How to thrive in our changing work environments

In the future, we could be working in environments full of fragmented attention and extreme isolation. Are we prepared?
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This is the second article in a series on the future of work, as explained in The Shift, a book by Professor Lynda Gratton. Previously, I presented Gratton's thoughts on five forces that will impact work in the future. In this article, I'll provide more detail on what Gratton says will be the results of these forces. These forces will create new global work environments, and we must face those new environments head-on. If we fail to plan, Gratton argues, we'll be impacted in negative ways. 

As I will argue, applying open organization principles to our planning will be critical for our success.

Our new work environments

According to Gratton, forces shaping the future of work will lead to environments with the following three characteristics.

1. Fragmentation

Fragmentation will be a powerful element of our future work environment, Gratton writes. Increasingly, we'll be making decisions on the spot, with little opportunity for deep thought. Stakeholders will be making requests of us all day, every day, from all over the globe—and we' ll be faced with constant interruptions (perhaps every three minutes). We just don't have time to reflect and plan for the future. This kind of fragmentation was not as common in 1990, Gratton explains. People could reflect more, and time for thought was roughly 30 minutes between interruptions. Our attention spans will become much shorter than they are today, leading to an environment where learning and planning are rarer than they'll need to be to master the skills necessary for succeeding in our new world. I've given sales seminars for many years, and I know that salespeople under a great deal of stress make poor salespeople. People must be able to concentrate and observe others in order to master new professional skills. And mastering new skills is critical for a bright future according to Gratton.

2. Isolation

With the ability to work from home or virtually, we'll see the chance of physical isolation increase, and face-to-face contact will become more infrequent, according to Gratton. This is dangerous, according to longitudinal studies by Harvard Medical School, which indicate that the happiest people are not the wealthiest people or even those that have achieved the most over their lifetimes, but rather those who claim to spend ample time in satisfying relationships with people (like close friends) in their daily lives. Therefore, face-to-face collaboration, inclusion and community have another benefit: lifetime happiness. In other words, face-to-face interaction keeps us happy. And in the future, Gratton warns, these face-to-face interactions (and the community spirit that results from them) will be under attack. Also, according to Gratton, the power of institutions will decline, and the reason for this is a lack of transparency. Therefore, this open organization principle will seem to be under attack as well. In the future, people will need to alter how they invest their time and energy, decreasing investments in income-producing activities and increasing investments in relationship building activities.

3. Exclusion

Until recently, most of the developing world has been excluded from the global economy. I saw this firsthand when I traveled to Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. That will all change in the future, Gratton says, and people in developing countries will be (are already starting to be) a more prominent part of the global economy. At the same time, people in developed countries will likewise be excluded from the emerging future economy, particularly those in dying or declining industries or those with skills easily replaced by automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. People must be prepared to regularly master new skills and be willing to relocate. Therefore, simply being born in a developed country may not bring someone the wealth once available to previous generations. In this more interconnected world, those previously excluded because of their geographical location will see new opportunities, as geography will matter much less than abilities, ambition and adaptability. So building new types of communities, those that are more inclusive than ever before, will become extremely important.

Increasingly, we'll be making decisions on the spot, with little opportunity for deep thought.

Potential impacts: Shame and narcissism

With certain geographic regions, industries, and careers in decline and others expanding, Gratton argues that our future work environments will be marked by increased anxiety and shame among some people—and a sense of narcissism among others. Anxiety would be the result of diminished self-esteem or social status due to economic decline. In this rapidly changing future of work, some people will feel they're inadequate, incompetent, or vulnerable. Put simply: they will feel ashamed. As Gratton states:

In a world of strangers (through increased isolation), and increasing transparency, people will be increasingly forced into propping up their egos through telling everyone how great they are or at least the same as their peers, using a wide range of self-promoting and self-enhancing strategies to do so.

