Notes on the future of work

This is an adapted and translated opinion piece I wrote for a Portuguese newspaper, Observador. You can check the original here.

The future of work is frequently over simplified as a need to equip our workers with new skills. In fact, if we only consider this aspect, we leave out the opportunity to rethink the society in which we live and want to live, and find possibilities where the focus on more producitivity leads to better quality of life, not less.

This future implies giving people more options. It implies having leaderships applied by influence intead of authority. It implies that work is thought as a social elevator, not just safety nets for people. For this, governments should continuously tweak the labor market to make sure it remains fair and competitive. Many years ago, I believed that governments should play a passive role in how people work. At acompanies micro level, I still enthusiastically believe in this. However, at a macro level, we should, as a society, think of the types of companies we want, and give the markets the tools to build them (instead of having the governments build them themselves.)

So what are the trends for this new decade?

Many companies are already testing a few initiatives: Microsoft Japan launched a pilot with the team working 4 days a week, which led to a 40% increase in productivity.

Quality of life is in itself a strong enough reason to try to find new solutions for work, but competitiveness is also at stake. Any business today can hire quality resources for design, programming, marketing and even management positions around the world, often even remotely.

This means that it is not only our physical products that have to compete in the world market, but also the way our organizations are designed.

Technology is an enabler for the future of work, it’s not the future itself

Technology is seen as the catalyst for this change and is often seen as the simple, turnkey solution to the work of the future (often using the moniker “Digital Transformation”). Unfortunately, technology does not create a new culture within the company, it only enhances the culture that already exists. If, for example, there is no good communication, technology will only make communication worse. The same happens with productivity – if the organization is poorly designed, poorly thought out, people are unmotivated, it is not software that will make it competitive by itself.

Fortunately, there are reasons for some optimism – even in Portugal, we’ve seen cases where industries have repositioned themselves, making their companies more competitive and at the same time improve the quality of life of their workers. According to APPICAPS, a consortium from the Portuguese footwear industry, 95% of production is exported to 152 countries, sales have grown by 60% in the last 10 years, and 10,000 new jobs have been created during this period.

To achieve these numbers, the industry had to find a strategic positioning that does not compete for the lowest price, but for the best quality at a decent price. Tactics were found to improve productivity, marketing, procurement channels and production quality. It is, without any doubt, an industry preparing itself for the future.

Other countries have found interesting solutions to fund this transition to new skills. Singapore, for example, created the SkillsFuture program (funded by Social Security). In France, there is a bank of hours for workers to use in training for new skills.

Portugal be a leader in the future of work. The first step would be to start with a broader debate on the subject, involving all sectors. Learning from many successful examples and having the public sector, companies, NGOs involved, we will have the opportunity to design and build a working environment where we, as human beings, can truly thrive.

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