Hints on the Future of Work

Being a consultant means to be capable to continuously listen to the world around us and detect the major trends. On my blog, I started to analyse my manifesto. Before moving forward with this endeavour, I would like to step back for a moment and share the results of a survey that  I decided to do last Fall. I interviewed people from ten companies to better understand the organisational transformations they are going through, and test some of my pet theories. 

The survey was conducted with senior managers in a variety of fields from marketing, HR and communications to finance, innovation and operations. All questions were open and qualitative in nature and done through face-to-face interviews and answers were anonymous. At the end of this document you will find the questionnaire I used **.

The following companies were interviewed:

  • Airbus
  • Axa
  • Arkema
  • Caisse des Dépôts et Placements (Ivanhoe Cambridge)
  • Canal+
  • Danone
  • Goodyear
  • La Poste
  • MBDA
  • Salesforce

I take this opportunity to thank the people who graciously gave me an hour of their time over the last few months to help me. I hope this document accurately reflects your answers.

Below is a synthesis of the top 7 trends in organisations:

1. Organizations are still learning how to balance their higher purpose with its operational goals

Many organisations are now fully aware of their impact on the world and are paying greater attention to the purpose they serve in society, whether it’s selling tires or dairy products.  (See point#2 of my Manifesto). Most companies are doing also a very good job in cascading their key messages throughout the whole organisation. 

However aligning the higher purpose with operational goals is proving to be a challenge, generating often-conflicting goals and great pressure on individual managers to perform.  How to ensure that our Higher Purpose is not hollowed out or worse simply a tool for productivity and to attract talent?  

Furthermore there is often a gap between higher management who have internalized the Purpose and the other levels who are too constrained by operational pressures.

 “As our organization is presently in turmoil, it is hard to have a clear idea of our Purpose.  However our capacity as Manager Story Tellers is very important, in order to show everyone the potential we have”.

“If you do not create your own sense of meaning in your work, you’ll never be good.  

“We are a bit schizophrenic with our contradictory objectives” 

 “Our collective challenge is to reconcile the vision and ambition of the company on the one hand and our capacity to change quickly on the other. This generates powerful short and long term contradictions.”

 “I joined the company because of its inspiring vision. I want to be proud of my work. The company mission is well cascaded into our teams, although this is done in an informal ad-hoc way by each senior manager.”

2. Collaboration only works when it is focused around an operational goal

Collaborative ways of working are effective and rewarding if they are linked to challenges. Collaboration for collaboration’s sake is not particularly valued.

While there is presently a movement in some alternative management circles to search for a utopian future for the emancipated worker – in the spirit of J.J. Rousseau’s “noble man”-  it is quite clear that people collaborate best today when they are united not only around a common Purpose but also a common challenge.

Quality of life at the work place does not therefore depend on the capacity for people to happily help each other out of altruism.  

“Everyone has access to everyone else’s road map for the year, including their challenges and their objections in relation to the company’s mission. This allows us to work effectively together because we see how everyone’s job ties in with their co-workers”

“Collaboration works best when there is a common objective and little time reach it.  The objective need not be inspiring – it could be on the subject of closing down factories.” 

 “The conditions for success and enjoyment of working with others depend heavily on being able to find a solution to a common problem. No solution, no collaboration” 

3. People’s day to day jobs do rarely correspond to the job they were hired for…and that’s Ok !

People are being given more and more margin of manoeuvre in how they can do their job. This is great in terms of personal freedom, flexibility and responsibility. It becomes therefore important for each employee to be aware of how their role and those of their colleagues bring value to the client. Otherwise, confusion sets in, generating inefficiency and anxiety as people peddle harder in order to belong to the group.

This trend therefore also generates pressure on the individual as they strive to serve the higher Purpose. Each person shoulders the heavy responsibility of being useful to the company. 

 “Outside of  the manufacturing teams who have very rigid job desks – for good reason – the rest of us have quite a lot of latitude in how we do our job.”

 “We have complete freedom in how we want to work – but when things don’t go according to plan, there are very strict processes that automatically take over.”

“Younger employees tend to not have a problem hoping from role to role in the organization, it’s the older generation which cannot seem to find its place.”

“Job desks are high level definitions that are subject to interpretation. What is important is the capacity to convince your boss that you are right. This gives a lot of room to manoeuvre.”

“Our culture of high autonomy is a two-edged sword, because it also generates a lot of unhealthy stress and burn-outs.”

“Sometimes I have to take on new roles in my job almost in secret in order to get things done, otherwise there is too much bureaucracy and politics involved.”

4. We are slowly moving out of the Stone Age in terms of decision making and conflict resolution towards self-regulating systems – but it’s not easy! 

Baring strong interpersonal conflicts for which many companies have very specific HR policies and processes, today indecision or conflict of interests are still systematically managed with through escalation.

Time is spent in endless meetings trying to develop consensus or collegial decision-making – especially in matrix organisations with dotted lines all over the place – leaving little actual time for work. And when problems remain unsolved, the only solution is escalation, resulting in another round of semi-consensus building.

Very few organisations have made a shift towards self-organised management to solve these issues and therefore there is a tremendous opportunity to create even more efficiency – and reduce stress caused by indecisiveness and politics.

