The Future of Work

Our understanding of work is still hanging on to some old concepts. Rhonda Brighton-Hall, FlexCareers ChairWoman, explains what’s changing and why we can finally be optimistic.

I often think about the future of work – mainly because I’m eager to get to a better place than we are today. Work, as we know it, is just not built for real people with real lives.

Fundamentally, ‘work’ is long overdue for an overhaul, and all the current disruptions present such an abundance of inter-related possibilities, that I’m daring to be (cautiously) optimistic!

Of course, the bar we’re starting off is pretty low. Our current understanding of work is hanging on to some really old ideas. For example:

  • the five day week, eight hour day model, stemming from the International Workingmen’s Association in Geneva in 1866.
  • career paths that were first designed in the 1950s, running from post school/university until one’s mid-fifties, when everyone retired to live out their remaining 14 years in relative peace and harmony. This ignores the fact that we’re already living (on average) into our eighties and are fast heading towards the long touted 100 year life!
  • talent processes that assumed a single linear career, with one peak, where no one took a career break, ever, for any reason, and assumed we could all be assessed at our best and most productive in the work place between the ages of 28 and 35 years of age, and no later. For the record, 73% of Australian women have children around that age. The first paid maternity leave came into effect for Government employees in Australia in 1973, so since then we’ve been clear on seeking to keep our careers on track even with some breaks.
  • the very outdated concept of the ‘control test’ (which is rapidly in retreat) at the foundation of all our employment relationships, despite predictions that by 2020 35-40% of the working population will be independent contractors and not ‘controlled’ employees.

We’ve hung on to all those things despite so many other things changing.

Businesses (and lives) are now 24/7. We can move work around our global community in a second, and work is rarely as physically demanding as it was in the cotton mills of the industrial revolution. So, from this point, it’s easy to agree we can do a lot better. Of course, we need to temper our excitement with the reality that some of the disruptors have been around for years and we’re yet to truly embrace the opportunities they offer. Like technology. We’ve talked remote ‘away from the office’ work for ages, but not really mainstreamed it into the big jobs. Similarly, job sharing and part-time. We’ve run whole conferences on flexi-work and shared and re-shared the stories of working mums. Despite that decade of conversation and amazing possibility, it’s still front page news when a big corporation says “we’re going to make our jobs flexible” and conference keynotes are about how hard that is to achieve.

So what’s different and why should we be optimistic now?

Three things. Three really big socio-economic shifts that change all the rules.

1. Economics

Our ageing population is forcing us to face the fact that our economic model needs more of us contributing for longer. The large communities of great capability and expertise that we’ve too long left on the sideline – people with disability, women (and men) with children or caring responsibilities, and people over 55 years – are now required to contribute in order for the economy to be productive and sustainable. There is every chance that this moment will have the same impact on women’s employment, in particular, as WWII had in the 1940s.

2. Social Change

Large scale social change means the gender-based model, so heavily structured in favour of men, is being questioned. Men now expect their partners in life to be as career-oriented as they are. Women expect their partners to be as keen to take a role in parenting as they do. People with children (single parents, same sex couples, traditional families – in fact all of us) and people with more in their life than work (which is most of us) are changing all the rules by telling their stories and expecting flexibility. Conversations about “Mummy (and Daddy) tracks” versus “Partner Paths” are no longer acceptable.

3. Start up Culture

Perhaps most importantly: Courageous and inspiring entrepreneurs are rising up and building businesses in a fundamentally new way and changing the very definition of ‘work’. For the first time in a decade they are just IT startups, who tend to work 24/7, but rather they are businesses purpose built to change the way we work. For the first time, corporates are losing some awesome talent to social enterprises that are run for people who need or prefer to work differently, (if you want an example, look up FightingChance.org.au for some serious inspiration!). Just a few years ago, we called them “social entrepreneurs’. Increasingly, we’re expecting ALL businesses to run to a model that is not only ‘for profit’, but also for what might best be referred to as “social prosperity”. Profitable for sure, but equally good for our health and well being, our relationships, our community and our environment. Inside these new businesses, they’re also very comfortable with a wide range of employment relationships, from the traditional employee, to the remote partner, to the independent contractor. They’re creating communities of common purpose and not a corporate cult.

Where to from here?

Against this backdrop, the future of work will start with a rethink of hours. Not “part-time” but work in pieces – all sorts of pieces to make up the seven days of the new ‘normal’ business week.

We will rethink “location”. Work will move to where the people who can do it, want to be. Recruitment will target a much broader group of potential candidates, from vastly different backgrounds. The shortage of key capabilities, and the rapid rise of new ones, will mean we recruit attributes and potential and then train for skills and capability.

Training will move from traditional training facilities to a hybrid model, with much of it taking place just-in-time inside a workplace.

Talent management will need to look at potential outside the 28-35 year group to where more great potential lives in people in their early 20s, people in their 40s and 50s, and heaven forbid, their 60s (when most of us will still have 15 years of good work contribution to be made). Talent processes will also be built against multiple career peaks, and not the singular linear career paths of the past. It’s estimated, the generation in their twenties today will have four or more completely unique careers.

Rewards need to be attractive when working very differently. Like profit share for people with profound disability who don’t work ‘hourly’ every day, or joint ventures for people who want to own their business and build wealth not negotiate a salary.

The rise of portfolio work will also mean most of us have two or three employers, at any one time, as we eagerly build a multi-faceted skillset and experience portfolio, linked to our purpose and passions. The Code of Ethics, will be difficult to enforce when a person has three employers and their own strong opinions on political and social issues.

And beyond all the basics, leadership will look very different when the ‘caste’ system of organisational structure, built on privilege and that “control test”, will be replaced by much more egalitarian expectations. Leaders will need to genuinely attract and retain people based on caring about them, having a positive impact on them and their employability, and providing a much better (virtual) place to work. Communities of shared purpose where all employees are considered volunteers not ‘captives’.

Described like this, there’s every chance that the future of work could be much better designed for humans and the society we want to live in today. Perhaps, we could make that our whole objective.

About Rhonda

Rhonda has spent her career on the people stuff, working with some of the biggest and best companies all around the world, but she has always thought – “we could do this better. We could make work (and leadership) better for all of us – more inclusive, more real, and more ‘human’.

She fundamentally believes that inclusion, good leadership and treating each other as equals, is not only foundational for good people practices in organisations but equally of more equitable and prosperous economies and communities. In short, if we include as many people as possible in work, then we start to build the sort of community and society we all want to live in.

Rhonda is also co-founder of mwah, a Community, a Toolkit, a Think Tank, and a Boutique Consultancy, all aimed at Making Work Absolutely Human. A knowledge base and a community of all the real stuff you need to lead and work with people, today and in the future.

About FlexCareers

FlexCareers has engineered game-changing technology to connect talented individuals with progressive employers offering flexible work. FlexCareers also offers a fully integrated suite of coaching, training and re-accreditation courses for skills enhancement, including our proprietary return to work Relaunchship Program.

FlexCareers host regular employer roundtable events to help move the needle on flexibility and gender diversity in the workplace, and are regular contributors to a variety of businesses and publications, supporting learning and best practice thinking in flexible working practices. If you need support to develop, embed or review your flexible working policies and programs, you can contact us here .

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