By Steve Cadigan ’86
Most of the discussion around the future of work today tends to be dismal. It centers on the notion that robots, AI (artificial intelligence), and automation will displace millions of jobs. While that may be true, this narrative overshadows a more necessary discussion: How do we build meaningful career paths and successful organizations when the future is increasingly unpredictable? How do we thrive in a world where things change faster than our capacity to absorb these changes? In a world of work that is increasingly less predictable, both employers and employees find themselves in an uncomfortable place where both know less about the future than at any other point in history. Employers and employees face the same dilemma—neither know what skills they need to develop for the future, and this is profoundly unsettling.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, research in the world of work revealed some significant trends: turnover is higher than ever, and the percentage of the global workforce that is actively disengaged is also higher than ever. In addition, the shelf life of a so-called “hard skill” is diminishing rapidly. While all of this has been taking place, long-standing industries and industry leaders are being disrupted by unicorns. Start-ups are coming seemingly out of nowhere and taking over enterprises once owned by long-established corporations. When American corporate icon GE, known for exceptional leadership and executive strength, loses over $800 million of market value over the last 20 years, it cannot help but shake the notion of what “job security” really means anymore.
The internet and platforms such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor have massively increased the visibility to opportunity, yet more choice does not necessarily translate to easier decisions or higher employee engagement. Today, we know how to apply our skills and talents in more ways than ever before, yet we also are more aware of what we don’t have in a job or company than ever before because we can see what other firms are doing and offering. Unfortunately, all this information presents an opportunity for many of us to second-guess our career choices. Determining what industry or company to steer your career toward is a challenge and may partly explain why people changing jobs is increasing.
And while the workforce faces new challenges when considering career paths, organizations need to come to terms with a workforce that increasingly sees job security as movement versus remaining in one place for a long time. Firms attempting to hire this talent are also confronting the reality that the way we used to build and lead organizations is increasingly ineffective. The models for work that many organizations employ today were created for a slower pace of work and for a time when things were not changing as quickly. These models were built for a time when talent did not have as much choice and when the pace of competition was much slower. Long-held success metrics for organizations such as high employee engagement scores and long tenure are starting to feel less relevant.
Despite what appears to be a complex and dismal set of facts when we look at the world of work today, profits for U.S. corporations have never been higher, suggesting that organizations are learning to create greater value amidst a more fluid workforce.
The introduction of COVID-19 on top of all these changes has produced a “Workquake.” How organizations work, communicate, and organize has been turned upside down. Every company culture has been impacted—some in minor ways but many in profound ways. Every organization in the world is confronting the reality that its culture has changed and is changing. Perks, benefits, cool offices, and such offerings as on-site childcare no longer carry the attraction they once did for a workforce that is increasingly working outside of offices. What companies were is not who they are, and how we used to work is not how we work now. During the pandemic, some exciting new opportunities have been revealed, such as a rise in both the skill and confidence among leaders in managing workers remotely. This new awareness and ability present both opportunity (a larger demographic of talent to recruit) and challenge (other firms in other locations may now seek to hire their employees).
While the pandemic has caused a great deal of harm, it has also presented us with the most significant opportunity of our lifetime to rebuild a model for work to better address the faster pace of today and the evolving new psychology of the workforce. The pandemic has shown us that we can learn new ways to create value; to communicate and organize differently and still succeed; and to access new pools of talent worldwide. It has given us an excellent opportunity to rebuild a better world of work.
I wrote Workquake so we can take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and create a more inspiring and more honest future.
Steve Cadigan ’86 is a corporate culture guru and human resources expert with more than 30 years of experience advising industry titans such as Google, Salesforce, and the BBC. He is the author of the recently released WORKQUAKE: Embracing the Aftershocks of COVID-19 to Create a Better Model of Working. See stevecadigan.com for more.