The Future of Work

Work is one of the most important ways that ‘modern man’ makes meaning, defines meaning in life – individually and collectively. Therefore, the future of work and the impacts on work of today’s technological developments are critical areas that we should pay attention to, as educators. These are the things that will shape the lives of the children we have in our schools today.

Yet this troubles me. All too often, we see educators who have convinced themselves that if they can just find ways to do what they did before, by degrees of 1 or 2% better, we can make a better version of yesterday’s education and can pat ourselves on the back that we’re reforming, innovating and delivering something world class.

Instead, with the speed of change so rapid in the world today, we need to be thinking in far more bold and creative ways about what schooling and education should be today in order to prepare young people for the world of tomorrow. If we don’t do these things we shouldn’t be surprised if the education available in our schools is seen as less and less relevant, less and less applicable to the evolving lives of young people. Worse, for those of us engaged in schools development in developing countries and away from the economic powerhouses will be condemning the young people we work with to the disadvantages that have held their countries back ….. but multiplied far worse.

One simple example stands out. Over the last 20 to 30 years one of the biggest engines of growth for developing countries was the shift of manufacturing to those countries. There were multiple reasons for this. In the western countries environmental laws and employment laws became more rigid and more costly to comply with. however, by far the biggest influencer was the relative cost of manpower/ labour.  Western workers became too expensive to employ in labour intensive manufacturing environments. In fact, often the developing country labour was so much cheaper that companies didn’t even need to be hasty about introducing or developing advanced equipment for manufacturing.

However, we’ve now hit a critical tipping point with automation, robotics and the harnessing of AI. Companies are moving manufacturing back to developed countries. Governments, such as the USA, make a big deal of this as a conscious effort to support the common man in their countries, to bring back jobs etc. However, the truth is that much of that manufacturing goes on almost entirely without the need for labour and so will have little or no impact on wages and unemployment. However, it now leads to reduced costs of distribution for the manufacturers and a favourable environment to innovate, automate and  harness to new technology.

This represents a challenge for the mass of people in all parts of the world. Job growth in the developing world slows down, job growth doesn’t really materialise in the developed economies (except McJobs with zero hours contracts). In the meantime, the proportion of the world’s wealth flowing in to the hands of the richest and the biggest corporations increases.

(Ironic that I’m writing this the weekend that the American government passed laws to massively cut tax rates for big corporations (who are frequently already sitting on massive cash piles or engaging in aggressive buy-backs of their own shares as the best way to generate shareholder returns).

I came in on the point that educators should be taking account of where the world is going. Only if we do that do we have any hope of providing effectively for the education needs of a generation who are growing up to a very different world to any that has been experienced before.

To this end, here’s the podcast and report from McKinseys;

McKinsey Pocast – What is the Future of Work?

Then, here is the report from McKinsey. This is the summary article that includes a link to the full PDF downloadable report;

What the Future of Work Will Mean for Jobs, Skills and Wages

As I reflect on the content, what it’s telling me is that we need far less didactic teaching of content and syllabus. We need to hasten the transition to teaching and learning that emphasises the development of Twenty First Century skills and competencies. Also, we need to continue to make schools places where students come to own their own learning, have real and genuine agency and don’t wait for teachers to put learning in to them. Rather, we need environments where children hold themselves accountable to learning goals from an early age, working to build the grit, resilience, tenacity, flexibility,  creativity and adaptability to be able to lead and reshape themselves in an ever changing world.

It’s an exciting time and potentially one that can be phenomenally rewarding for young people. However, it won’t be if they’ve been ill-prepared. Children prepared to excel in the world of yesterday will just struggle immensely in the new world of tomorrow.

Doing Great Work

I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t, at least at some time, wrestle with issues of conflict between dealing with the pressing and urgent in their work and the need/ desire to give quality time to work that’s important but less pressing, immediate and urgent.

We have never worked in more connected ways. Even when we’re not meeting or interacting face to face, today’s work day is punctuated by a continual flow of emails. One of the problems, in my experience in most organisations is people don’t openly talk about expectations with regard to these issues. If, for example, somebody sends an email, by when should they anticipate or expect that it will have been seen and a reply received? On the subject of emails, are companies training their people in effective email etiquette and best practices? My suspicion is that very few do. And yet, within most companies there are vast hidden costs being incurred through inefficiency and lost productivity and effectiveness. All this also causes a great deal of stress and anxiety, especially for employees who want to be productive, to achieve and individually and collectively take their organisations forward.

