The Future of Work


In her speech and interaction with Ellie Gates, Lynda Gratton talks about how the pandemic has made us think hard about what we want from work and others.

The future of work is now. Very often, only some people want to move into the future of work, and others don’t, but this time, everyone is impacted. This pandemic has accelerated some trends, and some challenges have become clearer. There’s an unprecedented level of social isolation, which is helping us think hard about what we want from work and others. We are seeing three particular trends in families and work.

The first trend is what’s happening within families, particularly in terms of boundaries. One of the interesting aspects of life is that dual careers are becoming the norm for many people. Women did not have careers in the 1950s, and later when women started working, they had very flexible jobs. They did not have a career. One of the most interesting aspects of the last 15 years is that women now have careers, partly because domestic appliances mean that they don’t have to spend so much time at home. This was the family structure for many when the world moved into COVID-19. Within families where both are working, women are still doing more domestic work within the family and looking after the children more than men do. However, during this crisis, both parents are being impacted. Now, both are having to run the house and look after the children, and in some cases, educate them. This means that the compartments between work and family are beginning to break down.

Boundaries help us to shift from one context to another context, and that increases both our productivity and our creativity. It is because when we get into our office, we forget about home and domestic responsibilities. The mind switches into productive work, and work gives the opportunities to reflect and think. Now, it depends on one’s context. We each have a different context and have our character in terms of what it is we want to do. In terms of boundaries, people living on their own with a job have only one boundary whereas people with working partners and a couple of school-going kids have many more boundaries. This is why so many people are feeling completely overwhelmed. Managing multiple boundaries all the time reduces productivity, engagement, and creativity. So, right now, we need to learn to build mental fences and manage boundaries.

Managing multiple boundaries all the time reduces productivity, engagement, and creativity. So, right now, we need to learn to build mental fences and manage boundaries.

An action to take right now is to think about how to separate them and your distinctive self. Some of the ways are finding a more discreet place to work, thinking about how to make the transition, negotiating with others about when you’re on, and when you’re off, and minimizing distractions. Learning how to manage boundaries now is going to be a lot more interesting for the future when we think about the boundaries that we have to manage when we get back to work.

In the negotiation between families happening now, men may decide to become more involved and maybe women will decide to do less. The change in gender roles and the shrinking of the gap between responsibilities taken up by men and women at home will accelerate during this period. It is a positive change because one of the reasons women do not get to the top is because they have a penalty when they have children. They get paid less and their salary never recovers, and the pay gap is very significant in the end. This period may lead to more balanced gender roles.

The second trend is around virtual working. It is not new, but this period is such that virtual working at the moment is in our homes. The one thing we learned during this period is that we became digital natives. All of us learned how to use all of the many technologies. In many ways, the good fortune of the pandemic happening now as opposed to five or six years ago is that technology is now strong enough and cheap enough for us to be able to use it. Another thing we learned is that people love the autonomy and flexibility but they also miss the community and social interaction. It tells us that the future of work is very individualistic. This may work better for people whose jobs are relatively autonomous, where working with colleagues closely in terms of exchanging flows of knowledge is not required. It also depends on the context. People who have a separate workspace at home and can create boundaries will find working from home nice but people living in shared apartments cannot wait to get back to the office. Therefore, we need to think about both individuals and the context in terms of the sort of work. We are embarking on a massive experiment right now, and this is a petri dish of experiments, which we can look at and work out what is going to work.

In many ways, the good fortune of the pandemic happening now as opposed to five or six years ago is that technology is now strong enough and cheap enough for us to be able to use it.

The first thing we are learning about technology is that corporate platforms are incredibly useful. Conversation is crucial at the time, and we have the technology to do that. We’re also learning the power of human touch. The fact that we have moved away from thinking about GDP or corporate performance to thinking about human lives and human relationships and communities is an incredibly important moment in being a human. Humankind will now feel the importance of face-to-face work in a collaborative sense because some of the collaboration that requires deep tacit knowledge and high levels of trust cannot be done online. It has to be face-to-face. Hence, there are some important questions around the return to new normal, questions about who will and who won’t want to work virtually, questions around the impact of virtual working on performance and more importantly on creativity, about how we think of virtual working for creative roles and lastly, if high performance was about going into the office and working long hours in the office, what does high performance meanin the new normal? We might get the answer to these questions as we go further with virtual working.

The third trend is for flexible working. This period is giving us an opportunity to think more about when we work and when we don’t work. All of the aspects of the future of work are now being forced upon us. We are learning how to make use of this flexibility of work to ensure synchronicity, having time off with family, and also having some control over when to take time off. The other aspect of this experiment is we are all becoming lifelong learners. So, the future of work is now. The world will never be the same, are we are going to move into a more thoughtful way of working?

