The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

Some recent research from Indiana University suggests that, in the right circumstances, a stressful job is actually good for you. Assuming that you have a sufficient degree of control over your own work, and enough individual input on decision-making and problem-solving, you may actually live longer. In short, the future of work and the key to a healthy working life is both creativity and autonomy.

Time to re-think what the “dignity of labour” means? (Image sourced from Discogs)

Context

In a previous blog, I discussed the changing economic relationship we have with work, in which I re-framed what we mean by “employment”, what it means to be “employed”, and what the new era of work might look like, based on a world of “suppliers” (who offer their services as independent contractors) and “clients” (who expect access to just-in-time and on-demand resources).

The expanding “gig economy” reinforces the expectation that by 2020, average job tenure will be 3 years, and around 40% of the workforce will be employed on a casual basis (part-time, temporary, contractor, freelance, consultant etc.). The proliferation of two-sided market places such as Uber, Foodera, Freelancer, Upwork, Sidekicker, 99designs, Envato and Fiverr are evidence of this shift from employee to supplier.

We are also seeing a trend for hiring platforms that connect teams of technical and business skills with specific project requirements posted by hiring companies. Many businesses understand the value of people pursuing and managing “portfolio careers”, because companies may prefer to access this just-in-time expertise as and when they need it, not take on permanent overheads. But there are still challenges around access and “discovery”: who’s available, which projects, defining roles, agreeing a price etc.

Contribution

Meanwhile, employers and HR managers are re-assessing how to re-evaluate employee contribution. It’s not simply a matter of how “hard” you work (e.g., the hours you put in, or the sales you make). Companies want to know what else you can do for them: how you collaborate, do you know how to ask for help, and are you willing to bring all your experience, as well as who and what you know to the role? (As a case in point, when Etsy’s COO, Linda Kozlowski was recently asked about her own hiring criteria, she emphasized the importance of critical thinking, and the ability for new hires to turn analysis into actionable solutions.)

In another blog on purpose, I noted that finding meaningful work all boils down to connecting with our values and interests, and finding a balance between what motivates us, what rewards us, what we can contribute, and what people want from us. As I wrote at the time, how do we manage our career path, when our purpose and our needs will change over time? In short, the future of work will be about creating our own career opportunities, in line with our values, purpose and requirements.*

Compensation

From an economic and social policy perspective, no debate about the future of work can ignore the dual paradoxes:

  1. We will need to have longer careers (as life expectancy increases), but there will be fewer “traditional” jobs to go round;
  2. A mismatch between workforce supply and in-demand skills (plus growing automation) will erode “traditional” wage structures in the jobs that do remain

Politicians, economists and academics have to devise strategies and theories that support social stability based on aspirational employment targets, while recognising the shifting market conditions and the changing technological environment. And, of course, for trade unions, more freelance/independent workers and cheaper hourly rates undermine their own business model of an organised membership, centralised industrial awards, enterprise bargaining and the residual threat of industrial action when protective/restrictive practices may be under threat.

Which is why there needs to be a more serious debate about ideas such as the Universal Basic Income, and grants to help people to start their own business. On the Universal Basic Income (UBI), I was struck by a recent interview with everyone’s favourite polymath, Brian Eno. He supports the UBI because:

“…we’re now looking towards a future where there will be less and less employment, inevitably automation is going to make it so there simply aren’t jobs. But that’s alright as long as we accept the productivity that the automations are producing feeds back to people ….. [The] universal basic income, which is basically saying we pay people to be alive – it makes perfect sense to me.”

If you think that intellectuals like Eno are “part of the problem“, then union leaders like Tim Ayres (who advocates the “start-up grant”), actually have more in common with Margaret Thatcher than perhaps they realise. It was Thatcher’s government that came up with the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme which, despite its flaws, can be credited with launching the careers of many successful entrepreneurs in the 1980s. Such schemes can also help the workforce transition from employment in “old” heavy industries to opportunities in the growing service sectors and the emerging, technology-driven enterprises of today.

Creativity

I am increasingly of the opinion that, whatever our chosen or preferred career path, it is essential to engage with our creative outlets: in part to provide a counterbalance to work/financial/external demands and obligations; in part to explore alternative ideas, find linkages between our other interests, and to connect with new and emerging technology.

In discussing his support for the UBI, Eno points to our need for creativity:

“For instance, in prisons, if you give people the chance to actually make something …. you say to them ‘make a picture, try it out, do whatever’ – and the thrill that somebody gets to find that they can actually do something autonomously, not do something that somebody else told them to do, well, in the future we’re all going to be able to need those kind of skills. Apart from the fact that simply rehearsing yourself in creativity is a good idea, remaining creative and being able to go to a situation where you’re not told what to do and to find out how to deal with it, this should be the basic human skill that we are educating people towards and what we’re doing is constantly stopping them from learning.”

