharing lived experiences that challenge the status quo.
Katie Juran reinforced the power of DE&I storytellers in the workplace, describing how the ‘Adobe for All’ initiative fostered a greater sense of inclusion and empathy through a series of Ted Talk-style stories of lived experiences, spanning multiple levels of Adobe and topics including eating disorders, racial inequality, and entrepreneurship. I’ve experienced Accenture’s move beyond allyship and taught programs towards storytelling at all levels and join Karen and Katie in advocating for it.
During multiple sessions and panels throughout FWS 21, reflections on the dislocation of work from place and time indicated an accelerated path to workplace equity for many, giving rise to many new habits we shouldn’t lose in the process of returning to ‘normal’. Both Judith Williams and John Burgess referenced the benefits of WFH to disabled and neurodiverse workers, through greater control over working environments. Others reflected on the fact that digital advancements in communication, collaboration and learning are shared more equitably across organisations. Reasons for optimism abound.
Of course, the pandemic has also brought visibly uneven impacts upon primary caregivers, and with that women. Hence, the importance of listening, understanding, and caring has never more important to wellbeing, workplace design and culture. In closing, Judith encouraged us to “make inclusive behaviours default behaviours” – a statement worth revisiting as we explore each of the remaining themes in Part 2 of the Reflections series.
Thanks for reading and please do join the discussion on LinkedIn.