A friend of mine has just left a large engineering consultancy for a smaller business after over 20 years in the same organisation.  I say ‘same’ advisedly as the company he joined all those years ago has been taken over several times firstly by European companies and then a US one with a global reach.  He has had enough of endless restructures, culture clashes and hierarchical horrors.

Another friend works for a medium-sized IT software development company that has also been taken over several times by European outfits and is now reversing the strategy of the previous owner by outsourcing to India.  He is keeping his head down following a number of rounds of redundancies since the recession first hit.  He feels like a pawn in someone else’s game.

Both my friends have bemoaned the ‘human capital’ punishment within their workplaces.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Someday, bloody, someday

  • Workplace hierarchies will be relics of the past
  • People will stay either because of managers or because there aren’t any
  • HR will no longer be called HR
  • Shared learning and self-development will be a natural part of the daily workflow
  • Social collaboration will be omnipresent within and between workplaces
  • Workplaces will be more benevolent, feel more adult and less paternalistic, where genuine conversations are taking place, more community-minded than individual-minded and more at ease with itself whatever the wider context

Paradoxes and Dilemmas

For me, tomorrow’s workplace is a people challenge at its core – how people lead, follow, decide and choose to engage with or respond to the external environment in all its guises.  I see this expressed in a set of wide-ranging paradoxes and dilemmas.  The challenge for the future is how these can be reconciled (if at all):

  • Getting commitment from employees v staying agile and minimising liabilities to survive in a fast-changing fragmented world
  • Learning new ways to motivate and retain employees (as loyalty diminishes) v new ways to communicate with networks of people without trying to tie them into hierarchical relationships
  • Winners v losers (with and between organisations)
  • Freedom/privacy v security/predictability
  • Individual v team
  • Loose structures v tight structures, networks v bureaucracy, autonomy v control, centralised v decentralised
  • Expectations of an older workforce (majority) v younger people coming in (minority)
  • Conformance v risk taking for innovation
  • Empowerment v compliance with key business processes

There are numerous dependencies and inter-dependencies in the workplace that affect how people lead and manage – systemic constraints can stymie the most authentic leaders (look at health or our schools).  For me, education (in its broadest sense) is the fundamental building block to creating and taking responsibility for our own future.

The most effective action that people can make today in the workplace that could make a positive difference is to start the dialogue about what kind of workplace we want tomorrow.

What is your vision of tomorrow’s workplace?  What do you think we need to do today to move towards that vision?