The world of work in the digital age

Goodbye Change Management - Welcome to the «Future of Work»

For me, the topic of «Future of Work» took shape between 2016 and 2017, when I was responsible for the global Group Shared Services in IKEA, and when in the management team we began to initiate the transformation of our organization. The question was: If this is a traditional change management initiative with a shift from today's status to a future status, what will this new status look like once it emerges and stabilizes?

Following our Strategic Foresight project «Life@Group Shared Services 2030 - people, places, processes» that took place in 2017 (which was the time when Donald Trump started his term with the slogan «America first» and when China challenged global companies with the introduction of the cybersecurity law) we assumed  the following three developments:

  • Automation will reshape the shared service industry; digitalization and robotics are key success factors.
  • Nationalism and protectionism will increase, which will slow the pace of automation somewhat and increase complexity.
  • Organizational flexibility is becoming the key factor in both exploiting digital opportunities and responding to growing national demands.

So, it was crystal clear: With our Strategy 2018-2020+, we are not aiming for change from A to B but setting out into a world of constant change driven by technology. And no one can predict how it will change and when that change will end, if ever. Today, five years later, I ask myself: does «change management» in the traditional sense even exist anymore? And if so, shouldn't we banish it to the funeral pyre of history as soon as possible and accept that technological progress is placing us in a world of constant change and devote our energy to positively shaping this epochal change? I am convinced of this, and the «Future of Work» is the magic word for it!  

Change Management, Future of Work and New Work  

I will first try to define these three terms:

  • Change management: The process that brings organizational change to fruition, from the earliest stages of design and preparation through implementation and resolution. This includes the following five steps: preparation, planning, implementation, integration into the organizational culture, review, and final analysis. (Source: Harvard Business School).
  • Future of Work: A projection of how work, employees and the workplace will develop in the coming years. These include the dimensions, «Who does the work?», «How will it be done?» and «When and where will it be done?». (Source: Society for Human Resource Management)
    Note: The term «Future of Work» is mostly used in the Anglo-Saxon world.

  • New Work: The new way of working in today's society in the global and digital age. The term was coined by Frithjof Bergmann and is based on his idea of creating space for creativity and self-realization, doing what is really important and giving humanity the opportunity to free itself from wage labour (see: New Work New Culture: Work we want and a Culture that strengthens us).
    According to
    Nicole Thurn, Bergmann's social utopia hardly finds a place in reality today. Companies use «New Work» for all kinds of activities ranging from superficial marketing to radical transformation (from more efficient methods, flexible working hours and mobile working to open communication and the reduction of management and hierarchies). In view of today’s challenges, however, it is a matter of finding a truly new attitude toward work and driving «New Work» as a change in values and consciousness.
    Note: The term «New Work» is mostly used in German-speaking countries.

Why the days of change management are over   

The explanation is quite simple: Because in today's vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, the end point of change is not known and cannot be described. It cannot be defined, but we can see the direction. We have an idea of where the next stage will lead. However, we also know that the journey does not end there and only then can we decide on the next steps. Standing still and waiting is not an option. That would leave us hopelessly behind in the face of technological development.

Change management on a personal level is often described in three phases: first, letting go of the status quo; second, the uncertain period in the neutral zone; and third, the beginning of the new start on a new level. Figuratively, the metaphor of the trapeze artist is often used. Good change management is described as preparing people for letting go and accompanying them well during the uncertain flight phase so that they land safely on the new trapeze. I feel as if we are standing on the platform: Holding the old trapeze in our hands, but there is not new trapeze visible within reach - we don't know when and where exactly it will come. In this situation, it makes no sense to jump. If we do it anyway, we just rock back and forth. Change management doesn’t help, new approaches are needed!

And what does that have to do with the Future of Work?

Do we only suspect it, or do we already know it? We have arrived at the epoch in which it is not about less, but also not about more than the question of how we can best shape the collaboration of people and machines in the digital environment. And it's not just about technology, it's just as much about leadership, about co-workers, about the organization, and if you take the idea further, also about the influence on corporate culture and, taken to its logical conclusion, about sense, about purpose.

My own definition of the «Future of Work»: the answer to the question of how the corporate world is responding to digitalization and technological development and reshaping the world of work.

