This “Future of Work” Thing is 20 Years in the Making.

Pandemic times call for new thinking. The remote working / #WFH movement that we have been thrust into invites individuals, teams and organizations to shift through the gears.

  • How do we enable people technologically?
  • How do we leverage new communications channels?
  • What work will we share; and how will we cooperate on it remotely?
  • How can we empower people to self-govern and become more effective?

I must have read 500 headlines along these lines in the last month, with experts old and new sharing their insights. There is nothing new here. This has been a journey of close on two decades.

Perhaps, though, this time we might get the pivotal and existential breakthroughs that the e2.0 / Future of Work community have been extolling since the early ’00s. Perhaps.

My own introduction to these concepts came fairly obliquely, in the late 90s, when I completed my Masters in IT Management, a course I had taken solely because I wanted to get into this magical new arena, “the internet.”

Using emergent tools, I suddenly had the power to manifest my own ideas, and to share them worldwide. I was in charge, and I could do it alone – whether it was create digital content or spin up a website. I was a jack-of-all-trades; I was an entrepreneur.  I was also fairly bamboozled about how to draw a line of sight from it to the world. None of my friends were doing similar work, my family barely understood what a website was.

I parlayed my nascent tech chops into events, marketing and communications.

Fast forward to around 2006-7, I was working on a Best Buy e-commerce project trying to build an online platform that would enable individual store workers to build their customer service brands directly with consumers.

From the tech side, it was about profiles and scoring and connecting service to sales. From the retail side, where I worked, it was about making the front line worker more empowered, more central to the brand experience. It was about people; and about enabling the people to do better work.

This is when I connected my own personal experience of technology – empowerment and control, choice and opportunity – into workplace strategy and organizational effectiveness. The future of work was a better place!

I left Best Buy before that project launched, but in 2008 I tried my first pitch in leading the deployment of what was now starting to be called ‘social technology’.

I made a presentation to a steering committee about replacing the SharePoint intranet with some kind of early social network technology. We had interviewed stakeholders around the world about how they wanted to interact with each other and the company. They wanted more than we had, which was pretty lame and expensive.

The presentation was 8 slides and consisted of pictures of colleagues at a golf tournament after party, dancing; and a couple of stick figure cartoons with slogans on them. “Enjoy your life!”

Perhaps not my best work, maybe just ahead of its time. The jury’s still out. (see below)

2008

The basic premise of the presentation was this:

It [work] is about the company; it’s about us, and it’s about me.”

This was my colloquial take on the work shift I had seen underway, almost imperceptible and definitely personal, to move teams and the individual more centrally in the workplace narrative. I felt it, and I wanted to deliver it.

The steering committee, bless them, said,

“No. We are not ready for this.”

But I was. 

Two years later, I had another bite at the cherry, and managed to hoodwink the company into green lighting an Enterprise Social Network (many blog posts over the years about which, here), in what turned out to be the world’s first use case of yammer-as-intranetWho knew?

It was the first ever cloud deployment the company made; the first time working with a start-up partner versus an industry behemoth (that henceforward swallowed the start-up in a billion dollar bite). I dined out on our story of digital transformation at industry and Microsoft customer events for years after.

Almost 10 years after deployment, that ESN is ticking along nicely. It is the core communications tool, it nurtures and drives most of the external storytelling of the organization. It has been supplemented with MS Teams, and that learning curve is easy to traverse because there is institutional muscle in sharing and caring, openly.

So, when I read and hear that COVID19 is the driver for a new normal in the workplace, I wonder, what was the status quo inside these companies that are only now forced to leverage the tools, and update their workplace norms?

I know the work I was doing 10 years ago was unusual, maybe in the emergent top percentile(s); a decade later it still seems to be ahead of the mean. Maybe, COVID19 does move the workplace dial to a more networked, trust-bearing dynamic. In which case, that slow burning future of work dream that I and many other friends and leaders have been driving for 10, 20 years will finally be established.

Surely, we can never go back.

This Much We Know.

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