Why 'future of work' is fast becoming a buzzword

There’s a big problem with future of work discussion. I love talking about the future of work — heck, on my blog I have a full tag for future of work. I’ve probably slid it into about six different headlines (or more), including this one about how the future of work is all about respect. But again, there’s a problem with future of work discussions. I’m not referring to the obvious — no one can predict the future, really (especially if there’s another big recession) — and I’m not even referring to the dichotomy between “talking about automation” (which will put a bunch of us out of work) and “talking about new management trends” (which might not happen, because hierarchy ain’t going anywhere).

Rather, here’s the problem with future of work talk and ‘thought leadership:’ it exists in a utopia.

Think about this: how many times, if you’ve ever read a future of work article, have you seen terms like these?

  • Purpose
  • Vision
  • People Skills
  • Empathy
  • Remote work
  • Millennials
  • Feedback
  • Organic

I could go on, but I shan’t.

The problem with future of work discourse: We don’t live in Narnia

Here’s the real way of the world:

  • Most bosses aren’t very good at their jobs — and most bosses cannot set clear priorities to save their lives
  • Most senior leaders pretend to care about soft skill issues and instead chase every conceivable revenue stream and hole up in meetings discussing more ways to make money
  • Most rank-and-files and tenured employees just hope they have a good, protected relationship with their boss, get paid every two weeks, and periodically get a salary increase

You can’t build a giant casino or palace on top of a sinkhole or mud pit, right?

Same problem with future of work discussions: you can’t preach from a TED Talk stage about purpose and feedback and value and all that …

… if in reality, all senior executives at most places care about is chasing the Almighty Dollar.

Same problem, different version? If you scream from the rafters all the time about having ‘a good work culture,’ well, there’s a simple way to do that: stop promoting assholes. But assholes like other assholes, so guys (and sometimes women) like that rise to the top.

The problem with future of work discussions: Buzzword City

Consultants and coaches and thinkers and thought leaders love to write long, breathless articles about the future of work and how feedback and organic criticism and purpose and mission and value-add and cloud technology and the millennial mindset are going to change everything.

Hopefully, that’s true. We’ve been working in one way, or one specific set of ways, for about 60 years now. It’s been effective for some at making money, but left quite a few people disengaged with the process. We probably should change it up a bit.

But again, to a rank-and-file employee at a mid-size to large corporation, these concepts and topics seem like buzzwords. You might as well be up there screeching “adaptability!” and “nimble!”

Most people I’ve ever met or worked with look at their jobs in this way:

  • I have a boss
  • My boss can set priorities for me
  • I achieve those goals and move onto the next goals
  • Periodically I slack off or gossip w/co-workers
  • The org pays me

That’s the standard agreement that most people have made back to their org. Now, some people try to really achieve, and some people pretend to achieve and rush around screeching about how busy they are in a vain attempt to find some purpose in the work they’re doing, but in general it’s mostly about:

  • Please your boss
  • Hope your boss covers your ass when shit is hitting the fan
  • Make a few friends/colleagues
  • Get paid

That, above, is the reality. So the problem with future of work discussions is that they occur from a place most people can’t see. It’s buzzwords and fluff.

“Feedback? I haven’t talked to my manager outside of e-mail in three weeks.”

“Leadership circles? I report up through the CFO. Is his role changing?”

“Organic what? Like a breakfast cereal?”

The problem with future of work dialogue: Macro and micro

Here’s the dirty little secret about work that we all kinda know, but almost no one really discusses.

  • There’s usually a senior level. Their goal, and focus, is money. They couch it in other terms like “strategy” or “mission” or “building a culture,” but let’s be clear: they’re chasing revenue and growth. This works at almost every organization, even non-profits.
  • There’s then a middle and lower level. Those levels are supposed to be about execution and professionalism and hitting targets and biding your time / waiting to climb the ladder.

Here’s the thing: there’s a giant chasm between the top and the middle. Oftentimes, a senior director type person — who reports to a top-level manager — really has no clue of the priorities of his own manager.

Oftentimes, organizations simply cannot align strategy (the top-level stuff) with execution (the day-to-day stuff).

That’s the same problem with future of work discussions.

Future of work discussions are, by definition, strategy or macro. It hasn’t happened yet. We’re trying to see it or invent it or predict it or whatever. It’s down the road.

The problem with future of work discussions?

We still have daily tasks, deliverables, targets, ways of thinking about work, ways of relating back to our organization, and ways we interact every day.

In most people’s eyes — and remember, most people are not thought leaders, nor are most people consultants or coaches — there’s no alignment between ‘the future of work’ and what they see and experience every day. The ‘future of work’ discussions we tend to have start from a place of utopia. That’s a problem, because most offices are far from that.

Have you seen this in things you’ve read or ways your management team has approached anything related to the future of work at your place of employment? Have you seen or observed other problems with future of work discourse?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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