Barbara Tuchman’s seminal book, The Guns of August, describes the old-world precepts that dictated the thinking for the start of the First World War and much of the first three years of one of the worst conflicts the planet. It might be some hundred plus years ago, and the worst pandemic followed it since the plague of 1665.

The war over the future of work should not be compared to these two awful events. Still, thinking about what the future of work looks like is equally dependent on old-world precepts around the idea of working in the office versus working remotely.

There is no doubt there have been simple lines projecting into the future from our recent past. 3% of us worked from home as a full-time model. 25% of us took at least one day a week at home as a norm. That model of 3% working from home took ten years to get to from a mere 2%. Change accelerates with a dramatic jolt. Think about those statistics today and how small they feel.

Think of this dynamic. Horses were still the prevalent form of transportation systems up to and through the first world war. They dominated it, and then by the early 1920s, we flipped to cars or trucks as the dominant form. These trends towards powered vehicles were already bubbling up before 1914. The war and the subsequent pandemic actually accelerated them. 

Factor One: Responsibility to each other was a digital transformation norm before. Now more than ever, it really matters in this debate about the future of work.

The most adaptable, agile, and effective organizations recognized that transformation is an outcome of changed behaviors—Silo’s need to go as well in the environment of new decision making. 

Every part of the future discussion should focus on how we should be evolving the world to radically reduce silos. Agile should be one of the dominant variables. For example, ask how sales and marketing work closely together in the new work world? Ask how operations and product work across physical and or virtual barriers to be equally responsible to each other? None of these questions start with the in and out of the office debate. 

Before the pandemic started, organizations showed that those who did this had a 2.75 times chance of being more successful than those who did not. Is the question even more critical now? It’s an opportunity to build a future and not retreat to the questions and ideas of the past.

Factor Two: Moments and workflows rule, not the idea of in or out of the office. We need to get microscopic to solve a 60,000 feet challenge.

Work is a set of workflows. Workflow is a multitude of moments, connected, uniquely sequenced, and it’s questionable how well we actually have tracked, mapped, or even managed by these workflows. Moments that matter were one of the critical determinants of successful digital transformation behind the Wall Street Journal bestselling book the Digital Helix as far back 2016. Remember, there was no pandemic then. Remember that the percent of companies successfully digitally transforming each year was a mere 11.4%. On a scale of one to 100 across twenty-one total variables, the power of moments was a calculated 22% of the importance of digital transformation success. Moments and the workflows they are part of are much more than just the future of work. Digital transformation is incredibly tricky, and understanding workflows and the component moments inside them could be 22% of that formula. 

You need to understand the workflows you are working in and where physical and virtual worlds best suite moments in those workflows. The exercise will reveal more about the possibilities of what could happen if you architect the debate about the future work in the right ways.

Change was constant before-hand, so what is different now?

Successfully digitally transforming companies (the 28%) have already embraced three ideas of a new work world by 2018. It has led to a 30% increase in productivity for them, a 50% increase in happy employees, and satisfied customers with a 75% increase compared to their peers. These numbers hold a general empirical truth across any of the significant eleven industries in the US. In a comparison like the car before the world war, 28% of global companies were successfully pioneering digital transformation. These 28% were already showing signs of the successful future of work, and they did it around changing three very basic assumptions. 

Your debate about the future of work has to be based on extrapolating these assumptions around transformative performance to your work world. 

The most successful digitally transforming organizations were 2.75 times more comfortable with the idea that change is a constant as we advance compared to their peers. This was true in seven of the major eleven industries the research work we did in 2018-2019 with Forbes. It’s probably more accurate now, than it was then. 

Factor Three: Executives as digital explorers and propensity for experimentation are vital tools in this journey. One in six get it right in the Global 2000

This is the thorniest of all. Executive leaders in successfully digitally transforming organizations lean into the day-to-day tactical areas like the future of work. They ideate, look at what great looks like and run a little on the edge of experimentation. We are all working crazy long hours right now. This is the moment to experiment to work out what works in our environment. The combination of executive focus and our ability to learn from experimentation are more critical than ever before. If your organization is an active experimenter and will work through the findings, then you are part of just the 15% who thrive by doing this. The first question has to be. Are we experimenting enough to learn before we make decisions?

Factor Four: We need to search to re-build the human dynamic.  

No model will tell us how to take that journey but not understanding how the future of workflows, the moments that matter, and the idea. We are all responsible for each other. But the act of working through workflows and moments and mapping what type of work solution works is core to success. We are all highly individual, and our interactions are unique. The loss of the watercooler is tough to replace with Zoom. The casual lunch has to be encouraged even in a virtual world. The need to generate space for collaboration that is not designed or driven by a plan is vital for longer-term success. 

Maybe we are one-third of the journey through this pandemic. 

The loss of life, the protection of lives, communities, and a way of life are the fundamental waypoints for any decisions on the future of work. Debating this in the language of the pre-pandemic world is too limited a view of what the future of work will or could be. The choice is in each of our hands as leaders, so we should answer them first before sending teams flying in varying directions around the company.

Any debate has to start by answering three questions for yourself before you head back to the past to try and define the future:

  1. How do we best deliver against the workflows of my team, department, or organization?
  2. What are the moments that really matter for physicality or virtual work high performance? 
  3. Knowing the future is different, where do we find examples of best practices inside the organization?

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