The challenge is where to get inspiration from, where to get the serendipity, which we used to get during face-to-face interactions with people.

The third trend is for flexible working. This period is giving us an opportunity to think more about when we work and when we don’t work. All of the aspects of the future of work are now being forced upon us. We are learning how to make use of this flexibility of work to ensure synchronicity, having time off with family, and also having some control over when to take time off. The other aspect of this experiment is we are all becoming lifelong learners. So, the future of work is now. The world will never be the same, are we are going to move into a more thoughtful way of working?

Ellie Gates in Conversation with Lynda Gratton

Ellie Gates: Can you speak to industries like professional services, education, financial services, media and entertainment, healthcare specifically, anything that is unique to this point?

Lynda Gratton: The real crux of the issues around knowledge work is collaboration. There are parts of your job you can do at home, so you are probably having more time to reflect. The challenge is where to get inspiration from, where to get the serendipity, which we used to get during face-to-face interactions with people. Face-to-face is going to be at a premium over the next year. So, knowledge workers are going to ask themselves, “what is it that I need? Can I use my face-to-face time to get any of that serendipity? And can I use technology to replace some of those notions of serendipity?”. So, the crux of the issue with knowledge workers is going to be over how to cooperate and become creative in a virtual situation.

Ellie Gates: Which companies or industries do you think are going to be most impacted by the current crisis?

Lynda Gratton: I’m a psychologist, not an economist, but we all know what those industries are; anything to do with people moving around, be that travel, be that holidays are gone. Education is tough right now for several reasons. One is that all of our work has now gone online, and surprisingly we have become good at working online. We have all become digital natives. The challenge is twofold. Firstly, what will people pay for that? At Wharton, the students are currently saying they’re not paying this year. The second question we face in education right now is, will students come back in September? Currently, three scenarios are running. One is that everyone comes back in September, which is good. The second is everybody comes back in January, which is tough, and the third one is they don’t come back until mid-next year, which is horrific. So, we are all holding our breath to find out when is that going to happen for any industry that requires face-to-face. 

One thing that the pandemic is teaching us is resilience. By resilience, we mean two things. First, health. More people who had underlying health issues are dying from COVID, so health becomes really important. Second, learning. Now is the moment to realize that if we want to be resilient, we have to keep learning. I hope that during this pandemic, all of us are learning something, such as learning digital skills, learning how to work virtually, learning about the world, and just how important resilience is to the world. 

Ellie Gates: Is there a disproportionate effect on families that don’t have enough space? What would be your advice for them?

Lynda Gratton: The homeworking has exposed our family lives in a way that none of us had anticipated.

Boundaries are very important to humans because they are how we move from one context to another, and managing our boundaries is what high performers tend to be very adept at. When we are working from home, there are endless boundaries. Maintain boundaries at home is very hard, and those with small children are finding it extremely difficult. 

Surveys show that two groups are finding this particularly difficult. One is families with small children, and our advice to them is to form blocks of time. One of the ways that people manage boundaries is by having blocks of time. They say to their children or their partner or to their work that they will not be available for four hours or usually three-hour blocks. If you are not negotiating that with your partner or your company, then you need to do that. The other group having a very difficult time are young people who are sharing apartments. Creating boundaries in a shared living space is hard. 

Mental health is a major concern. In terms of mental health, one thing that is more important than anything else is to keep talking to people. Over-communication is crucial. We have technology platforms we can use to just talk about our lived experiences. People want to talk about what’s happening to them, so the more that you can build communications and conversations, the better it will be when finally we move back into whatever the new norm is.

Ellie Gates: What tips do you have for leaders to help build trust in a remote environment?

Lynda Gratton: The interesting thing about trust is that it is very much built in a face-to-face situation, so we have to think about building virtual trust. We can do that through over communication, letting people talk to each other, and building as many conversational mechanisms as you can. The second thing that the basis of trust is fairness and justice. We must remember that leaders will be judged in years to come by the decisions we make now. We are all faced with tough decisions about letting people go, but if you do that in a fair and just way, people understand the situation that we are in. So, focus on communication, but ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing fair, and is it just?”. 

Ellie Gates: Can you go ahead and make some closing remarks?

Lynda Gratton: The future of work is now. We have to be sure that the process of acceleration that we have will help us.

Previous Outthink the Future
Next Scaling Up: Why A Few Make It and The Rest Don’t, in Good Times and Bad

No Comment

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.