3 unexpected insights on the future of work

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I have been exploring and researching the future of work for over 6 years now. It has been a fascinating journey as the pace of change driven by accelerating connectivity, new talent models, and cognitive tools is astonishing. In this blog, I would like to share 3 unexpected insights on the future of work that I have come across from my research and advisory work with companies around the world. They are:

  1. Hierarchies are here to stay

Experiments to do away with hierarchical power structures in most organisations have not been smooth. An indicator of these challenges is that when given the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout, almost 210 of Zappos 1,500 employees took redundancy rather than relinquish their titles and status. Indeed, getting organisations to do away with hierarchical power structures is proving to be next to impossible. For all its enemies – and the millions of copies of employee empowerment handbooks – hierarchy is amazingly resilient. An indicator of this is that since 1983, the number of managers employed in the U.S. economy has nearly doubled, while employment in other occupations has grown by less than 40%, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.[i]

Why do hierarchies persist? Countless social scientists have similarly argued that hierarchies are necessary. In fact, many theorists have even argued that hierarchies are inevitable as they stem from our evolutionary roots. In other words, if different forms of social organisation were more advantageous, groups would have successfully adopted them long ago.[ii] Hierarchy has evolved to be the most dominant form of social organisation because it works. All those structures and systems serve a purpose. On the most basic level, the invisible hand of hierarchy helps people know who does what, when and how, and simplifies interactions by setting clear expectations and role clarity.[iii]

  1. The importance of solitude

Creativity requires solitude. Today’s world is fixated with association. We live in hyper-social times where the random association of things is not just routine; it is endemic. However, in recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that we tend to get our best ideas when our attention is not fully engaged in our immediate environment. When we are not focusing on anything in particular and letting the mind wander, the brain’s default mode network is activated. Many of our most creative insights arise from the activity of this network. Using many regions across the brain, the default mode network enables us to remember the past, think about the future, understand ourselves, and create meaning from our experiences. Activating this network requires deep internal reflection facilitated by solitude.[iv]

  1. Engagement is not a purely beneficial experience

A recent study conducted by Yale University study examined the levels of engagement and burnout in over 1,000 U.S. employees. “For some people, engagement is indeed a purely beneficial experience; 2 out of 5 employees in the survey reported high engagement and low burnout. These are the optimally engaged group. However, the data also showed that 1 out of 5 employees reported both high engagement and high burnout. This group is the engaged-exhausted group. These engaged-exhausted workers were passionate about their work, but also had intensely mixed feelings about it — reporting high levels of interest, stress, and frustration. While they showed desirable behaviours such as high skill acquisition, these apparent model employees also reported the highest turnover intentions in our sample — even higher than the unengaged group.”[v] That means that organisations may be at risk of losing some of their high performers not for a lack of engagement, but because of their concurrent experiences of high stress and burnout symptoms.[vi]

 


[i] Hamel, G. & Zanini, M. 2016. Top-down solutions like Holacracy won’t fix bureaucracy. Harvard Business Review

[ii] Anderson, C., & Brown, C. E. (2010). The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy. Research in organisational behavior, 30, 55-89.

[iii] Monarth, H. (2014). A company without job titles will still have hierarchies. Harvard Business Review.

[iv] https://hbr.org/2015/12/executives-protect-your-alone-time

[v] https://hbr.org/2018/02/1-in-5-highly-engaged-employees-is-at-risk-of-burnout

[vi] https://hbr.org/2018/02/1-in-5-highly-engaged-employees-is-at-risk-of-burnout

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