The NOW of work

20th April 2019

It is generally agreed we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution “characterized by a fusion of technologies, blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”1. Taking center stage at this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos, it was discussed at length that nowhere will this fourth industrial revolution be more evident and ‘felt’ than in the ‘future of work’.  

This is not a new conversation however.  You would have to have lived under a rock the past few years to have missed the prolific commentary on and around the ‘future of work’. At the extreme end some predict a future where human-centered skills will become obsolete, and that advancements in AI, robotics, technology in general, will render most of the rest of us as mere on-lookers, only contributing on the fringes of economic growth (thanks to Yuval Noah Harari’s book ‘Homo Deus’ for scaring us with that little nugget!). Others predict that although the importance of these and other technologies will proliferate and their impact will undoubtedly grow, there is still an argument that we should not ignore the human element and the associated ‘soft-skills’ we (that’s us, you and me and the colleague sitting next to you…) bring to the equation.  

To us, these ‘soft skills’ are those things which underpin HOW we get our work done. They are the intangible tools we deploy on a daily basis to achieve ours and our organisations’ objectives. Skills such as complex problem solving, critical thinking, people management, coordinating with others and creativity. According to the World Economic Forum these skills were all featured in the top 10 core skill sets for most occupations in 2015. The interesting part?… in 2020 the same core skills feature.  What does this tell us? That the job requirements and outputs may change, the technologies around us may change, but the core skills needed to get through the work day remain fairly constant.  

This got us thinking at Harbour84, amongst all this talk of the ‘future of work’ are we taking enough time to reflect a little on the NOW of WORK?  It is all very well looking ahead, after all preparedness is essential to survive. But in looking too far ahead do we risk tripping over our own feet?  Let’s not forget that the future is like the blind summit of a mountain, always just over the next hill.  Instead of focusing always on what the conditions will be at the top, let’s take a moment to think about the experience we go through to get there. By this we mean paying due attention to individual, everyday workplace experiences. Because it counts.  

Research by Deloitte showed that while the problems of employee engagement and productivity grow, few firms are equipped to really provide a differentiated employee experience, NOW, never mind in the future. How can we hope to harness the skills and discretionary effort of our employees NOW, never mind in the future, if we don’t consider their day to day working experience? Even big changes in the workplace are often eclipsed by the day to day challenges of simply getting the job done.  After all, Jane, down the hall, is probably thinking less about whether a robot can do her job and more about her commute this morning, her next team meeting, that big deadline due, and that difficult conversation with her boss about Client XYZ.  

So, rather let’s take some of that time and energy directed towards this intangible ‘future’ and redirect it towards the work of now and the workplace of today. Lets: 

  • Reexamine the core skills that matter in our roles, to our teams and for our clients, and create frameworks for these skills to continue to develop; 
  • Have open discussions about what supports productivity, at an individual, team and organizational level, so we can provide the right environment for people to flourish today; 
  • Figure out what tools can enhance employee experiences of the workplace, reinforcing a psychological contract between an employee and their organization that will only be more important in the future. 

Jonathan Grundin of Microsoft put it best when he said; “people will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them, and technology is already central. It will undoubtedly play a greater role in the future”. So, until we are rendered obsolete (yikes!) success will still depend on how well we support the day to day employee experience, equipping ourselves and our employees with the right core skills to maximze productivity, value, and sense of self-worth in the NOW. This, coupled with an ability to take advantage of the advances in technology in a way that enhances our human-centered contribution, will allow us to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution.  

Mhorag Doig is the Founder of Harbour84, an online platform to connect business travelers and mobile corporate workers with workspaces that can help them be their best. Curation is key to our success. We carefully select spaces that offer connectivity, community and comfort based on the belief that workplace wellbeing and productivity go hand in hand.