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A Better Future of Work

Picture of a man working at a laptop


One would expect that where the worker works would be driven by the needs of the organisation. Smart, post-industrial organisations will no doubt recognise that designing the ‘workplace’ to optimise the cognitive bandwidth of their people is the best way to meet the needs of both worker and employer. Innovative work requires both deep and collaborative thinking. So, where the worker works will be determined by the type of thinking required and whether their home supports, in particular, deep work.

However, there are wider forces at play, including the government, commercial property owners and the inner-city ecosystem stakeholders. We could find ourselves in a situation where homeworking is disincentivised. Thus, the future of work will not necessarily be optimised for the worker or the employer. The emerging return to work trend suggests that 2022 will look very much like 2019 from a workplace perspective.

Key recommendations

  • Setting clear timelines
  • Rethink the model – people, in other words diverse talent, are critical to business going forward
  • Create conditions to attract and retain the best talent
  • Consider the type of work employees do and where that can be done best
  • Align HR’s strategic aims with the CEO’s strategic imperatives


Work lies at the core of a functioning society. We have always worked. Laziness led to tribal expulsion. Back then that was a death sentence. The world has moved on but we are still wired to associate work with survival.

Whilst we have enjoyed a certain degree of predictability in respect of how work works, we are now faced with what appears to be an unknowable future.

In this chapter, we explore the forces that are making work inhuman and how we can rehumanise work to the benefit of all stakeholders.

Spoiler alert: It’s good news for humans, but there is a price to pay.

The factory is broken

The modern notion of work is largely built upon the industrial era factory model. In essence, a market need was identified, and a factory was built to create the associated product. Even modern furnished offices are factories. The raw material that flows along the conveyor belt is data and the output takes the form of a service. Factories and their modern-day equivalents are primarily focused on process optimisation. Efficiency and profits are correlated. So, failure is the enemy.

For the factory to work there needed to be a what might be called ‘synthetic certainty’, i.e. the market needed to be sufficiently stable to justify the investment in the factory. The industrial era

managed to cultivate such conditions. Over time this manufactured stability gave rise to the notion of a career.

Major events such as world wars and natural disasters have put the model to the test and, impressively, it has always bounced back. But the black swans are now arriving in flocks. Digital and biological forces in the form of challenger business models and Covid-19 are putting synthetic certainty and thus the factory model under strain. Moreover, these are just a few of the macro-environmental forces at play. Consequently, the factory model is on its last legs and the workers are feeling the strain.

The cloud of despair

The industrial era has delivered great benefits to those nations that have embraced it. Today the average person enjoys access to services unavailable to billionaires even just a century ago. Comparing our lives today to the precarious lives of our ancestors back on the savanna further highlights what the industrial era has delivered in respect of progress.

But if we examine the factory model, it is plain to see that humans are not employed to be human, in other words, social, curious and creative. They are employed to adhere to the operations manual and thus to adhere to the process. Humans in the context of the factory model are basically technology placeholders. The factory owner had no choice but to use people because technology had not yet evolved sufficiently for some elements of their model. But such is the exponential nature of technology growth that today there are increasingly very few areas of the model that require humans.

So, if the mindless repetition of process work wasn’t dehumanising enough, the prospect of losing your primary source of income and thus not putting food on your family’s table is transforming that lingering sense of despair into full blown anxiety.

For some this will be less dramatic. It might require a reduction in the number of exotic holidays or the sale of the holiday home. But even lawyers, surgeons and actors are not beyond the reach of the digital steamroller. The ‘blue collarisation’ of white-collar work is well underway.

Stressed people stress others. Distrust abounds. Stress is a contagion. Society is exhibiting the associated symptoms. The industrial revolution dream is turning into a designer label nightmare.

Where’s HR?

Social unrest aside, what are organisations doing to address this? The only substantive action that can be taken is to rethink the model. As we will learn, people, aka talent, are critical to business going forward. But this has yet to dawn on most business leaders. If talent is strategically important, it would be represented in the executive team. That is rarely the case.

