Change, change, and more change; many of our work areas are interrelated and interdependent, co-evolving as their ecosystems adapt to new pressures. New employment demands have given rise to flexible working patterns; technology-enabled transformation challenges business models; talent-focused approaches to productivity and engagement influence strategy. Those are just some of the elements of change that Sophie Wade (pictured right) explores in her new book, Embracing Progress.
The author enthusiastically supports adaptation and advancement, providing readers with practical guidance to prepare for the future of work. In this interview, Wade walks MARGINALIA through the key priorities for organisations and individuals wishing to make meaningful progress, namely: engagement, personalisation, integration, and choice.
She considers the new career landscape and suggests ways to develop workers’ potential in the coming decade. “The years until 2030, or at least 2025, are likely to be rather turbulent owing to the number of internal changes ahead for every company, combined with many ongoing external market-related developments. Even if these will not be the first steps towards an enriched future of work environment, the next steps on your journey to transforming your company may well represent some of the most profound adjustments yet tackled.”
Gloria Lombardi: What prompted you to write ‘Embracing Progress’?
Sophie Wade: The idea of progress is key to the future of work. It’s about developing a fresh understanding of where you’re heading. While there are many extraordinary and positive things about progress, it can also feel overwhelming because of the large number of unprecedented changes associated with it. The future workplace heralds such a radical departure from the past that we cannot use history to predict it.
I’ve written Embracing Progress to explain what’s going on: where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going. I wanted to offer some tools that organisations can use to progress and move forward, as well as steps that people can take personally for bettering their own lives and careers. By stepping back from how the business is run today and examining how things could operate optimally, readers can contemplate new possibilities for their business and working environment.
GL: The book emphasises that any plan around the future of work needs to be focused around four priorities: engagement, personalisation, integration, and choice. Could you tell us more?
SW: In a significant way, each priority relates to talent. For the first time in history, our society has started putting the key emphasis on talent inside organisations. Talent has not been the the core focus before, not within the business realm. In the past, with the Industrial Age and the exploding population, we put efforts into machines and increasing production to ensure we had enough food to eat.
Now we are at a different stage. Organisations are recognising the link between the low productivity and low employee engagement. To change that, companies have shifted their attention to the workplace experience, looking at how the whole workforce – whether full-time, part-time employees, or contract workers – can feel more engaged and be more productive.
To get more out of people, and therefore increase engagement and productivity, the best way is to address them personally. That is the personalisation priority. Each person is unique and has distinct strengths and weaknesses; they enjoy work differently; their needs and desires regarding how, when, and where to work are not the same. They have individual preferences about the environments that allow them to concentrate and develop their potential.
Organisations can personalise workplace situations for each worker, addressing their specific requirements such as allowing flexible work schedules. These employers will find engagement levels increase – it becomes a win-win solution for the employer and the employee.
Choice involves what I call the “employer-employee continuum”, where more control is moving from the employer toward employees. There is a deliberate extension of more choices and sharing of decision-making within the workforce. For example, some leaders now consult different employee groups when making decisions, and seek consensus. As well as being a different approach to leading, this shows workers how important they are to the organisation. Managers at every level should encourage active participation from their teams to demonstrate respect, build trust, and develop suitable schedules and roles for team members. Starting in the 1950s, Peter Drucker was already exploring this aspect. He talked about the rise of the knowledge worker, who needed more autonomy to be really productive. Having more choices around how, where, and when employees work is now starting to be critical.
Integration has three major aspects. One is about the fundamental integration of technology into operations. This is not about technology being used superficially – such as just for email or social tools. It’s about integrating technology to change fundamentally the way the business operates. Take Uber for example; they embedded technology at the core of their business model, changing everything about the customer service and experience and how they operated.
Another way to look at integration is around breaking barriers down. As we know, lots of organisations are very siloed. They have departments and divisions that do not work well together at all. But, in a world where technology is accelerating marketplace developments and disrupting the traditional ways of working, any business needs to be adaptable and flexible. To be responsive, they need to destroy the internal barriers first, build cross-functional groups, and have much more collaboration.
A third type of integration relates to the blurring of work-life boundaries. In the past, Baby Boomers and Gen X professionals were used to having strict dividing lines between work and their personal lives. Whereas younger generations (e.g. Millennials and Gen Z) are experiencing work as an integral part of their life, driven in part by their facile use of smartphones; their work-plus-personal social connections; and their penchant for side-projects. So, workers need to think about creating appropriate boundaries for themselves relating to their work and other activities, so that they can be most productive and satisfied.
GL: Where does personal accountability lie when we look at progress?
SW: Accountability is increasing for individuals within organisations. Take, for example, the choice of workers of where and when to work. They need to be empowered to find the best times and places, and to be responsible for their outputs and outcomes. Yet, in many cases, employees are still not used to having such choices, and the responsibilities they bring. So, the employer needs to help them manage the transition. For instance, if you decided that working from home works well for you (no commute, more focused ‘alone time’), then a good understanding with your manager regarding who is now responsible for what is required. People who begin to work remotely definitely need help to manage the switch, such as more detail about the process and milestones, plus ongoing technical and communication support.
There is a stark contrast between the traditional in-office employees working fixed hours and the new scenarios where employees, consultants, contractors, and free agents are all now anticipating multiple careers which are self-directed, self-managed, and flexible by default.
Life-long jobs do not exist anymore. The guy who was working 30 years at the same company, and self-identifying with that single employer, is a thing of the past. The career model becomes individual-centric – it’s about grounding yourself based on who you are, not by being associated with a particular company or specific role. It is a sea change that requires self-awareness and introspection: Do I want to work in groups in the office? Do I want to work from home? Do I work best in the mornings or in the evenings? Do I want to focus on different projects? What are my core strengths to let me do a better job?
So, there is a huge shift toward personal choice, and with that comes accountability.
GL: What can help workers capitalise on their skills?
SW: The recruitment process needs updating, starting with a different way of looking at work experiences. There must be a shift from a traditional chronological format resume to a functional format one.
A functional resume helps recruiters and hiring managers understand the person as a whole. Rather than looking at job after job and being most concerned about progress in sequence, the functional format focuses on what the candidate is really good at and how they apply their skills at work.
In the past, a chronological resume with a gap between jobs or that mentioned a job completely different from the previous one would often be dismissed immediately. It might be assumed that the person was not committed. This way of looking at candidates can be biased and limiting. Fortunately, companies are starting to understand how to read resumes better, exploring whether someone’s skills would suit the current vacancy and there is less stigma about different types of career path. I have also found examples of younger recruiters in organisations who completely ignore the names of candidates and their universities, and just focus on the topic of study and how the candidate has capitalised on their education – they hire people based on their skills, not on other traditional metrics.
The education system, at least here in the US, must be challenged too. It is somehow rather static, whereas the world of work is dynamic. A great deal of change is needed inside schools to help students develop the skills they will need in the future, such as critical analysis and problem solving. Many of today’s pupils will end up doing jobs that do not exist yet. So, they need to develop the ability to understand, navigate, and thrive in an evolving environment.
GL: What’s the role of diversity as organisations embrace such progress?
SW: The book explores diversity in broader terms, looking at it from the lens of an attitude: open-mindedness.
Personalisation, for example, is about recognising every single person just as they are, which means everything them, including their gender, race, cultural background, and other dimensions that make up their identity. The more open-minded someone is, the more they will be able to understand, include, and collaborate with their colleagues as well as adjust to developing customer bases.
Research shows that creativity increases when a group of people with the greatest diversity of background and perspectives comes together. That is key to embracing progress.
Cartoons credit to Andrew Grossman at Cartoon Resource