In late October 2020, Slack dropped a report titled Navigating the Disruption of Work. The report centers on five key assertions:
- The Age of the Office is ending
- Agility is the new scale
- The rise of openness
- The last gasps of analog work
- Culture comes first
As with any assertive set of future-looking statements, context often gets missed when trying to create a position. Slack fails to recognize two essential elements still in play.
First, we are too close to the event to forecast what will happen next adequately. There are too many variables in play. Any assertion is purely speculative at this time.
Second, navigation under uncertainty requires scenarios, not assertions. By employing scenario planning, organizations can better navigate the future, not by trusting in arguments by experts, but by identifying uncertainties, actively tracking how the future unfolds, and adjusting actions and investments based on pre-thinking and conceptual exercises informed by scenarios and their multiple futures.
For now, even scenario planners will find it difficult to pin down a set of scenarios that cover all of the bases in play. The COVID outbreak’s length, the potential for structural economic changes, the fallout of delayed financial burdens placed on workers, and the impact of political decisions remain too much in flux to do much but observe.
Those looking to navigate the future of work need to start mining the uncertainties they face, putting a name on them and monitoring how they unfold. Reports like the one from Slack offer a take on how some of these variables may play out, but they will prove only one value among many possibilities. Qualitative and quantitative studies ask workers what they think will happen or what they want to happen, offering equally infirm forecasts about what will happen. Desires will shape the future, but they will not define it.
The COVID pandemic has demonstrated that people can work from home for a time and that businesses can adapt to rapid shifts in underlying assumptions. It says very little about the sustainability of the rapid change, what it means for innovation, knowledge retention, career paths, or the adoption of new skills along with the retirement of other skills.
As we enter Halloween season, the future is a complex mix of features broiling in a cauldron. No witch formulated the brew, nor sits above it, guiding an outcome. The brew begins with no intention. Much that we know, however, has been placed into the torrid mixture. Our first responsibility? Watch it closely to see what arises from the unprecedented mix of ingredients. Let imaginations sparkle with anticipation. That will help people navigate the turbulence of the future as it unfolds. Perhaps we can influence it to fit visions. Likely it will overwhelm our best-conceived ideas, continuing the disruption, creating new structures upon the old and the newly conceived. It is too soon to tell. But it is not too soon to become disciplined watchers of the future, capable as we have already proven, of embracing change, and finding ways to adapt to whatever future arrives.
The Age of the Office is ending
The survey work clearly says people don’t want to return to the office. They don’t want to commute for hours on crowded highways. They want to stay close to their families. They want more input into where and when, and how they work.
It is far from clear, however, if non-transaction work can survive work from home. Can teams innovate on new products from home? Will as many ideas get generated in video conferences as they do physical centers designed with innovation in mind and filled with tools that allow people to sculpt and play, write on walls, and code robots that reflect their intentions? And if they can, will the pace be slower, will innovation succumb to distance and become a more leisurely effort?
We don’t know the answers to those questions, but eventually, organizations will want those answers—and if they don’t like the answers, they will need to rethink how to align their workforce with their goals—or realign their goals with reality. Again, too early to tell which end of that dichotomy will play out.
And as for the physical office, uncertainty about how we think about space will play a considerable role in the office’s end. Organizations with extensive real estate holdings will face decisions about that asset, how it gets utilized. If work does not return to the office, what will be the implications of all the available real estate? What burden will that place on cash flow, what will it mean for urban center evolution, for housing?
One speculation is that work will remain office-based but more distributed. Existing offices may become multi-tenet, with occupation driven by proximity rather than association. WeWork hoteling models may end up proving themselves better suited for large organizations looking to bring an office experience to employees and partners with a minimized commute than for start-ups. The available real estate from not only corporate buildings but from retail losses will offer an intriguing option. It could inspire a boom in retrofitting buildings that might otherwise become abandoned eyesores. And the movement into more distributed work landscapes could also fuel suburban center renewal, with restaurants, services, and retail aligning to the new work model.