The Human Resources (HR) function is largely decoupled from strategy. In keeping with the industrial era model, it is simply an extension of the procurement function. The HR professional’s job being to acquire cogs for the machine and ensure they run smoothly. Rarely do HR’s strategic aims align with the CEO’s strategic imperatives. There is work to be done. Possibly dropping the notion of humans as resources would be a start. Maybe the issue is that HR doesn’t get people?

Sadly, employee wellness, which happens to be a multi-billion-dollar industry, is no more than an employee benefits / perk store. Losing your mind? Just use the meditation app. Got an eating disorder? I am sure online course on the benefits of intermittent fasting will do you the power of good. This superficial sheep dipping approach to employee wellness is an attempt to paper over the cracks of a broken business model.

Workplace engineering

The question of where people work is front of mind for many leaders. According to culture specialist Great Places to Work:

“Working from home is just as productive as working in the office – possibly more so. A two-year study by Great Place to Work of more than 800,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies found that most people reported stable or even increased productivity levels after employees started working from home”.

So why are big players pushing for a return to the workplace. Productivity doesn’t appear to be the driver. The industrial era focused on worker activity more so than productivity. The natural distrust emerging from workers doing inhumane work require the bosses to have line of sight visibility. How else can they detect and quash idleness?

There are other actors involved. Property owners and governments have an interest in office-based work. The property owners have a business model to protect. The government is concerned about inner city degeneration and the collapse of the ecosystem of services that support the city workers. This is understandable.

Again, this reflects the perception of the worker as a cog in the machine. It would be better to consider the type of work they have to do and where that can be done best. Deep work requires concentration. Depending on the individual’s circumstances, the office is preferable to barking dogs and screaming kids. Collaborative work might work best in the presence of a whiteboard, but do the upsides of in-person collaboration outweigh the cost (financial, environment and cognitive) of transporting the participants from across the globe to a physical room?

The notion of hybrid work is a hot topic, although it is not a new idea. ‘Hot desking’ has been around for several decades. The anxiety of booking your favourite desk each day you opt to work at the office will be sufficiently anxiety inducing to obviate the need for an alarm clock.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that cultural engineering is a dangerous pursuit, even if the intentions are honourable. Covid-19 forced a cultural revolution in respect of home working. Is there a strong enough case to unwind pandemic work practices, given that they seem to work?

As a cautionary note on cultural engineering, Chief Executive magazine highlighted a CEO who decided to change the working day from 9 to 5 to 8 to 1. His startup was growing steadily, but he thought he could accelerate matters by adding a shorter working day to the mix. Productivity initially soared as a result. Unfortunately, staff turnover moved from 10% to 44%. His cultural engineering experiment went kaputski. A cack-handed approach to workplace engineering, might well lead to commercial property ads such as ‘Apple Park – Reasonable offers considered’.

Efficiency trumps innovation?

As we have covered, synthetic certainty tamed the market sufficiently to make the high capital costs of constructing a factory worthwhile. A consequence of this was a dampening effect on innovation. It is more profitable to come up with a market-pleasing offering and milk it for as long as possible before having to incur the expense of creating something new (Think MS-Dos). Consumers wanted what they were given and the longer that could be milked the better.

The evolution of the service economy has changed the dynamics. Businesses can be created with little initial capital, thus allowing anyone to become an entrepreneur. This has provided consumers with options. Today consumers are given what they want. And because consumers are now often overwhelmed with choice, their cognitive decision-making processes are increasingly fickle. Thus the providers are under constant pressure to provide shinier, whizzier offerings to capture the market’s attention.

Consequently, innovation has moved to the forefront in terms of business success. The good news is that humans are wired to be innovative. The bad news is that the industrial era factory model is not.

There is a strong correlation between innovation and failure. Innovation requires experimentation and failure is a natural consequence of that. Failure induces nausea in industrial leaders. The thinking being that failure implies inefficiency and inefficiency hurts profitability.

Industrial era leaders are process junkies. Innovation is only acceptable if it improves the processes and does so with minimal cost and disruption to the factory.

People or tech

New technologies have already stepped in to take on more of the dull, dangerous and dirty ‘human’ work. They are now increasingly taking on some of the smarter tasks including article writing (oh dear!), cranial surgery and service desk operations. The neo-luddites are assembling.

