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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking

WHY EVERY ORGANISATION NEEDS A FUTURE OF WORK STRATEGY

2023-03-06 08:28

Cathryn Barnard

Blog, FUTURE OF THE OFFICE, FUTURE OF WORK, ORGANISATIONAL PURPOSE, ORGANISATIONAL AGILITY, HYBRID WORK STRATEGY, FUTURE OF WORK STRATEGY, SCENARIO PLANNING,

WHY EVERY ORGANISATION NEEDS A FUTURE OF WORK STRATEGY

It’s increasingly hard to plan but most futurists agree that striking a balance between setting a vision and yet remaining fluid as to how that vision will...

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By mid-January the ‘back to normal’ optimism that dominated so many New Year business conversations had evaporated. All the wishful thinking in the world can’t detract from the fact that we’re now in uncharted waters.

 

A rising tide of redundancy, most notably within the technology sector, ongoing supply chain issues, declining consumer confidence and food shortages are just some of the issues clouding the horizon for business owners everywhere. 

 

It’s increasingly hard to plan but most futurists agree that striking a balance between setting a vision and yet remaining fluid as to how that vision will be realised is now the holy grail of business strategyzing. 

 

But many of the trends now confounding business leaders are ones that have been foreseen for up to a decade. The impact of technology on the workforce, shifting socio-cultural attitudes towards work and employment, an ageing global population, a reskilling emergency, the climate crisis – these have all been long in the making and come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in the future of work. 

 

Denial is a key feature of enforced change. In her transformative work in the field of grief and loss, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross showed that a typical first response to new and undesirables circumstances is disbelief – the unwillingness to accept that things are different now. 

 

This is understandable. Our human brains are exposed to so many sources of information in every minute of our day that we create mental shortcuts to help us process ‘what is’ faster. When ‘what is’ becomes destabilised, it creates an unfamiliar mental load that’s often overwhelming in the short-term. Noone likes unwelcome surprises. Nor do we like disruption to the rituals and routines we use to navigate our days. We’re creatures of habit, preferring stability, certainty and simplicity over ambiguity, complexity and instability.

 

But the undercurrents transforming how, where and when we work in the 2020s aren’t new. They may have compounded in a way that’s forced the very essence of why we work into sharp focus, but academics and researchers have spent years decoding what these changes mean for the future organisation.

 

And this is why every organisation that hopes to survive the coming decade needs a robust future of work strategy. 

 

What is a future of work strategy?

Gartner defines a future of work strategy as: 

 

“a set of initiatives to address the uncertainty and implications of future events that lead to changes in how, when and where work is done; who or what does the work; and even what is considered work.” [1]

 

Against this backdrop, it’s useful to reflect on the definition of work offered by futurists Bob Johansen, Joseph Press and Christine Bullen in their 2023 book, Office Shock [2]. They write:

 

“Work is about how we come together to make things happen.”

 

How to build a future of work strategy

 

1.    Complete a SWOT analysis of your industry

Too few organisations today fully understand the broader context in which they operate. Any organisational futureproofing relies on a thorough understanding of where an organisation sits within a wider industry sector, and in turn, how this segment interoperates with the wider economy. 

 

It’s important to understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of your industry. This allows a more holistic approach to your strategysing and helps introduce more future-focussed thinking. 

 

2.    Understand the trends driving change in the way we work

Creating an effective future of work strategy starts with education. 

 

One of the most universally embraced models of human behaviour change is the transtheoretical model [3], authored by pyschologists James Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente in the early 1980s. This model, used widely to help break maladaptive patterns of behaviour, starts with pre-contemplation before moving into the phase of contemplation, or awareness.

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Contemplation is the point at which the need for change is surfaced, although it precedes any tangible action being taken.

 

Unfortunately, most business leaders today have yet to fully understand the factors transforming our relationship with work, or the complexity that these converging forces create. Arguably, many are still at a stage where they prefer to hope for a return to some sense of ‘normality’ in the near future. This is what Kubler-Ross refers to as denial; the prospect of enforced change on the size and scale required is just too shocking to consider. 

 

But as Prochaska and Di Clemente’s model shows, if we are to progress and effectively adjust – or futureproof – our organisations, we must move into the zone of contemplation, and build awareness of new market dynamics. 