I’ve written recently about the importance of the maker culture, and previously commented on the value of the arts and the contribution that they make to society. There is a lot of data on the economic benefits of both the arts and the creative industries, and their contribution to GDP. Some commentators have even argued that art and culture contribute more to the economy than jobs and growth.

Even a robust economy such as Singapore recognises the need to teach children greater creativity through the ability to process information, not simply regurgitate facts. It’s not because we might need more artists (although that may not be a bad thing!), but because of the need for both critical AND creative thinking to complement the demand for new technical skills – to prepare students for the new world of work, to foster innovation, to engage with careers in science and technology and to be more resilient and adaptive to a changing job market.

Conclusions

As part of this ongoing topic, some of the questions that I hope to explore in coming months include:

1. In the debate on the “Future of Work”, is it still relevant to track “employment” only in statistical terms (jobs created/lost, unemployment rates, number of hours worked, etc.)?

2. Is “job” itself an antiquated economic unit of measure (based on a 9-5, 5-day working week, hierarchical and centralised organisational models, and highly directed work practices and structures)?

3. How do we re-define “work” that is not restricted to an industrial-era definition of the “employer-employee/master-servant” relationship?

4. What do we need to do to ensure that our education system is directed towards broader outcomes (rather than paper-based qualifications in pursuit of a job) that empower students to be more resilient and more adaptive, to help them make informed decisions about their career choices, to help them navigate lifelong learning pathways, and to help them find their own purpose?

5. Do we need new ways to evaluate and reward “work” contribution that reflect economic, scientific, societal, environmental, community, research, policy, cultural, technical, artistic, academic, etc. outcomes?

* Acknowledgment: Some of the ideas in this blog were canvassed during an on-line workshop I facilitated last year on behalf of Re-Imagi, titled “How do we find Purpose in Work?”. For further information on how you can access these and other ideas, please contact me at: rory@re-imagi.co

Next week: Designing The Future Workplace

The Startup of You v2.0

Through my blogs on startups, meetups and portfolio careers, I was recently interviewed by Peter Judd from News Corp., who is trying to bring the discussion on entrepreneurship, startups and innovation to a wider audience, particularly people who may be looking at a career change. (We both agree that the National Innovation and Science Agenda is not cutting through to the general public.)  Apart from being an advocate for portfolio careers, I also pointed out that entrepreneurship or working with startups is not for everyone. Instead, it may be possible to change your current role to the one you want. Alternatively, taking a new look at your current circumstances can provide some fresh perspective on finding your dream career.

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

The impetus following the 2012 publication of “The Startup of You” has done much to fuel the current entrepreneurial phenomenon, combined with lean startup business models and agile product development processes. The drive for innovation in response to digital disruption and lowering technology costs also means that launching your own venture can be increasingly de-risked.

For example, I recently saw some data by Ian Gardner from Amazon Web Services, that showed the “cost of failure” has come down from $5m to $5k, in just 15 years. This is based on a comparison between what it typically cost to launch a new business at the height of the dot.com boom/bust in 2000, and what it costs today. With a mix of open source tools, cloud computing, APIs, SDKs and social media platforms, launching a new business has never been cheaper or easier.

Of course, there is a paradox here: if an increasing number of people, especially younger graduates and new entrants to the workforce, are more interested in doing their own thing and less interested in joining large or established organisations, it’s going to get harder for employers to attract and retain the best talent; on the other hand, without appropriate experience, on-the-job training and personal development, how do these aspiring entrepreneurs acquire the necessary business, technical and leadership skills to succeed in their own ventures?

For some people, it may be appropriate to take their entrepreneurial spirit of adventure into a “traditional” role to test some of their ideas, as well as build networks and get some practical experience. Equally, I can see a huge opportunity for companies to create the right opportunities to engage employees for flexible roles aligned with specific projects or objectives (rather than plugging them into org charts). Companies are also finding new ways of tapping into their existing workforce to identify hitherto hidden and unknown skills and knowledge. Many employers also recognise that leadership roles will increasingly be filled by people who are comfortable with rapid change, increasing complexity and heightened uncertainty, as well as having enhanced soft skills. (There’s even some current thinking that utilising “rebel talent” is a good thing.)

Whether you are starting out on your entrepreneurial journey, looking to reboot your career, or searching for meaningful work that aligns with your values and purpose, there are numerous opportunities (via meetups, hackathons, pitch nights and networking forums) to explore your options before you make a decision. And for companies looking to re-invigorate your workforce and unleash hidden talent, there are many ways to experiment through taking informed risks, by building in-house innovation hubs, running consultative and collaborative workshops, and inviting ideas and inspiration from your existing people, who are familiar with the challenges you face.

Next week: Banksy – an artist for our times?

It’s never too late to change….

