The Future of Work – It’s Not All Bad News

I love seeing ideas about how to make the workplace a better place to spend our 40 hours a week. Lately, there has been much hand-wringing about how automation is taking away jobs and creating a two-sided workforce: one side a technology-skilled elite and the other a bunch of low-skill unsecure jobs. So I was happy to see a recent article titled “Free the Workers” – good title, good idea – in the Oct 10th 2020 edition of The Economist.

The article summarized the premise of a new book, “Humanocracy”, by Gary Hamel (a favorite author of mine) and Michele Zanini. They are both management consultants, which means that they test their ideas before they offer them to the public.

Best idea? “All employees should be encouraged to think like businesspeople, be organized into small teams with their own profit-and-loss accounts (and appropriate incentives) and be allowed to experiment.” That’s a good blend of “team focus” and “autonomy” that’s worth implementing, if only to see how it works and what needs to be tweaked for better results.

It is part of a wave of new thinking about work, but two companies – Toyota and Netflix – are already using those ideas in different ways. As a result, their managers have shifted from the usual corporate structure of “layers and centralization” to a model more like a network of teams and business units. Gotta love the network model!

These smaller groups have been given more power to organize their work and make changes in the way they operate, which will improve what are usually seen as low-level jobs. People in those jobs will be able to get out of the rut of routine and use their own initiative for taking on new tasks and problems. That, in turn will allow them to expand their capabilities and develop themselves both personally and professionally, plus being more satisfied and energized in their jobs. So maybe the world of work is not doomed after all.

These ideas also relate to an earlier perspective on improving the workplace: a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review on the role of trust in organizations. That research showed giving people more power over the ways they do their work, and allowing them to choose the projects they work on, fostered trust and learning for everyone.

The two strongest trust-builders were “recognizing excellence”, i.e., letting people know when they were doing a good job, and keeping workers informed on the company’s goals, strategies and tactics. These practices promoted worker “engagement”, which they defined as “having a strong connection with one’s work and colleagues, feeling like a real contributor and enjoying ample chances to learn.”

Both articles point to the benefits of paying attention to all levels of workers by giving them more opportunities to use their judgment. And both approaches increase the motivation and satisfaction of workers – as well as productivity, quality products and profitability. Finally, both articles agree that having people be accountable – without micromanagement – is important.

The HBR article spoke for both, concluding with the statement that we can: “treat people like responsible adults”. What a radical thought! Automation may create a technological elite but treating people like responsible adults will develop workers in new directions and new ideas.

The Economist article ended with the good news of my week: “The future of work needn’t be gloomy after all. Let’s give it a try, shall we? Trust all levels of workers, let them organize their work and use their own judgment more often. Maybe in a very few years we could celebrate the end of micromanagement?

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