The future of work and what we are learning from the pandemic

As has been said, it’s difficult to make predictions especially about the future. Yet the world of work has probably never been changing at a faster pace and the debates about jobs, skills, organisation models, working practices and the major influences of change are widespread.

There is almost a perfect storm forcing us all to rethink many paradigms of work and how we respond. From technology and digital disruption, to social and demographic change, economic uncertainty, and shifts in geopolitics and globalisation. The great crises of our times, the pandemic and our climate, are acting as major catalysts and accelerating change. As Darwin observed, it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent that survive, but those most adaptable to change.

Working Practices

Many of our working practices and cultures have endured almost from the industrial era. Our patterns of work, command and control working cultures, and disparities in distribution of wealth and opportunity. We have been increasingly working harder but not smarter, as evidenced by the realities of presenteeism and even leavism (using time off to catch up) and the rising levels of stress and issues of mental wellbeing. And still seemingly unable to really shift productivity to enable sustained pay improvement. The past visions of the future, of technology freeing us up with less working hours and better worklife balance, more autonomy, and of greater equity and equality have proved hard to deliver.

These are the truly human and societal aspects of work. They all impact organisations ability to attract and retain the people they need, to adapt and to work effectively, and in turn are key drivers of productivity.

We all know that the future is what we make it to be, and the best way to predict the future is to help shape it. And we should be shaping it from clear principles, being prepared to learn and rapidly adapt along the way.

ESG Measures

The future of work is human, and the pandemic, being a human crisis, has at last put people much more front and centre in our business agendas and thinking. There is a great reset going on, where people are rethinking what they find important about their jobs and how well they feel supported by their bosses and their employers, and even the purpose of their work. At the same time, expectations of how businesses and leaders act, and how they recognise their responsibilities to all stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, communities and the environment, as well as their financial shareholders or owners – is a big part of a wider societal debate about the future of work. This is demanding more transparency and to be able to understand and report on not just past financial metrics, but on the development of the so called ESG measures that point to these wider responsibilities and are critically important leading indicators of likely future success.

These all are principles for responsible business that we should be building for. Integral to these principles are also how we design jobs and organisations for the future. Jobs and roles that are good for people, enhance their wellbeing, develop their talents and helps them be the best they can be.

There has been much research over the years of the dimensions of ‘good work’ or job quality. The elements of work that make us feel positive about what we do, that will drive our effort, keep our engagement and therefore also our productivity. They include fair pay and reward, good connection and support from others, clarity of purpose, development and use of skills, having a voice and opportunity to shape what we do and how we work, and worklife balance in support of our wellbeing. Again, all aspects of our jobs that have been magnified over the last couple of years. Many initiatives at local and national levels have emerged around these principles – fair work conventions, good employment charters and good work standards. Now more than ever is the time to focus on these ideas.

Build Back Better

Indeed by doing these things, we know that in turn they drive positive financial outcomes in terms of brand and reputation, trust, and workforce retention and productivity. Doing well by doing good.

These shifts will require us all to innovate and lead in different ways. Leaders have to be more comfortable with uncertainty and paradox and able to lead for change based on clear principles and purpose. That requires more listening and giving people their voice, trusting others by properly empowering them to innovate and act, and being agile and adaptive. We have to understand the changing strategic context in which we are operating, that no one size fits all and that there is not a best practice manual somewhere for us to follow. Of course we can learn from others, but we need to look for best fit, to use evidence of what works and how we apply in our own context and organisations, and not just follow fads or fashions.

Future generations will look back on this time and ask what did we learn from it. We all have a responsibility to show that we did indeed build back better and shape a future of work that is good for all.


Peter Cheese

CEO, CIPD and author of the New World of Work

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