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Welcome to the future: why the #futureofwork is now in the past

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For many years, #futureofwork has been a trending, widely researched, much consulted, and hotly debated topic. The large consulting firms, including Deloitte, PwC, McKinsey and others have entire practice areas dedicated to the subject matter. I myself have sat through many pitches and presentations and have even guest lectured on the issue - discussing the technological, generational, and cultural shifts in what work is and how it will get done in the future.

But COVID-19 has challenged and changed all those predictions. The #futureofwork, as it has been defined to this point(1) has been eclipsed by a #newfutureofwork. Sure, we will continue to see even more accelerated technological developments, artificial intelligence, digitization of the workplace, and robots on the assembly line. If anything, COVID-19 has proved out the work from home theory, while also highlighting glaring gaps in business technology infrastructure. What I am talking about isn’t the tech transformation predicted by the #futureofwork and now being realized in many ways. Rather, I am referring to what it means to work, what work means in life, the demand for human connection and how our forced physical isolation has actually brought a new level of intimacy, community and humanity into the workplace.

The #newfutureofwork will certainly be dominated by all things digital. But what few, if any #futureofwork studies focused on or predicted, was the innate need for community and human connection – not just to the purpose of our work, or because of work-life balance, or because we want to be inspired by our boss – but how connecting to our humanness impacts, improves and even transforms our works. The subject has been touched on in the periphery of the work done on employee engagement, with #gallop, #workhuman and #qualitics attempting to quantify connectedness and community – like having a best friend at work or having a leader who cares about you. And certainly, caring, community and connection is a theme when reading about #BestPlacetoWork award winners. But as we are learning through this forced social distancing, the old professional connectedness, the in-person workplace interest in our humanness was really a shallow and poor substitute for real community and connection that actually inspires and fulfills us.

Over the last month, I have been in the living rooms, dining rooms, and yes, even bedrooms of my team. I have seen my team fresh out of bed in their PJs for early morning calls and in their kitchen with a double armful of kids making lunch. I’ve met everyone’s pets, seen pictures of their grandparents, cousins, and heros. I’ve hopped online with my team at hours most wouldn’t consider part of the workday, because the traditional workday for me was consumed with setting my kids up to learn from home. We laughed, we worked, and yes, we even cried, like we never have as a team. Without the ability to make our normal dozens of superficial human connections in a day, we longed for and found a deeper connection with each other.  We let each other into our whole life and the professional / personal barriers melted.

In the three weeks leading up to our furlough, we produced more, higher quality, and frankly more inspired work than I really thought possible when I set them to the task. Our #newfutureofwork had arrived – digitally enabled and inspired by a new intimacy and human connection as work became integrated as part of our lives in a way it hadn’t before – and so we became integrated with each other in a way we hadn’t considered. Our #wholeself was at work and it wasn’t the distraction everyone has feared.  There was not work / life balance, there was just life, and it seamed to balance itself out just fine.

As I reach out to members of my team daily to check on them through this furlough period, I find myself spending a lot of time connecting in a way that is neither personal nor professional – it’s just human. Sure, we miss the problems to solve and the deadlines to hit and the milestones to achieve. But, what we really miss is each other, and the connection we formed over the last year, solidified and deepened as we worked in new ways. We have connected via virtual walking conferences, turned on the video on the Peloton, and texted each other about challenges and issues that have nothing to do with work. We were a close team before, collaborating and challenging each other in the workplace. Now there is no workplace, there is just a place where we exist together and enjoy and encourage our humanity.

The #futureofwork was to be filled with technology that helped us work smarter, that allowed us to work from home or on a flexible schedule, and to work for an organization that had a purpose that inspired us. The #newfutureofwork isn’t blind to what technology can enable or the needs of new generations of workers, but it also understands the importance of our shared humanity, our innate need for human connection, for which there is no digital algorithm. The #newfutureofwork understands that people have kids, dogs and parents. The #newfutureofwork doesn’t care if you work best in a t-shirt and ball cap or a Macho Libre mask, and that laughing together on a conference call with a toddler on your lap can actually help you be more creative, inspired, and committed. The #newfutureofwork understands that your vendors, clients, and customers are human too, and crave the same connectedness, community, and authenticity. The #newfutureofwork doesn’t delineated between professional relationships and personal relationship – there are just relationships.

How employers have handled the COVID-19 crisis, the remote work and the inevitable pay cuts and furloughs, has already laid the groundwork for their #newfutureofwork. Companies and brands that have: worked hard to acknowledge the humanness of their employees, vendors, clients and customers; messaged with genuine compassion, caring, concern and connection; put programs in place that acknowledge and help employees and customers with their very human fears and anxieties during this time; and that seek to build and strengthen relationships – these companies and brands will have employees that want and do come back, customers that return, and businesses that will survive. Despite slick TV ads, video messages from CEOs, and paid leaves, not every company has the right foundation and relationships for the #newfutureofwork and some have taken a step back in their response to the crisis. Who is at the table in the COVID-19 boardroom and how decisions are made and communicated will determine how prepared each company is for the #newfutureofwork and the relationships, not technology, that will drive our future economy.

[1]In March 2018, Thereza Balliester and Adam Elsheikhi looked at 255 #futureofwork studies in an attempt to categorize the topics that fall under this popular hastag. It is a thorough review and effective synthesis of the most popular studies on the #futureofwork, highlighting again the role of technology and digitization, gender and generational shifts, and the cultural and social aspects of changing work conditions. Find their review here.

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