The “future of work” becomes “work”

Allison Baum Gates
Apr 27, 2020 · 5 min read

When I wrote my thesis around the future of work, I outlined the ways in which technology was transforming work into a digital, distributed, and data-driven reality. I never imagined that a global pandemic would catapult us toward that new reality infinitely faster than planned. Companies have reluctantly been shifting their strategies for decades, but leaders are now being forced to rethink their traditional mindsets and accelerate their plans, whether they like it or not.

In his book AntiFragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb outlines the difference between being fragile, resilient and antifragile. Fragile systems break under pressure. Resilient systems break and then return to their original state. Antifragile systems break and rebuild themselves in a new way, emerging stronger as a result of the disorder.

The world of work has been fractured for a long time; COVID-19 has shattered it to pieces. By embracing the changes that are being wrought upon us, we have the power to shape them into an even more powerful, yet flexible structure that allows more room for diversity today and also creates room for continued evolution in the future.

This is the time to rethink the fundamental frameworks of employment and mold them into a system that collects strength in chaos. My antifragile framework for the future of work is now the 5 D’s: digital, distributed, data-driven, dynamic, and diverse; and the timeline is now.

What will happen in the world of work post-COVID?

1/ Universal adoption of the flipped workplace

As shelter in place has forced every business into a fully remote operation, leaders have realized that a distributed team works much better than they thought it would. Individuals are also realizing that working from home has its limits. As we enter multiple phases of returning to the workplace, we will see companies roll out an officially flipped workplace model, where employees spend most of their time working on their own at home, but still come into the office for high-stakes, collaborative, or controversial conversations. With this shift, we will see a focus on productivity over presence, leading to higher efficiency, better employee engagement, and less burnout. It also allows companies to access a more diverse population of talent, both geographically and demographically. Of course, this means a significant reduction in office real estate, and a resurgence of local residential communities as individuals seek living situations more conducive to both living and working. Here is a comprehensive guide for implementing this model.

  • Productivity, tracking, and outcome-based assessment tools specifically built for “flipped” teams
  • Learning and development for new managers of “flipped” employees
  • Increasing usage of asynchronous video in communication
  • New, centralized data-tracking tools for multimedia (e-mail, text, chat, video)
  • Cloud-based security solutions to protect distributed vulnerabilities

2/ Rise of contractors and project-based work

The number of unemployed Americans has spiked to historic highs in a record amount of time. In spite of our highest hopes, a near-term reversal of that trend is unlikely, as most companies have frozen hiring for the foreseeable future. For many who have kept their jobs, their salaries have been cut and they may need to take on additional work to make ends meet. In the absence of full-time opportunities, individuals will be aggregating contract work to build a portfolio of revenue (aka the rise of the XSMB), and employers will look to outsource on a project basis in order to maximize their financial flexibility while navigating this new reality.

  • Tech-enabled service providers that allow leaders to seamlessly outsource entire team functions to highly vetted experts (for example, marketing, financial services, accounting, engineering, etc.)
  • Verticalized labor marketplaces to create trust and reduce friction to finding high quality contract workers in specific function areas
  • Personal finance tools that help individuals consolidate invoices, receivables, expenditures, etc, and find ways to optimize earnings
  • Payment platforms for employers tracking contract workers, deliverables, and payments
  • Healthcare, unemployment, and savings benefits for micro-businesses

3/ Accelerated implementation of automation

Whether it’s the threat of PR, or just plain old guilt, it has been culturally difficult for companies to eliminate jobs and replace them with automation. However, layoffs have already happened thanks to COVID-19, leaving the space for automation to fill the gap when growth returns. Moreover, safety is now paramount, accelerating the desire to eliminate humans from critical business processes. Reduced revenues mean leaders are shifting their focus to reducing costs and maximizing productivity of their existing workers. These factors will significantly increase automation of both day-to-day workflows and larger processes where possible.

  • Verticalized workflow tools that automate remote or repetitive tasks for specific sub-segments of specific industries (back office tasks, code review, image tagging, legal work, supply chain management)
  • Horizontal data collection and observation tools that leverage ML to suggest where automation may make sense, as well as the best tools for implementing that automation
  • Tracking and analytics to help leaders measure ROI on automation
  • Next generation integration tools that leverage open APIs and allow seamless and universal integration of data sources and cross-platform automation

4/ The next generation of B2C education platforms

The rise in unemployment after the Great Financial Crisis fueled the rise of the first generation of direct-to-consumer education platforms like General Assembly, Udemy, Udacity, etc. Over the past decade, competition for talent has gotten fiercer, and these companies have grown by building out B2B business models that cater to employers offering continuing education and development opportunities to their existing employees. This recession will reinforce that individuals must take charge of their own careers and invest in their own upskilling. However, what remote learning has highlighted is that higher education is not about the content, it’s merely a proxy for trust and quality of network. As great content continues to be commoditized, we will see the emergence of innovative business models that, although completely digital, will find ways to monetize community and brand.

  • Consumer education businesses that curate both talent and connections
  • Training and measurement for soft skills, particularly socio-emotional learning and empathy
  • Exclusive community platforms and niche membership networks
  • Digital credentialing for identity, experience, hard skills, soft skills

5/ Mental health goes mainstream

The relationship between mental well-being and productivity is no longer just correlation, it’s causation. Coronavirus-related isolation has validated that emotional health is a significant determinant of physical health as well as employee efficiency. The current environment’s chaos and uncertainty has had universal impact, convincing even the biggest skeptics that a little support can go a long way. As we emerge from the crisis, we will see the drastic and rapid reduction of friction, stigma, and cost of mental health care services.

  • Better access to virtual mental healthcare via both DTC and employer channels
  • New tracking and habit forming tools for mental health and habits
  • Employer-paid mental health benefits
  • Resurgence in micro-community platforms that facilitate human connection

Conclusion:

As we emerge from the haze of the coronavirus pandemic, we will work together to put the pieces back together. In the process, we have an opportunity to rebuild workplaces so they are better, not worse than they were before. In addition to being fully digital, distributed, and data-driven, our new world of work can also be more dynamic and diverse. If you’re working on anything in these spaces, I’d love to talk to you!

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