The nature of knowledge work--the type of work many of us are engaging in at a 9-to-5 job; was shifting long before the pandemic upended traditional office arrangements. More workers were going independent, and an increasing number of companies were realizing the benefits of a distributed approach.
It seems to me that many of the conversations around the post-pandemic return to the office and hybrid work models are a pretext for a more fundamental and momentous shift in what it means to work for a company, and to be an employee.
But where did this model of work come from? Why have we all seemingly agreed that working eight hours a day, five days a week for one company is normal?
The predominance of the factory model, a byproduct of the invention of Henry Ford's automobile, across 20th-century life was total. Factory-style organization was copied and it influenced how knowledge workers were organized; so-called white-collar workers engaged in a typical 9-to-5 workday, despite their distance from the machines that demanded a standardized schedule. The cubicle farm extended from the assembly line, an attempt to standardize knowledge work.
Industrialization ended the era of the artisans, the master craftsmen who owned and mastered their tools of production, and thus, dictated the terms of their employment. But knowledge work, which is made up of abstract problem-solving, is much harder to observe, measure, break down, and templatize (the introduction of AI notwithstanding). We see our current moment as a resurrection of the artisan, with knowledge workers acting as free agents, maintaining less of a commitment to their employers, and more to their craft.
Welcome to the Push-Pull Power Struggle
Up to 40 percent of us are thinking about quitting our jobs. Economists are calling it the Great Resignation. Some are quitting because their companies are pushing them to return to the office. But we think this phenomenon indicates a more fundamental shift: In the push-pull power struggle between knowledge workers and management, workers have more power than ever before.
Some of that's due to the surplus of jobs to be had (there are now a record 9.3 million open jobs in the U.S.). But it's also a result of bigger technological shifts that make it easier than ever for workers to bounce around. It's easier to establish trust, with tools like LinkedIn providing transparency to employment histories and professional certifications providing badges for practitioners. It's also easier for employers to plug new recruits into existing workflows with streamlined onboarding, since software tools have consolidated across organizations (salespeople know how to use Salesforce, product managers all know how to use Trello, QA engineers know how to use Jira).
So how can managers move into the 20th century? We at Gather think there are three things for them to consider.
1. Reassess your methods for measuring output and productivity.
Ben Edwards, managing director of organizational performance at Gather and co-founder of Full Sequence, argues that given how difficult it is to measure the true output of knowledge work, managers first need to give up control.
"Often, the most elegant, beautiful code is the simplest and shortest," says Edwards. In other words, it's not about the quantity of the work, but the quality. It's often misguided to try to measure output of knowledge work in terms of lines of code. "There's no linear way to put X number of hours in and solve Y number of problems out," he says. Don't give employees a task to complete; give them a problem to solve.
Edwards advocates for small, cross-functional teams, supported by an environment of learning and a motivational model that rewards learning. "Invest heavily in allowing them to build their skills because that is their lifeblood," he says.
2. Automation eats away at "knowledge work," making way for higher-level tasks.
Much of knowledge work is now done on tech platforms, where user behavior can be tracked and analyzed by machine learning and other tools. We can expect large, complex projects to be broken down into discrete parts that can be performed by different geographically dispersed teams and orchestrated through collaborative platforms infused with AI. This will make it possible for knowledge workers to shift into even more abstract, higher-level tasks that are even harder for machines to do.
3. Tomorrow's organizations will be even more amorphous and flat.
Like a peer-to-peer network instead of a top-down hierarchy, organizations will have more specialized workers who sit outside of the company than inside.
Work will necessarily become more relationship-driven, as people will come to rely less on formal procedures and more on trust networks composed of people who they know will deliver consistent work. The supply side of the labor arrangement (the workers) seem to have already figured this new paradigm out and are driving the shift. How long will it take the demand side (the firms) to catch up?
Engage Talent in More Fluid Ways
We don't expect traditional full-time work to disappear anytime soon, no matter how friction-less independent work becomes. Full-time employment lends itself to work that's unstructured and unquantifiable. While outside expertise can yield refreshing new ideas, brands need workers who can define its values by living and breathing them every day. And there's a whole spectrum of workers--including part-time, full-time, agency, and independent--who bring value to an organization regardless of their official company status.
The future of work isn't a return to normalcy (let's face it, factory work should have never been regarded as normal in the first place). And it isn't fully remote and independent; it's hybrid. The long, overdue challenge will be for companies to break the habit of the antiquated factory model and to begin embracing more fluid ways of engaging talent on more flexible and attractive terms--or they risk losing that talent altogether.