One of many examples is where people (and I’m not going to claim innocence on this type of thing!) send multi-point emails. If I send someone a mail asking four different questions, and they can only answer two immediately, what are they to do? Answer on those two and make a commitment by when they will answer on the others? Hold off answering any of the points and keep the whole mail pending? There’s no easy answer.

Worse, the answer will vary within an organisation depending on who were the sender and the recipient. There are all sorts of issues about rank and status, but different people tend to operate with different practices and expectations (while all their colleagues have to figure out what’s expected).

Another very common issue with email is where people find it ambiguous about expectations when mail is sent outside work hours. Personally, I’ve often sent mails out of hours, but partly so that the mail would be available to the recipient as soon as they get in to work on the next day (or after a weekend). However, i do recognise it’s important to tell people that I’m not expecting them to be working out of hours. This particular issue has been perceived so negatively that France and other European countries have passed legislation prohibiting the sending of work related mail outside working hours. I personally feel it’s rather sad that it had to come to such a prescriptive ‘blunt instrument’ approach in those countries. people should have flexibility and an ability to work in the ways that suit them best, but we need to find better ways to make that fit with others’ working needs.

Emails are one of the bad interruptions that disturb our ability to carve out real quality blocks of time in the working day to do meaningful, high quality work. One of the others is face to face interruptions. it’s a very rare organisation where people stick to the rigours of using calendar scheduling to fix mutually agreeable times to meet, even for 10 minutes. Instead, you have the infamous, “I just need two minutes,” that invariably turns in to 15, which is then followed by 15 minutes of confused and muddled working as the individual tries to regain their focus on what they were immersed in the moment the interruption came. In the worst cases, your interruptions can get interrupted leaving you completely confused. I confess, one day last week i got home after a long day in the office, only to realise that an important email I’d started writing at 11.00am was still open on my laptop, nearly finished along with two others from during the afternoon that were barely started!

In open plan and glass offices it’s become fashionable to suggest that all leaders are duty bound to keep an ‘open door’ policy. However, i believe that if this is at the expense of failure to carve out decent blocks of time to do meaningful and important work, then it’s counter-productive. The urgent cannot always have precedence over the important. We have to be willing to have the conversations with our colleagues and team members about how to give each other the space and time to do meaningful blocks of work. Otherwise, we finish up filling each others’ days with urgency, leaving us no choice but to sacrifice personal time away from the office to do the truly important work in less disturbed circumstances. haven’t we all found that in two hours at home, we can complete more than we would in 8 office hours and to a better standard. However, it shouldn’t have to be that way and at the expense of personal space and time.

Another area where we struggle is with meetings. Meetings have been universally disliked for as long as i’ve worked in my life. yet, they can serve valuable purpose and cannot/ shouldn’t be avoided. Again, there need to be process discussions that ensure people understand what’s expected of them so that meetings can be truly effective;
a) people owe it to each other to come prepared. Too many turn up to meetings poorly prepared and meeting time is then spent getting people up to speed with where they should have been on arrival,
b) Focus needs to be on the meeting – not on laptops, mobile phones and other external things. We have an interesting challenge coming up with video conference technology installed for remote meetings. In the past, skype calls with groups have been messy and disjointed because people had the habit of leaving the room(!). Even those who stayed in the room sometimes took the opportunity to complete other, non-related work. If those meetings are to be effective, we’ll need more self-discipline than that!
c) Agenda creation for meetings can be a minefield if team members seek to ‘stack it’ with their personal agendas. People can be fond of requesting fixed finishing times for meetings, but go off at tangents, ride hobby-horses and use time wasting as a tactic to avoid decisions they disagree with. On the other hand, overly rigid meeting protocols stifle meaningful discussion rendering meetings sterile and mundane. It takes real effort on the part of all to find a happy medium.

I’d like to finish here, sharing a fun piece from Fast Company in which some senior employees from Tech companies share their thoughts on the habits they want to break so as to be more productive and efficient in their work;

Fast Company – Kicking Seven Work Habits

Right, I’m finishing there, because i acknowledge that habit 6 is most certainly one for me to tackle!