It is too early to make the call on the end of The Age of the Office. There is something about the gravity of place and the gravity of social interactions that make offices a necessary structure in the work environment. A brief reprieve from the daily grind may not ultimately overturn the idea of the office. Still, it may force a reimagining of that experience for the new social norms arising from a post-COVID world, one now designed and ready for the next disruption—and more amenable to the worker in the meantime.
Agility is the new scale
Certain aspects of agility are on display during the pandemic. Shifts to work from home dramatically demonstrated, even in firms anchored to very traditional office models, found a way to reconstruct their workflows, connect people from their homes, and continue with business as usual.
This last phrase, “business as usual,” suggests the depth of agility may not yet have reached a scale above the perturbation of surface structures. I recently interacted with the CIO of a large mortgage lender, who pointed to the goal of getting things up fast enough to keep “business as usual” going—even as business as usual involved dramatic dips in lending rates and hyper-accelerated demand for loans. The process and the general regulatory framework remained in place as work-oriented regulations driven by lockdowns constrained options. But in the end, people must complete traditional regulatory frameworks and conventional transactions. People had to walk through houses to get a sense of the space that virtual tours cannot offer. Signatures needed to appear on loan documents. Homeowners associations had to fill out PDFs about their dues and provide CC&Rs.
So the surface became agile. We moved pieces around a board, but we did not change the board. Slack addresses that in the “last gasp of analog work” section of their report. The association between agility and digital transformation doesn’t connect in Slack’s report. Digital transformation is a tool of agility, not a parallel idea. Agility on the surface, or more deeply structure, will be accommodated and facilitated by digital transformation.
Navigating the Disruption of Work: The rise of openness
Management by Design focuses on employee-first experiences, well-aligned with Greenleaf and Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last view of Servant Leadership, which is references in Navigating the Disruption of Work. After several decades in the workforce, I have seen management fads come and go, leaving a trace of themselves on management practice, but not a persistent model. As much as many leaders desire openness and inclusion, many very public examples exist as an antithesis to this openness—demonstrating that while hierarchical management may be on the wane among progressive practitioners, and it may be endangered, it is far from extinct.
Disney offers a counterexample to Leaders Eat Last, as its once well-touted “circle of safety” has been eroded by the realities of park closures and reduced attendance, leading to thousands of layoffs. Reality trumps theory.
Navigating the Disruption of Work fails to recognize the mechanisms necessary to shift toward a Servant Leadership model. In fact, Leaders Eat Last is not so kind to technology. It attributes isolation to the growth of the self-help industry powered by increasing technological isolation. The tension, for instance, between financial performance and personal work performance remain. Most businesses are not non-profits.
Through another vector, digital transformation seeks to quantify performance through big data analysis and machine learning. We find isolation and abstraction driven not through collaboration but via analytics. Analytics approaches human activity as an intimately, measurable thing. While the mantra may be for leaders to serve their people, leaders increasingly serve the abstraction of evidence-based, statistical, quantitative measures that distance people from customer and peer relationships. Analytics turn passion into algorithms and loyalty into a result in a spreadsheet cell.
The last gasps of analog work
Digital transformation is indeed accelerating. Various numbers offer how many years we accelerated in a few months under COVID and WFH. And that is probably all true.
Collaboration vendors have an unfair advantage over more traditional infrastructure technology vendors. Collaboration sits above business systems or in and through them. Collaboration is not the business system of record. It may be the most visible feature of day-to-day work, but it has no revenue-bearing. The bigger problem facing organizations, from governments to finance to retail, healthcare, and manufacturing, is not the inability to create agile surface structure but to change legacy IT systems.
In the 1990s, screen scraping technology helped IT people bring mainframe transaction systems into the web. Tools went out to old databases and brought their data into the light of a flashy, modern web browser. Transactions still took place on green screen terminals and between mainframes sending standard transactions back-and-forth to each other. Much of that world remains, perhaps with more modern databases and more elegant tools, but transaction systems still dominate order taking, fulfillment, and record keeping.
