If the subject of the future of work is a background reflection that exists in all businesses, the question that arises is who is dealing with it, or rather, who should be dealing with it.
The future of work, an HR topic by nature
The future of work is, of course, an HR topic, and it is in this sphere that it is being thought about the most. What could be more logical after all?
There are plenty of subjects where I would like to see HR to get more involved into but where it does not go: sometimes for lack of resources, desire, legitimacy that they do not grant themselves or that is not granted to them, interest or skills. Like the operational side of the employee experience for example.
The future of work naturally falls into their hands and this is logical. But the vague nature of the word “work” should not lock us into reflections with a too limited perimeter.
Work: a catch-all concept
Because, in the end, what is work?
Depending on who you ask, you will sometimes get quite different answers. Some will talk about the HR dimension, some about the relationship between the individual and work, some about the production activity itself.
Some will think only of salaried work, whereas even non-salaried workers have a job.
So much for the conceptual part. But it is interesting to see what people answer when we ask them not to say what work is in general but what their work is in particular.
When you ask “tell me what your job is” people will talk about the name of their job, their role, their responsibilities and their daily tasks. Then they’ll talk about their business, compensation, benefits, opportunities to train, grow and build their career…but not always. They’ll tell you about what they actually experience and do every day, from the specific (what they do) to the general (the setting in which they do it).
And if you ask them “how things are going at work” you will get an even different answer. There we will talk more about HR, relationships between people, etc. and not at all about the person’s activity.
And if we ask them not “what is work? “ but what working is“, they will only talk about the productive dimension.
So reducing the future of work to the HR dimension alone would be a mistake: it is of course of interest to those primarily concerned (those who work) but it is not the only one.
Context and content of work
When we talk about the future of work, we think mainly about its context, the framework in which it is carried out and organized, and little about its content.
But the future of work is also what people do and how they do it. The simplification of tasks and procedures. The tools used. The way activities and projects are managed. And even management.
In the previous century, when we started to study work, we were first, if not too much, concerned with what people did and less with the context in which they did it. But this is how industry gained in efficiency and, often, reduced drudgery at the same time.
As I have seen time and again, the world of knowledge workers has not been so lucky, certainly because what is not visible does not exist, so we just manage people without trying to understand what they do and how.
I’ll quote the New York Times again:
“Peter Drucker noted that during the 20th century, the productivity of manual workers in manufacturing increased fiftyfold as we became smarter about how to better build products. He argued that the knowledge sector, on the other hand, had hardly begun a similar process of self-examination and improvement, existing at the end of the twentieth century while the manufacturing sector had done so a hundred years earlier.“
I remain firmly convinced that this population does not work well, does not use the tools at their disposal well, does not manage the flow of information and their workload well, but not because of them, simply because no one is looking after them and that managers are content to manage people rather than to improve their work.
This is the first time that white collar workers are treated worse than blue collar workers, or at least paid less attention.
So the future of work is also a question of work content and organization of production activity. An essential component when we see how technology is everywhere and often misused and counterproductive, where automation is not only a business issue but also a social issue and where the fight against complication should be a major concern.
Leaving operations to operations: a bad idea
But you’re going to tell me why include this in the future of work? There are people who are already doing it, they know their stuff so let them do it.
On the one hand, this is true, but especially in the “technical” professions. There are operations departments, people in charge of methods, process owners. But in less technical professions, there is much less importance given to the subject, which is often skimmed over or looked at in a very macro and superficial way. And once again, when workflows and production have no material reality, employees are left to their own devices.
In short, at some point someone has to put things in order or at least set a guideline so that everyone is going in the same direction.
Context and work content go hand in hand and must be thought of together. I will come back to this subject later with many examples, but when the way work is poorly organized (management, tools, tasks, workflows, communication flows, information management, workload) it makes employees unproductive, frustrated, stressed and increases their mental load, sometimes to the point of burnout. These deficiencies in content are generally never corrected or compensated for at the context level.
One of the reasons why HR focuses a lot on the context of the work is also to compensate for all the side effects of the content. They have the control over the former, the managers of the latter don’t listen to them, they focus on what they can do.
I refer you to this article where I explain why if employees trust robots more than humans to relieve their mental load, it’s not because they prefer to share their problems with a robot rather than a human, but because they expect the robot to free them from tedious tasks, to automate others and to facilitate their information search. But we will not compensate forever for tedious work, made tedious, badly organized and poorly equipped with yoga sessions! The problem is that to date, only yoga and a few other cosmetic measures are in the HR toolbox, which must be content with relieving the pain if they cannot eradicate the disease or even suggest doing so.
The future of work: a strategic and sometimes societal choice
And let’s face it, some hot topics go beyond the responsibility of HR or operational staff.
The four-day week? Depending on the sector of activity of the business, this will have such an important impact on the business that it can only be a strategic choice. When LDLC goes to the 4-day week, it requires additional recruitments. An excellent thing in terms of employment, but an additional burden that not all businesses can afford, which will have an impact on the bottom line and will be unevenly appreciated by shareholders. A decision that can only be made at the management level.
I would add, but this is not the problem of the businesses that will choose the 4-day week, that if this tendency becomes generalized, it will pose big problems of attractiveness to small businesses that cannot afford this.
Bottom line: the future of work: a shared responsibility
The very notion of work is as broad as it is vague, so thinking about its future is a totally different exercise depending on the people with whom we think about it.
None of these visions prevails over the other, the vision of an HR director is no more or no less important than that of an operations director or anyone else
The problem is that some people are not concerned or not involved and that in the end, thinking about the future of work is either a purely HR issue or a business issue that is 95% driven by HR and where the others just make sure at the end of the work that it doesn’t impact them or bother them too much.
Insufficient given what is at stake.