Understanding Willpower

When any of us stop to contemplate what we are (or are not) achieving by way of success in our lives - a popular pursuit at the end/ start of a calendar year - we are reminded that every one of us is blessed with the same 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yet, some people are able to achieve great things in multiple areas of life, some others achieve great things in one area whilst living stunted lives in other aspects. And, the vast majority of people, in Thoreau's words are leading "lives of quiet desperation."

Scientific research (as well as common sense) have suggested that the biggest influences are self-control or sometimes referred to as agency - the ability and inclination to resist base urges and to take ownership for the decisions made. My own view is that any person who believes with full conviction that they're accountable for their own actions, exercising control over their own decisions and choices (whether they be good or bad ones, in their own long term interest, or not) will make more good decisions and have a greater sense of control and purpose over their life. They will see themselves more as actor and less as 'acted upon'.

As I've written in some past blog posts, Roy Baumeister and others have developed the concept related to willpower of 'ego depletion' which suggests that within a day we have a finite amount of willpower or decision making power and that, the more decisions we have to make in a day the greater the likelihood that we'll reach a point where it's all used up. This is often used to explain why people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg choose to wear the same clothes every day for work (keeping their mental energies for things they consider more important and value adding). The idea that willpower runs out when drained suggests the reasons why our willpower can crumble under pressure and we find ourselves doing things that are not in our own best interests.

However, this year, we've seen the concept of ego depletion challenged. I wrote about this back in March;

Hold the Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fast Company published an article on the subject recently, suggesting that what the research now appears to be telling us is - if you think your willpower is a depleting asset, it will be. It's all in the mind, apparently. This has implications in many areas as there are a variety of topics on which others have built on to Baumeister's views and ideas. For example, I happen to be reading "Deep Work" by Cal Newport at the current time. This book, published in january 2016 makes frequent reference to Baumeister's research and the implications for doing focused, high quality, meaningful work in a distracted world - especially for knowledge workers.
Fast Company - The Myth About Willpower is Holding Back Your Productivity

One of the questions that this challenge raised in my mind was whether it's all been a bit too convenient to want to believe that Baumeister was right. If I do something (or fail to do something) in a way that exhibits a deficit of willpower it's much more palatable to say that this was because of ego depletion. Without that, I have to acknowledge to at least some extent that this represents a failure of me. I can no longer put it down to something that "wasn't my fault." Such self-scathing critique doesn't sit comfortably with most people. It smacks too much of the self-help movement's "I am responsible" mantra that says that we must own up in the harshest terms to ourselves for every act or omission.

Productivity angst is probably one of the biggest issues of our current decade. The idea that everyone else is being more productive, more efficient, making better decisions and choices about how to extract value from time. the idea that others are capable of being fully wired and inter-connected with a vast online world whilst fully engaging in all the correct opportunities in the real physical world around them, whilst we run from pillar to post leaving vast to-do lists largely undone. FOMO (fear of missing out) keeps people believing that they have a duty to focus a bigger and bigger part of their time on achieving their goals (and you must have plenty of goals) and that 'down time' is for losers.

As a result, debates about the role of willpower, how to control it, have more of it etc. are far more than merely interesting academic debates. Baumeister, as highlighted in the Fast Company article, has questioned the scientific methodology of some of the more recent experiments. He and others continue to defend the concept of 'ego depletion' and I'm sure that in coming months we're going to see this fascinating debate evolve further.

Yet More Evidence on Sleep

It really does seem that sleep is a very hot topic for experimentation lately, and as a result we’re coming to know more and more that is critical from which we must learn lessons.

The latest I came across was this research that had some startling news that I really need to take note of:

Fast Company – Why Six Hours Of Sleep Is As Bad As None At All

What the article told me, very convincingly, is that when I’m consistently getting 6 – 6 1/2 hours in bed a night and think I’m experiencing no negative effects, I’m deluding myself. There is a cumulative effect and it’s very significant one. Over the years I’ve always wanted to believe I could squeeze a bit more out of each day – soe extra time for reading, email, blog writing (!) or other tasks, with the result that I’d have to ‘chase myself to bed’!

After reading this article there’s some serious habit changing work ahead, starting right now! I promise in a while I’ll share how I’m getting on and what benefits I see. Incidentally, after reading this, I’m even clearer in my mind that we should be teaching our children about this stuff and helping them to understand why it matters.

If I Could Just …………..

‘Time Management’ has been around a long time. For almost as long, there have been people quite ready to point out that you can’t manage time – it just is. Instead, what we’re really about is the somewhat harder challenge of managing ourselves and our minds. The holy grail is ‘productivity.’

