Since January, I’ve been part of more than 25 conferences, corporate programs and community-based initiatives, all focused on how the world of work is changing and what needs to be done to be ready for the future that is quickly unfolding. In many of these events, I was a speaker or panelist. For a few, I was an audience member. At all, I have been a researcher and observer.
In each discussion I consider how it felt in the 1990s as technology was about to change everything – we just didn’t know exactly how or how fast. I remember sitting beside brilliant technologists as they conceived of apps (except we didn’t yet have language to describe an app and so instead they were called “personal web components”). I recall working with companies who doubted health care products would ever be purchased online and therefore there was no need for a website. Those of us with early exposure to emerging technology could not conceive of how devices have transformed the world. Yet we had to find ways to start moving into this unknown future. Agile, user-centric design and object-oriented programming all emerged as new tools to shape an evolving world.
I love finding patterns within complex, systems and creating useful, practical maps. Today, talent – our workforce, the work they do and how they do it – is being revolutionized. The future is just as uncertain as it seemed all those years ago and new ways of imagining the future of work are needed to navigate from where we are to the way things will be for our children and their children. Yesterday’s technology revolution has sparked today’s talent revolution (a topic explored in a new book that is coming out in 2019).
Perspectives from policy makers
Senior policy makers look through a 30-year lens and consider what types of regulation will be helpful or hurtful to create a thriving Canadian future. They ask questions such as “what employer incentives should be accelerated?” or “which types of technologies should have adoption encouraged and which should be left to develop more slowly?” From driverless vehicles to employee skills retraining, these policy leaders are consuming data that paints various scenarios of where the world is heading, what other countries are doing and what the Canadian path could look like. They are shaping the future of work by pulling on levers that will impact the rest of us for decades. It is in these discussions that detailed data is often shared that contradicts what we hear in the daily media.
One example of meaningful myth-busting was presented at the Queen’s International Institute for Social Policy (QIISP) Conference in August, where we heard from many European and North American researchers that the number of freelancers within most Western economies (including Canada) has not changed in more than two decades. The data does not support the view that traditional models of employment are being usurped by vast numbers of workers engaged in the “gig” economy. From a policy lens, assuming a shift to a “post-employment” era would be premature. Instead, an examination of how the nature of work and employment relationships continue to change and what will address the rise of specific precarious employment practices is more prudent.
Considerations of corporate leaders
Corporate leaders focus their lens on a closer horizon. They examine issues impacting workforces and workplaces today and that will continue to impact business performance and opportunity in the coming decade. This 10-year horizon includes topics like demographic change, skills shortages, a gap in mid-level leadership candidates and required skills transfers from today’s jobs to roles that will exist in a more automated future.
Employers are accessing the incentive programs that the policy makers implemented over the last decade. Design to incent employers to move their workforces forward as workforce-related change began to accelerate, these programs may offset the cost of skills-based training and experiential learning. Others provide tax credits for exploration of certain technologies, research and innovation that will lead to new jobs and work aligned with a more technological future.
Alignment of associations
In between the policy makers and the employers are the industry associations. From electricity distribution to manufacturing, social work to post-secondary education, associations across the country are applying a sector lens that is sometimes zoomed into current day issues and other times focused far into the future. At annual conferences trends are shared with members. Behind closed doors or in private consultations, leadership teams challenge myths and architect roadmaps.
Your agency as an actor
With all these layers of architecting occurring simultaneously it is easy to see why making sense of the future of work is complex. We are architecting the future of our world. Depending on the audience and the focus, or zoom level, we may end up digging deep into a technology or skimming the surface of attention-grabbing headlines. We may take a system-wide view of a topic, such as the impact of longer lifespans or narrow the discussion to address current day challenges such as how managers can be better equipped to help staff with their own career decisions.
However, from policy maker to corporate leader, association executive to manager, employee to student, we are all actors in the future of work. Each of us makes choices in our own careers and within our own teams that collectively are shaping the future of work. We are creating or challenging boundaries, accepting or disputing truths and facilitating or disrupting change in big and small ways.
For some, there are significant fears. Others see immense opportunity.
The future of work is not something that will happen to us. The policy makers, corporate leaders and industry association executives aren’t working behind a curtain creating a future that will be launched with a “big reveal.” All of us make choices to engage, disengage, attack or retreat in ways that creates the datapoints reported in our news and generates the theories that get explored.
This realization that we are all actors leads to an exciting, if daunting, conclusion. We need to expand the conversations that are taking place to include everyone. It’s why behind the scenes Challenge Factory and Creative Connection have been starting Canada’s first National Conversation on the Future of Work – with a new documentary and conversation guides ready to launch in November. We want everyone in every corner of the country to have the opportunity to consider their role in shaping the future of work, to challenge assumptions and push the architects.