 

An absolute futureproofing priority for any business leader is to understand the trends transforming work in the 2020s. Our annual Foresight Focus report comprises the study of 10 carefully selected trends that are having most impact on the world of work. We’ve carefully analysed and distilled these trends to identify the risks and opportunities for business, to help leaders get started on their transformation journey. 

 

3.    Define your organisation’s vision 

The Institute for the Future [4] in California helps organisations and communities become future-ready. Using strategic foresight, it helps clients make smarter decisions by exploring alternative futures. This approach underpins successful organisational agility.

 

The authors of Office Shock advocate for using a process they call Futureback for organisational futureproofing. This approach contrasts with thinking present-forward, and invites business strategists to think about the world ten years from now, so as to better anticipate what actions and approaches might assist with building a viable pathway to the future. As they write:

 

“Thinking futureback allows you to see where you need to be and want to be at different stages…Futureback thinking will help you prepare for a better future.”

 

Effective futureback thinking requires us to set out a vision for our organisations – encapsulating our hopes, dreams and goals. 

 

A well defined organisational vision is a story. And because it’s a story, it helps all stakeholders to invest emotionally in the vision as compelling stories are naturally relationship-creating. A strong vision story has the added advantage of building engagement with those who want to come on your journey.

 

But more importantly, defining your organisation’s vision helps you see its present state more clearly. And once this is well-understood, it’s far easier to identify and anayse the gaps that exist between its current state and it’s hoped-for future state.

 

4.    Use scenario plans to examine possible future pathways

As a strategic activity, creating scenarios helps an organisation to better understand risks, uncertainties and opportunities. It’s a robust alternative to hoping for business as usual. Creating a variety of possible future scenarios, based on current realities and likely trajectories allows for the consideration of a wider range of potential outcomes. This consideration in turn expands preparedness – forearmed is forewarned, as the proverb goes. 

 

Scenario creation presents a superb opportunity for company-wide inclusion, an imperative for the future of work. By drawing on the insights and ideations of a wide audience – leveraging organisational collective intelligence – a broader spectrum of emergent possibilities can be examined, giving rise to enhanced organisational futureproofing. The natural byproduct of harnessing collective intelligence is that more people are automatically included in a strategic conversation, which immediately fuels engagement. As change expert Byron Rogers has written:

 

“People own what they create.”

 

Creating a range of scenarios allows closer analysis of future possibilities and the opportunity to put in place contingency plans that derisk the business. This activity fosters agility by encouraging a greater degree of adaptive thinking. By underpinning scenarios with trends that are playing out in realtime, organisations naturally build in greater resilience against otherwise unforeseen events that could imperil longer term success.

 

From here it’s possible to start build a strategic future of work roadmap. 

 

5.    Build a future of work roadmap

An effective future of work roadmap identifies the gaps that exist between an organisation’s current operating processes and those needed to operate effectively in a different and emergent landscape. 

 

Designing and experimenting with progressive strategies is of course its own kind of innovation. Continuous testing and measuring of new ways of organsing sit at the heart of longer term business resilience. The challenge (and opportunity) is to balance implementation with fluidity. Overly rigid new processes will hinder organisational agility, which is integral to success in increasingly fast-paced work futures. 

 

6.    Rinse and repeat

Key to building longer term organisation resilience is acceptance of the fact that markets are no longer stable. There are in fact several schools of economic thinking calling for a complete overhaul of the theories and frameworks we’ve used for the past few hundred years to underpin our understanding of market dynamics.

 

With extreme resource depletion and biodiversity loss comes the requirement to end our naïve assumptions about continuous economic growth. Instead we must start to think, and behave, regeneratively, living within the confines of the systems that are available to us on planet earth.

 

This means we will face an ongoing challenge to evolve and adapt – just as we see every day in the natural world. Continuous experimentation underpins successful innovation. This is the very nature of success in the future of work. 

 

How can we help?

We’ve been tracking and analysing the primary trends transforming the way we work. Get in touch today to discuss how our discovery sessions can help your executive teams better understand the future of work. 

 

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References:

[1]        https://www.gartner.com/en/articles/how-to-craft-a-highly-effective-future-of-work-strategy

[2]        Johansen, B., Press, J. & Bullen, C. (2023). Office Shock: Creating Better Futures for Working and Living. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler

[3]        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transtheoretical_model

[4]        https://www.iftf.org/

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