The abiding thought is always, “If I could just, ….. ” then I could achieve more, be more, succeed more, contribute more etc. The second thought that soon follows is a conviction that others are doing more, achieving more, succeeding more and I really ought to be doing so as well. And so, the rat race is perpetuated.

In the end, my view is that indeed we can’t manage time, but can get better at managing ourselves if we keep some focus on it, practice honest reflection about what we do with our time and whether we could be more effective and keep our big goals at the forefront to determine how wee should be spending our time. The latter point is vital if we are to spend enough time on things which are important, but perhaps not urgent.

The tougher part is that if we’re to make real progress, part of the solution lies in better management of other people. The richer/ higher title/ higher status of an individual enables the person to have much more power over how they use and allocate their time. The more others are determining what is important for us to do and the more others have the right to impose upon us what they perceive to be ‘urgent’, then the less we can really impact the effectiveness of how we allocate our time. It’s not altogether fair when writers and commentators hold up people like Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Elon Musk as examples of people who are able to achieve so much out of the same 24 hours a day available to us all.

Many organisations have instigated practices over the last 10-20 years that may have been right from a communication and collaboration perspective, but were really quite undesirable from a personal efficiency/ productivity perspective. Open offices, open doors etc. may mean that people have more access to each other, but it plays havoc with productivity. Worse, in my experience in different types of organisations, when some are imposing their time agenda on others, it’s not even particularly about work, meaningful quality communication or collaboration, but just some employees seeking company/ companionship. However, all the data on the impact of interruptions is pretty damning. Haven’t we all had those occasions when we were really in flow on some complex and involved task, got interrupted and spent the rest of the day anxiously aware that some of our best ideas we were holding in our heads whilst doing that task have been lost for good – they’re not coming back!

Here’s a Fast Company article to spark a few more ideas. it looks at seven myths that are commonly bandied around on the subject of time management, with suggestions for better ways of thinking;

Fast Company – 7 Popular Productivity Beliefs You Should Ignore

Then Along Came Pre-Crastination

In the pursuit of doing more, achieving more and generally being more (in the same amount of time), procrastination has been the big bad enemy of productivity and effectiveness for a long time. So, we all set about trying to slay the demon of procrastination. We equipped ourselves with productivity software and other tools, focused on making daily ‘to Do’ lists and all the other tricks that the ‘experts’ said would save us, make us more productive and increase our success.

But, all along, there was another peril lurking that didn’t even have a name – until along came ‘pre-crastination!

Scientific American – Pre-Crastination: The Opposite of Procrastination

Now, usually, logic says if something is the opposite of something bad – then it must be good. However, not in this case. Here, we’re talking about the kinds of tricks we play on ourselves where we put tasks on the ‘To Do list that are easy, enjoyable, fun and sometimes quick – and then do them first! Then, we may get to the end of the day with half the list completed and tell ourselves what a great job we did. After all, look how much of the list got completed!

As the article says – we’re very tempted to grab the low-hanging fruit.

I guess the answer is continuous rigorous self-analysis and honesty coupled with the Stephen Covey maxim to ‘Put First Things First’.

Are Work Habits Ruining Your Productivity?

In busy schools as much as any other kind of organisation,  if we want to raise standards and achieve at higher levels of excellence we have to be willing to challenge some of the ways we work. This very short video from Fast Company highlights some of the things regularly done that severely undermine productivity.  Reduced productivity means less scope to raise the bar in what we do.

The two that stood out for me the most were;  batching email and clearly understood open door times.  Unfortunately,  too many are guilty of treating email as a form of instant messaging that demands and expects instant responses.  This is enormously damaging to effective use of time,  especially on major projects. 

Years ago,  when I worked for a bank in an open plan office we were very concerned at the impact of interruptions on work.  Not only did it cause slower work,  it often caused mistakes.  So,  we implemented a system of flags on desks.  There was a clear understanding that if someone had their flag visible,  they were working on something and should not be interrupted for anything other than an emergency.  There were a few trust issues with individuals perceived to take advantage of the system to cut themselves off,  but once those were addressed all believed they got more work done,  to a higher standard (and could finish and go home earlier! ).

If we’re serious about raising standards we have to address productivity issues.  Just asking people to work harder harder harder cannot be the answer.  We have to all work smarter.

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