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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future working: what does the company of the future look like?

Following on from my speech at Boston’s Smashfly conference in 2016 on the future of recruitment, I’m discussing the topic once again. There is a lot to unpack when we consider the future of workforce management, and indeed, the company of the future.

There are lots of articles out there about the future of recruitment. Many of the ones that I read tended to focus on how we will hire people in the future. The end of the CV/resume, for example, and AI-assisted selection. But I thought I would focus on why we will hire people, what sort of business we will be bringing them in to, and how we will see workers change as a result.

The future of workforce management

The starting point for this is understanding that the rules of success are changing. What defines a successful company in the future is not the ability to optimise, it is the ability to adapt. In short, being the best at what you do is only useful while what you do is something people want. In an age of high frequency change, what people want is subject to frequent and rapid disruption.

Future-ready organisations are constructed as networks of loosely coupled smaller units, not deeply integrated monoliths. Each of these smaller units might have a unique culture and operating processes. They will need to be ethically compatible and aligned to the wider organisation’s over-all goals. But if their interfaces match up to the interfaces of other parts of the organisation, and they continue to deliver, there is little need for rigid control.

Building for remote

Some companies have already ‘built for remote’. GitLab has documented in great detail its approach to an all-remote workforce, including the challenge of onboarding people and overcoming loneliness.

As well as having a continuing fear of infection, lots of people – and their employers – have now recognised these benefits of working remotely. They have found a better way of working for many of the things they need to do. Once you have found this better way, why on earth would you want to go back?

Migrating to Cyberworld

You can see the move to the cyber realm as similar to relocating to a different country, with a new language, culture and rules. Why shouldn’t it be possible? After all, we had to build up the now familiar processes of the office environment. Why shouldn’t we just create a whole new set of behaviours for the remote world?

This would be true even if most organisations currently run in a slick, transparent and deliberate manner. I think most of us know that is not the case for most organisations, which tend to rely on the good will and hard work of lots of people to keep them running in spite of – rather than because of – sound processes. Should we address this? Absolutely. Can it be done fast? Absolutely not.

People will need to be both retrained and re-equipped. In giving up the office, large organisations will need to start thinking much more about the home or remote working environment of their staff and spend accordingly, if they want to avoid risks of physical or mental harm. The change this will require in budgets alone is colossal for a large employer.

The question for organisations who have recognised the potential for more remote or hybrid working, is when to begin the radical interventions that will begin their real transformation and allow them to reap the benefits.

High value hires

That might sound bad for recruiters but that would be to ignore the critical corollary to falling worker numbers: each worker becomes more valuable as a result. Just look at the earnings per employee of some of the world-leading companies right now. Companies like Apple make over two million dollars in revenue and hundreds of thousands in profit for every single employee. That means the value that they have to place on selecting and developing the right people is much higher.

Networked organisations created in response to high frequency change are designed to be adaptable. Sometimes that adaptation will be organic within each node on the network. Small, agile teams should be able to evolve faster. But sometimes more radical excisions and acquisitions will be required. Whole units may need to be added quickly, sometimes through outsourcing to third parties, sometimes through acquisition. Sometimes, whole units will be dropped. Recruiters will be expected to fill critical positions at speed.

Constant evolution

For workers, high frequency change means constantly evolving your skill set to remain relevant. This too presents challenges to recruiters. The best candidates will be advancing their skills at an accelerated rate. The ability to learn and develop becomes one of the most critical factors in candidate selection, much more than established skills and experience. Companies are building the ability to be great tomorrow, not just seeking more of the same to expand their current output.

Embracing the ‘lazy’ mindset

I say all this as someone who has worked remotely for much of the last fifteen years. It’s good to be lazy. I am lucky enough to have a good setup at home to allow me to be productive. And my periods of working in offices and collaborating with others have shown me when it makes most sense to isolate myself, and when it is best to come together. I recognise that working remotely I can be a lot more productive in many tasks. And not only that, I don’t waste large parts of my day travelling.

It’s good to be lazy because people with the right type of lazy mindset do things better. They are less likely to be busy fools. They are more likely to be the type of ‘essentialist’ described in Greg McKeown’s popular book: focused on the things that matter.

We shouldn’t be calling out the ‘lazy’ people staying away from the office. We should be celebrating their better instincts. And at the same time, working out how we support those for home remote working just doesn’t work.

What will jobs look like in the company of the future?

So, we know that hiring processes will change and organisational structures will evolve. But what will future jobs look like? Let’s take a look at a future job: the Algorithm Archaeologist.

Future Job: Algorithm Archaeologist

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll know by now that algorithms – a sequence of steps to process some information and return a result – are responsible for a lot of things in our lives.

But how do we know what those algorithms are doing? How do we know we can trust them? How do we know they are not biased against us, because of our age, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation?

Algorithms have been around for a long time. They rarely operate in isolation in such a virgin environment. They are compounded and integrated, fed skewed data sets. Their outputs get twisted from the intention.

Who do you call when this happens? The Algorithm Archaeologists. Data professionals who can spelunk down through the chained processes to understand the complete sequence, and audit and identify any bias or breakdown.

As we build up more and more layers of technology, one on top of the other in opaque strata of complexity, we will need more people with these skills to help us maintain our faith in the systems that support us, and ensure that they are not exacerbating existing inequalities, or creating new ones.

Tom Cheesewright