In this environment of vast hyper-connectivity, people may tend to crave feedback and praise from others more than they ever have. Their desire for recognition from bosses, peers, and colleagues will overcome them. Consequently, Gratton says, accelerated consumption and the tendency to act wealthier than one actually is. There could be excessive self-promotion. The future will see creative growth areas (what Professor Gratton calls "creative clusters'') as well as declining areas. The creative clusters will attract those who are engaged with the cluster's issues, and those who support these workers. People engaged with the cluster's issues will be drawn to work with others like them. Therefore, actively seeking productive and compatible communities will be vital in the future.

Facing the future—two approaches

Gratton explains two approaches we can take in these future work environments.

The first is what she calls the "default" approach: failing to plan for changes in work to come, avoiding tough decisions, and being overwhelmed by the five forces I presented in my first article on this topic. Unfortunately, I'd guess this is the strategy most people will take when faced with the prospect of monumental change. And while some may fare well, others could face many disappointments—but this is the choice they've made.

The second approach is the "crafted" one. This is an approach to the future of work in which we strategically plan and prepare for this future. More than likely, adopting this approach will present setbacks, but nothing as great as not planning at all.

In a world of strangers (through increased isolation), and increasing transparency, people will be increasingly forced into propping up their egos through telling everyone how great they are or at least the same as their peers, using a wide range of self-promoting and self-enhancing strategies to do so.

Gratton explains three strategies—"co-creation," "social engagement" and "micro-entrepreneurship"—one can adopt to cope in environments with the characteristics I just explained—even benefit from them. After all, we'll be able to connect with people around the globe as never before. We can establish innovation processes that were never possible. We can redirect our attention to experiences never even considered in the past, and move away from the simple desire to obtain things to impress people.

1. Co-creation

One of the key factors of work in the future is co-creating projects. What is greatly different from today will be communities that span across the globe. The communities will have very diverse members with different experiences, training, knowledge, and identity. What they all will share, though, is the same desire to address a particular detailed problem. To be successful, people should actively both assemble and participate in these communities. Here is where open organization principles like community and inclusivity will play a vital role. Gratton argues that in the past, particularly among the Baby Boomer generation, competition and outperforming others was critical—but in the future, a cooperative spirit will be far more valuable. (I talked about when to cooperate and when to compete in an earlier article.)

2. Social engagement

In the future, younger generations will play an increasingly important role in determining what is meaningful and helpful to the global community. This is because they'll have access to more information and opportunities than previous generations have had, as well as more independence when selecting their own career paths. So one key strategy for addressing problematic work environments is ensuring younger workers feel empowered to choose for themselves the problems they want their work to address. The notion of "economic interdependence" will become ever more important along with these increased opportunities for growth, learning and development.

3. Micro-entrepreneurship

Gratton notes that "across the world in 2025, hundreds of millions of people will be working as micro-entrepreneurs and partnering together in what have been called 'ecosystems.' These are gatherings of like-minded people, gathered around an idea." To me, Gratton is describing the open organization principle of community. Communities will be far more important than I'd ever thought before reading this book. Platforms and supply chains will connect the world of suppliers, manufacturers, developers, and innovators in new ways. Research and development, collaboration, and growth cooperation will be advanced to levels never seen before. To make things even more interesting, self-employed people tend to be twice as likely to be passionate about their work than their peers who work in large institutions, as they have the ability to make their own decisions. So Gratton advocates for "micro-entrepreneurship"—small, local efforts at identifying key problems, building a community to address those problems and, through that problem-solving activity, building firms to address critical issues. Previously, only large corporations with vast resources could do this kind of work; now, a handful of carefully coordinated and passionate people can.

In the third article of this series, I'll explain how Gratton encourages readers to shift their career plans to better prepare for the future of work.

Read the series

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Ron McFarland has been working in Japan for over 40 years, and he's spent more than 30 of them in international sales, sales management training, and expanding sales worldwide. He's worked in or been to more than 80 countries.

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