As mentioned, humans do innovation very well. We can think in constructs and do pattern matching very well. Tech can outperform us when large datasets are involved. We win with small datasets. Millions of years of programming can contextualise the slightest muscle twitch in another person’s face. You might say that the new definition of talent is being able to do something of value that an algorithm or robot cannot do. Engaging humans in this way is a much better use of their cognitive bandwidth than having them behave as process automatons.

This innovation imperative is good news for humans. Goodbye drudgery. Hello self-actualisation. We just need to get the factory owners onboard. Perhaps job number one is to fix the business schools?


Whether traditional leaders like it or not the world is changing. The traditional factory model is unsuited for an unknowable future populated with high expectation consumers and workers who value autonomy and mastery more than cash and drudgery.

Some leaders are responding to the new dynamics. They are creating super-resilient organisations. Such organisations don’t just simply withstand adversity, they grow stronger because of it. This is a characteristic of living organisms and so they are engineered accordingly.

Living organisms constantly sense their environment. A lapse might spell death. They constantly process the incoming data and make decisions based on the current situation, rather than what the CEO has had for breakfast. They decide quickly and then they act. Action boils down to move away from threats or towards opportunity and to do so whilst conserving energy.

Thus, super-resilient organisations are emotionally, mentally and physically intelligent. Their ability to stay in play (the infinite game) is through their people-powered capacity to innovate. Following a strategic plan worked well when certainty was guaranteed. Today that plan is the equivalent of wearing headphones and sunglasses during nocturnal jungle warfare.

Ironically perhaps, super-resilient organisations are in essence failure factories. They have a process for innovation. They also recognise that failure velocity is a proxy for innovativeness.

Cognitive management

Again, people are key to super-resilient organisations. Tech has a role to play in augmenting their work. Humans are becoming increasingly augmented and thus superhuman. Today, cognition is a largely wasted asset. Organisations that can channel cognition productively will thrive.

The priority for today’s leaders is to create the conditions to attract and retain the best talent. A place where great people go to do great work with other great people. Leaders are in the cognitive bandwidth management business. The focus will initially be on plugging the cognitive leaks, for example poor workplace design, micro-management, and vexing IT systems. It will then move on to acquiring cognitive gains or micro-improvements that yield further cognitive capacity. This is where autonomy and mastery frameworks become important.

This is fundamentally a journey from human as cog worker to cognitive athlete. This makes leaders cognitive coaches. It is about getting the best from your people, not the most. It means caring.

Better organisation

Invariably the office morphs into a cognitive gym. Organisations have less control over people’s homes and that is why organisations that embrace super-resilience, such as Apple and Google invest so heavily in their work environments.

However, we need to treat athletes as individuals and consider the nature of the work they are doing. Again, the choice of work will boil down to the individual’s home conditions and whether the work is deep or collaborative in nature.

Better people

The very nature of innovation implies novelty and variety. Diversity of talent is thus important. Specifically cognitive diversity, which comes about from different life experiences, different strengths and different vulnerabilities. An ethnically diverse group of people is of little value if they all had identical upbringings.

People that have a sense of autonomy and mastery, and ideally purpose, are happier people. They are not in a permanent state of overwhelm. Burn out is always an issue for athletes, but good coaches never let it get that far. People who feel more in charge of their destiny are less likely to be self-centred and more likely to be kinder to others.

Such people make for a better society. Democracy benefits from citizens who have discretionary cognitive bandwidth available to take an interest in civic matters and who are better able to recognise to fake news.


The world is changing. Digital and biology are just two disruption vectors. Many people are feeling anxious, clinging to their certainty blankets. But the reality is that disruption has come to save us. We have been ‘sleep working’ our way along a path that is neither good for people nor the planet.

Disruption is waking us up.

Profit has been the goal of industrial era business. Our craving for security and comfort has perversely led to indentured slavery. Disruption painfully reminds us that security is overrated and that liberation is what matters. This is changing the nature of work. But there is a price. We need be human again.

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