Few things annoy me more than when someone in their late 20’s or early 30’s says: “I’m stuck in my job, and I can’t do anything about it.” My immediate reaction is to shout, “No you’re not, and yes you can!” But I stop myself, and ask instead, “What’s stopping you from making a change?” Usually, there is a mental blockage, and an inability to think outside or beyond the immediate situation. In turn, this is often linked to a distorted perspective about how they got to where they are, coupled with unreasonable (and therefore, unrealised) expectations.

Sculpture, Ueno Park, Tokyo (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

” A new perspective?” (Ueno Park, Tokyo – Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

Helping my clients to identify the barriers in their way (in particular any deeply entrenched obstacles), and to explore ways to dismantle or overcome them usually leads to alternatives: a new job opportunity, a potential career transition or a new business direction. It may not be an easy or comfortable process, but it’s not impossible. At its heart is the need for self-awareness, the willingness to embrace change, and the commitment to making it happen.

“See You At The Barricades”

Here are some of the initial objections I hear when people say they can’t make a career change or transition:

  • Financial security
  • Lack of time
  • No access to resources
  • No idea what to do next, where to look, how to plan
  • Enjoy the job, but not the organisation (or vice versa)
  • This is the only work they know, or studied/trained for
  • Non-transferable skills or inadequate training

My usual response is to get them to re-contextualize. It’s rather like using cognitive behaviour therapy, to reframe the situation. “How could you look at this differently?”, “What if you did this?”, “Who could help you overcome that?”, “What would be the ideal situation?”.

“Money’s Too Tight To Mention”

I understand that financial insecurity can be a major cause for concern. The certainty of a regular salary (even if you hate the job) can be preferable to taking a pay cut for a more rewarding role, or having to forego immediate financial return during a period of retraining or re-skilling. But if you are only doing a job because of the money, the likelihood is that you may never be entirely happy in your role, you may come to resent the work you do, and eventually you may lose sight of what is important to you. Plus, the knock-on effect on your personal well-being and that of your family can be significant. After all, no job has a lifetime warranty or even a 2-year guarantee, so the paycheck will probably run out anyway.

“Time Is On My Side”

Even if your financial circumstances or apparent lack of time mean that you can’t leave your current job or explore other options without securing a comparable income in another role, there are several ways to prepare for a career transition:

  • Re-train in your own-time – use on-line courses, evening classes and weekend workshops to access new skills and education
  • Ask your current organisation about options for study leave or flexible work hours
  • Suggest a personal development plan that draws on existing resources – e.g., shadow another colleague, or do a rotation or secondment to another team or department
  • Workers in some industries or older employees may be able to access public funding to support retraining and re-skilling
  • Use your annual leave to intern or volunteer at an organisation where you might like to work in the future

“Possibly Maybe”

There are many new opportunities for personal development through short courses, skill sharing or peer-to-peer platforms, and alternative learning paths to re-connect with your purpose. It might even be possible to reconfigure or restructure your current role to better suit your needs. Besides, the job you were originally hired for (or the industry and/or the career you trained for) has probably changed significantly; if you are not doing some regular re-engineering, you risk being confined to outdated thinking or processes, or worse, becoming obsolete.

“This Is Your Big Opportunity”

In fact, you have an obligation to yourself to invest in your own career, by re-training, updating your skills, or embarking on new challenges. Increasingly, organisations expect employees to take personal responsibility for self-managing their career, their professional development and to maintain the technical currency of their skills. Even better if you can demonstrate that learning a new skill can support innovation, generate efficiency gains, or deliver customer benefits. There are increasing examples where collaboration, co-creation and cross-pollination of ideas, skills and people between organisations and their suppliers/vendors/clients/distributors can have mutual outcomes, and employers are looking for people who can identify these opportunities.

“This Is The Way”

From personal experience, curiosity, pro-active networking, asking questions and generally taking an interest in what is going on in and around the organisation and wider world can reap huge rewards. In my own case, having a sense of enquiry prompted a transfer from London to Hong Kong to open a new Asian office for the company I worked for. Earlier in my career, I took evening classes so I could transition from a role in the public sector to a new career in publishing. And I continue to find new learning opportunities through meetups, hackathons and startup pitch nights, and attending workshops on innovation, collaboration, design thinking and technology.

I’ve written previously about the changing economic relationship of employment, because it’s incumbent on all of us to learn resilience and adaptability. We have a duty to equip ourselves in order to cope with and prepare for the continuous change and volatility we are all experiencing in the nature of the work we do.

Finally, for anyone who says they are “too old to change”, consider this: I recently met a man in his 60s, who had retired from a lifelong career in teaching, quickly got bored, and so he went back to college and is now a licensed horse trainer. He gets up earlier than he used to as a teacher, but he has connected with a passion and made it his career choice.

Declaration of Interest: I am a member of the Slow School of Business Advisory Council, which delivers Slow Coaching and Talk on Purpose

Next week: ANZ’s new CEO on #FinTech, CX and #digital disruption