Digital transformation requires not only a movement away from analog work, but an evolution of existing digital work into modern frameworks.
As technology continues to evolve, it will require multiple rounds of digital transformation, as well as modernization. Just as Lotus 1-2-3 and dbase III no longer bring value, the tools of today will someday seem antiquated and quaint as new models seek to displace them in the next round of digital transformation.
Digital work must remain meaningful work. Design thinking should aim at the elimination of unnecessary activities and tasks and the adoption of tools that not only replace but enhance analog experiences where they persist. It remains to be seen if deep cuts in analog work result in stronger adoption, or if they will spur a return to more human-centric practices.
Navigating the Disruption of Work: Culture comes first
In my book Management by Design, I explicitly state that culture does not come first. Culture arises from design, and from a lack of design. Culture reflects a million small decisions about tools, how people treat each other, how strategy aligns with work, the honesty and openness of management, the relationship to customers, and many other elements.
Organizations that adopt design thinking approach culture by proactively and consciously understanding the components of work and designing employee experiences. That can be how meetings work, how strategy gets defined, or how new products get developed. But culture does not come first. Design comes first—design implemented through technology, policy, and practice—which renders an experience. If the experience proves resilient and consistent across applications, it becomes what many call culture.
Not paying attention to design, letting practice and policy emerge is also a choice. The techniques and activities, processes, and tacit agreements that arise get adopted and prove hardy over time become culture.
The quote in the Slack report from Brittany Forsyth reinforces this position.
She says, “Determine what behaviors and beliefs you value as a company, and have everyone live true to them. These behaviors and beliefs should be so essential to your core, that you don’t even think of it as culture.”
What statements like this gloss over is the hard work required to “determine the behaviors and beliefs.” That is design work. Choice work. Definition work. Equally hard, getting everyone to “live true to them.” That requires choices about tools, practice, and policy. Eventually, yes, the repetition of doing the right thing becomes known as culture, but the path is anything but easy.
Putting a stake in the ground
Thought leadership work like Slack’s Navigating the Disruption of Work report puts a stake in the ground. It offers a position. Thought leadership can also provide a humbler path by saying: we don’t know, but we hope—and we have thought about the problem long and hard, and here we present that thinking.
In a recent meeting, I heard about a similar approach from the one touted by Culture Amp Founder and CEO Didier Elzinga.
“When lockdown started, I started doing a two-minute video every workday for the first eight weeks. I also started a #CEO channel on Slack, where I share this video every day—just observations, what’s going on, how we’re going, how we’re tracking against the plan. It took the pandemic to trigger this kind of openness, but the advantages apply in every context.”
In my conversation, the CIO said their executives also started sending out videos daily through various channels.
What they heard was back “bring back the huddle,” an interactive meeting where leadership didn’t openly share their observations and concerns but heard directly, in real-time from their employees. Where they conducted dialog face-to-face, so they leveraged video conferencing to try to reconnect people with people.
It is too early to make pronouncements about the future. It is not too early to hold aspirational views, to share wants and desires. It is not too early to find opportunity in chaos, to leverage disruption to build something better atop a lost legacy. But it is too early to know what will work, what factors will motivate or curtail the individual elements that make up the future of work.
For now, I would like to see thought leaders talking openly about what is possible, not making declarations as though the battle is over, for it is not. The future of work a year or two down the path will look nothing like today’s extrapolations, especially ones driven by singular narratives. Scenarios won’t get it right either, but they do embrace uncertainty rather than try to sweep it under the rug.
Scenarios don’t assert a future but instead offer a canvas of the possible. And that’s how we navigate the future. Understand what is possible, adapt to what happens, and then keep doing that over and over. Although the COVID-19 pandemic triggered rapid disruption, all it did was accelerate changes already taking place. In its wake, we will likely experience changes that we have yet to imagine, and that is why navigating the future doesn’t stop with an acceptable configuration, but with new questions about how what has arrived with influence what comes next.
Did you find our commentary on Slack’s Navigating the Disruption of Work report useful?
For more serious insights on strategy and management click here.