But no one knows how to do it: they’ve heard of  the word “holacracy, or “Organisations Libérées, or read Frederic Laloux book  “Reinventing Organisations”, but don’t know how to move forward.

“When no process is there to manage a complex contradictory management situation, we get things validated through informal networking.. This causes much delay;”

“I usually have wall to wall meetings all day and begin to actually work around 6pm until late.”

“Because no one knows exactly who has the authority to take a decision because of the dotted lines between people everywhere, there’s a permanent haze around everything we do.  We often end up doing many iterations, taking apart what other people of done, and redoing it again without realizing that it is almost the same thing.”

 “Our EXCOM meetings are based on unanimous decision making. Many people further down the ladder despair at our lack of reactivity. We are not on top of things because we are too consensual.”

 “When something is escalated it automatically goes into a committee, which can then decide to escalate to another committee. This is a tremendous loss of time and explains why I spend my days in meetings.”

5. Transparency and trust are key ingredients of success

When information was power, basically until the 1990s, people would wrestle with on the one hand the moral obligation to share information and the power gained from withholding it on the other.  As we all know, the shift towards an information rich environment means that it is not information, which creates value, but the connexions created between which are at the heart of a company’s success.

Management cultures are urging therefore people to be fully transparent, to a point where our every activity is monitored, including our social interactions. Some cultures are more at ease with this, others find it intrusive. 

Are we facing an Orwellian behaviourist future, condemned to share or be shunned as our reputation score fluctuates with the perceptions of others on us, or is this merely the path of a new way of working toward a higher level of consciousness? Is there any option for a post behaviourist vision?

“Everything we do, including our individual goals for the year are visible by the entire company. It is a culture of complete transparency.”

“There is a dichotomy between what is being said to employees and what is discussed in the higher levels of the organisation who are playing politics. This has created a crisis of faith and a lack of operational execution.”

“Sometimes I see our culture of transparency as so strong that it does not let the outside in. It’s a religion”

“We constantly ensure that we have a clear understanding of the value chain and of each of our roles in it.”

“The value chain is tangible and visible. And your engagement depends on your capacity to really see how you bring value to it.”

 6. Speed and efficiency of execution will continue to be a competitive differentiator.

Almost every person interviewed said that speed of execution was a defining factor of success. Every senior manager interviewed stayed connected seven days a week if only for a few minutes.

This speed can only be reached by handing a lot of autonomy to individual teams. In fact, companies are becoming more and more swarms of projects as opposed to rigid organisations. There are simply too many interconnections and complexity in serving the client. Traditional organizations are stretched to their limit.

“We are able to move fast because we each know what we have to do and are a very competitive team – there’s no room for slackers – as we have to react instantly and as a single entity to every market opportunity.”

“We are in the top three in our industry because no one can move as fast as we can on a new opportunity – and this is despite the fact that we are a very big company”

“I don’t really know what the executive committee actually decides– they basically leave us alone to move forward, if only we did not have so many meetings.”

“I think we could be more successful if we could set up cross functional teams quicker, but it takes a long time to understand what each person’s scope is and we waste time.”

7. Companies will continue to be highly processed affairs, but are learning to be adaptive

Large companies are developing flexible methods of adapting their processes to current events. Nonetheless, they sometimes leave the change management execution to local affiliates. Companies who fail to do this in a fast changing environment run the risk of ignoring tensions arising from changes in their ecosystem simply because the process does not exist to deal with it.

“We are a highly processed company. As a result, we do not spend too much time updating job desks, instead we update company processes.”

“A danger we have is that the more our multinational organization is process driven, the less initiative is given to local teams. We are in fact dumbing down the organization. This is bad for talent attraction and retention, and may not be sustainable in long term if we need more reactive national organisations.”

“Every year we are given the high level strategy but we want to be agile. So besides certain cross-functional entities like HR, there are in fact very few processes. How we react to changes in our business environment is all done at a local level. “

**Questionnaire

1. Do you know the higher purpose of your organisation? 

Do you feel connected to it in your daily work?  

How is it shared within the organisation?

2.  How is the company’s strategy designed and shared throughout the organisation? 

Do you know the company’s strategy?  To what degree?

3. How are roles attributed to people in the organisation?  

How are they attributed when new projects emerge?  

How big is the gap between your theoretical role (the one you were hired for), and your job today ?

Who designs the roles?

4. As a manager or project leader, how many meetings do you have a week? 

How many meetings were critical for your job?

How many meetings were information sharing / Decision making / 

How smoothly does the organisation run on day-to-day basis? Is is efficient?

What do you do when things get stuck?  

What do you do when you are caught in a double bind, or otherwise paradoxical situations? Does this happen often?

5. Do you think you understand what is happening in the world around you in the ecosystem of your business? 

How do you find things out?  

How do you get a big picture of what you are doing?

6. Do you have a good understanding of the challenges faced by  a) your teams b) the people you have to work with in other parts of the organisation? 

How is information shared ??

7. How are people recognised for the work they have done in the organisation (bonus, pat on the back….) ? 

Do you feel recognised for the work you do ? 

Do you think that the people around you feel recognise for the work they do?

8.  When faced with complex problems, how does the organisation react? 

What does it do to solve these problems?  

Is your organisation innovative? In what way?