Image of woman in jeans with her hands holding a smartphone

Is the ‘future of work’ really jeans, smartphones, and no desk?

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When I started my first ‘real’ job – just as I was finishing my second degree at university – I wore a suit, had a private office (yes, as a graduate consultant!), a desktop PC, and my own black-and-white laser printer. We didn’t have email then, or mobile phones.

It was only 5 years later that I started my own consultancy, emboldened by the dotcom boom which had helped fuel a sustained drop in the cost of business-enabling, portable technology. I worked from home (not in my pyjamas!) but still wore suits to meetings, had a mobile phone that was slightly smaller and about the same weight as a brick, a colour ink-jet printer and an email address. Actually, I was the only person I knew with a professional email address for almost a year! While I never appeared on the cover of Forbes, my first attempt at building a consulting business was successful enough to continue for almost a decade (after which for various reasons it was set aside).

Fast forward another 10 years to 2016 when I founded Workplace Revolution. I work from everywhere and anywhere (my best focus time is at 30,000 feet!), have all the information I need personally and professionally on my smartphone, tablet and wafer-thin laptop, wear smart-casual to client meetings which are held mostly in cafes or one of our coworking joints (I only very occasionally and under sufferance suit-up!), and having gone almost paperless 5 years ago, rarely have need of a printer.

Our core team are based in different locations and timezones across Asia-Pacific according to their lifestyles, and our Community of Partners extends even further. I avoid email as much as possible (if only we had realised what a monster we were creating in the nineties!) and prefer Slack, Zoom, WhatsApp and WeChat for team, colleague and Client sharing.

By some measures I have ‘lost’ a lot in twenty-five years, but to my thinking I have gained enormously; I don’t have a dedicated office, I get to wear jeans not just on Fridays, I travel light and am constantly in touch with everyone I need to be connected with, and I find inspiration everywhere that nourishes our teams’ innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

This is why I am loving this period of time on the brink of the digital age, and see enormous opportunity to re-imagine the typical ‘day at the office’ with our Clients and colleagues.

And in this I am not alone – in an audience poll I conducted recently at OCBC Bank’s Future Smart Workforce Event in Singapore , close to two-thirds of employees said they were excited about the future of work. However, they are also rightly concerned about information privacy and losing the “human touch”.

We are currently at the stage where automation, machine learning, and a degree of ‘artificial intelligence’ (although some experts would dispute we are there yet with artificial intelligence), are taking over repetitive, standardised and data-driven activities in service and knowledge-based industries – a trend which is forecast to accelerate over the next 3-5 years.

However, even though we live in a post Alpha-Go world, a computer that can beat the world Go Master cannot make a cup of coffee or assemble a piece of furniture from IKEA without specific programming – yet!

Rather than taking our jobs, these technologies have the power to unleash our potential by allowing us to focus on the ‘human to human’ aspects of our work.

Imagine how much more fulfilling and varied our jobs will be when we can focus on identifying and solving people’s problems (all products and services essentially solve a problem), using computers to inform and guide our reasoning based on gazillions of bytes of data. And although 73% of working age people in China, Germany, India, the UK and the US tend to agree, we are at the start of a long and risky journey that will be challenging for organisations and individuals to navigate in this VUCA world.

The path to creating a more productive, purposeful, and sustainable ‘future of work’ for people will be unique to each organisation and involves more than just implementing new technologies – it requires a shared vision to create a better workplace for everyone.

Successful organisations in the new economy will use digital capabilities to improve processes, engage people and drive innovation. They will make it easier for people to get work done and focus on what matters by overhauling work practices, policies, systems, and processes, and by driving a culture of trust and empowerment (Dery, Sebastian and van der Muelen, “The Digital Workplace Is Key to Digital Innovation”, MIS Quarterly Executive 16:2, June 2017).

Of course, this is much easier said than done, especially in large, established and historically successful and profitable organisations. But it is not negotiable.

Change and technological innovation is not new in business. What is different about the period we are in now, compared to the dawn of the internet age at the start of my career, is that the rate and complexity of change, and the VUCA environment in which it is occurring means that the stakes are higher for everyone.

It took more than 20 years for me to go from a private office, desktop PC and a suit, to jeans, a smart phone, and a favourite work café in every city. I know the next 5 years will likely bring the same magnitude of change again, and I am ready to embrace an even better future of work!

Watch out for a follow-up article exploring the professional capabilities we will need to be successful in the next decade, and what this might mean for the digital workplace of the future.

This article was first published on www.carolinemburns.com commencing May 11, 2018.