Nicole Thurn has, in a very worth reading article, named and summarized the following five fundamental characteristics of the «Future of Work» (New Work):

  1. DELIMITATION OF WORK – WORK WHEN, WHERE AND HOW YOU WANT - The boundaries between work and private life are increasingly crumbling in the digital knowledge society (keyword: home office). We are also seeing a softening of the boundaries between employment and self-employment (and increasingly also a mix of the two), and in the organizations themselves the trend away from hierarchy towards fluid project teams is further intensifying where people not only exchange ideas but effectively work together (keyword: co-creation).
  2. New Leadership: A new kind of boss - «Command and Control» has had its day. The pyramid - CEO at the top, employees at the bottom - is being turned upside down with the «Future of Work». The «Servant Leadership» style is spreading. Managers «serve» co-workers so that they work in the best possible, motivated and healthy way. It is no longer primarily about control; communication takes place collegially at eye level.
  3. «I» and «We»: Both count - In the new world of work, both the individual and the community are becoming more important. There is a growing insight that the well-being of the individual on the one hand and the well-being of the whole (team, company, society) on the other are not mutually exclusive, but rather conditional.
  4. Collaboration: Taking collaboration to a new level - In today's vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, simple solutions are often no longer enough. Innovation is becoming a necessity for survival, and interdisciplinary exchange is getting increasingly important. We are seeing more often innovation teams from corporations working together with freelancers and startups in coworking spaces.
  5. Maturity process: personality development for all - To implement «Future of Work» measures, mature personalities are required with skills such as self-responsibility, willingness to change, courage and a desire to try things out. This in turn means being fully responsible for one's own thinking, behaviour, emotions and communication, and becoming truly «adult».

If you want to dive deeper, see this post where Nicole Kopp, a top expert on the subject, shares her list of 21 best books about «New Work». It is in German; however, many of the listed books are in English.

Actually, it is about future readiness

Back to our shared services transformation and the real driver of this development being digitization and automation. We knew that robotics is the next step, but we didn't know what would come after. Today we have arrived at AI, it is about shaping the next step with generative Artificial Intelligence. Does anyone know what exactly will come out of this? No. Is it an option to stand on the sidelines? No. Is it now a case of immediately turning everything on its head? Also no. But it is essential to devise a strategy for harnessing and shaping this development. It is clear that a strategy without defining the approach to AI is neither responsible nor sustainable, and certainly not future-ready. And, as I said, it's about more than technology. What does it mean for the core business? What for the employees? And what for all the other functions? 

The next question: Is the end foreseeable? Here, too, the answer is clear: No. No one can predict how long the journey will last. The next development is already looming on the horizon, slowly, but unmistakably: The metaverse. According to a Delphi study from the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies (CIFS) in March 2023 about the evolution of the metaverse, it is foreseeable that «by 2030, the virtual and physical worlds should have merged such that we can freely navigate between them in our daily lives, as AR and VR technologies become more accessible and affordable, and users feel increasingly comfortable and safe immersing themselves in digital worlds». Are there specific steps to plan for in the 2023 and 2024 Action Plan because of this? No, it's not about that. It's about getting the issue of metaverse on the radar, following the developments, being attentive and taking pre-emptions to be ready when it's time to set sail. With this development in mind, you will, for example, already today have a different discussion on the subject «work from home - work in the office».

Here my three messages on the topic of the Future of Work

  • We are at the beginning rather than the end of the era of reshaping the world of work, which is about redesigning the collaboration of people and machines. It started with digitalization. Robotics and blockchain were corresponding new technologies, today it is generative artificial intelligence, and on the horizon the metaverse is already slowly but unmistakably casting its shadow.
  • We must be careful that «Future of Work» does not become a hype. It must not become a buzzword for everything and anything. Topics such as work motivation (quiet quitting), leadership styles, empathy, agility, flexibility, productivity and emotional intelligence, examples to which the label «Future of Work» is all too readily attached today, are topics in their own right; they are not new. Of course, they have to do with the way we work. But if suddenly everything is defined as «Future of Work» nothing is actually «Future of Work» anymore and it just gets a hype. That would be a shame. The way we are shaping the digital world of work is too important and too fascinating to water it down with all sorts of impossible things.
  • Ultimately, this topic is about future readiness. Strategic Foresight is the best tool for launching a strategy for a complex topic like the «Future of Work». It crystallizes the strategically important elements, individually aligned to the needs and challenges of each company. And secondly, it brings the team together to shape the «Future of Work» with a common approach instead of constantly and disunitedly running after the changes.

My way to Strategic Foresight is through the two steps of Future Screening (one day with the responsible persons) and the Strategic Foresight Workshops (three to five days for all participants) plus pre- and post-processing. Would you like to learn more? Then network with me on LinkedIn or book a complimentary discovery talk.

PS Let the future be your guide - the best in life is yet to come.