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.

The School of Life

The school of Life Website

As the video above highlights, our education for children is all too often lacking in attention to the key skills of living - the skills that can enable a person to do more than just exist or muddle along.

School of Life sets out to provide lots of interesting and well presented material to fill that gap. The website link above will give you access to lots of videos, articles and even items available to purchase. Appropriate selection can yield lots of learning material for the school classroom.

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!

Changing Our Approach to Work

After the business barons got out of hand exploiting their workers with unhealthily long work shifts in awful conditions, the 8-hour shift came as good news and was almost luxurious for many. It went on to become embedded in the mentality of working people having been fought for and hard won. There was a slogan used by the campaigners that went, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!”

It’s held firm for a long time now, and been exported to every corner of the world. But, in so many ways it just plain doesn’t work any more. Here, this informative and entertaining article from Forbes highlights just some of those reasons – and suggests what could work so much more effectively for us.

Forbes – Why The 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work

While reading this I became aware of my own personal hangups that don’t make such changes easy. Early in my professional working life, it was the late 1980’s and i was working in a bank where there were a lot of very traditional and ‘set in their ways’ people. I had had many part time jobs during my student days and always worked hard. Here, suddenly, I was faced with an environment within which it was more important to be seen working and ‘busy’ than to actually get work done or achieve outcomes.

One of my biggest shocks was when i watched a senior gentleman who had just returned from his annual vacation labour for two whole days making lists of all the correspondence and work that had arrived on his desk during the two weeks he was away before he wrote a single letter in response or made a single phone call. It even troubled me that, in his absence, all work related to his clients was simply added to a growing pile on his desk. there was no comprehension that our responsibility was to meet needs of clients/ customers (and that a person’s holiday was an inadequate reason for them to go without service!)

There were time clocks in the office where each employee had to insert a plastic key that would then cause it to show how much time you had worked over the month. Some of the laziest and most unproductive people in the office used to show the highest numbers of hours at the end of every month! Figure that one out. There were all sorts of games and scams people could play. I really didn’t want to join in. In fact, far from playing the game, I got in to trouble after i’d been there about 6 months and to be spoken to sternly by the union representative. He informed me that it had been brought to his attention that I had been taking on ‘extra projects’ for managers and taking work home in the evenings and at weekends. This was to stop immediately!

I ignored the union rep and reminded him a few years later when I had been promoted a number of times and he still sat doing the same job as before. Nevertheless, the seeds had been sown at that time for my decision to strike out from my home country and head to the East, where attitudes to work and time tend to be rather different. i haven’t looked back really – in fact, this year I’ve moved further East!

I still suffer from guilt. We are all well aware of the ability for office workers to ‘guilt’ those who seem to be slacking if they have a personal or casual conversation in the workplace, or come a little later than others, regardless of work done, output achieved etc. I’ll even guilt myself for walking in half an hour after others, even though I know that I sat down and did two or three hours of great quality work that I’m proud of the evening before at home.

There’s one area where I do disagree with the advice in the Forbes article. I think when one is in the state of ‘Flow’ identified by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi the need for breaks every hour melts away. Certainly, for me personally, the clock stops mattering when i’m in my groove like that. To force myself to take a break would actually be an annoyance, would break the flow and make me less productive. That doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

It’s not just the time issue that needs major rethinking in our approaches to work. it’s also how we behave in our offices, how we organise them and how we make them places where people can actually get work of real quality done. These problems are well brought out in this TED talk;

Going back to my early working life, eventually i became a manager after a few years, in charge of an office with about 14 people working (or, I worried, too often not working), interrupting each other continuously. When i brought this up as an issue, people were shocked. I suggested a plan whereby anyone could put up a little flag at the front of their desk (we were entirely open plan). This flag meant, don’t interrupt this person. You couldn’t keep the flag for more than an hour at a time or for more than 2 hours in a single day. People didn’t like this. When the next ‘upward appraisal’ session came around they gave me a bad mark and complained i was making myself inaccessible. The truth was, it was vitally important to them to maintain the status quo. Concentrated, uninterrupted work time would mean we’d have to show some good work. Worse, it meant that you couldn’t impulsively go and stretch your legs whilst dumping some ‘upward delegation’ on your boss.

I’m writing this in the evening, sitting in my home with beautiful classical music playing in the background – Bach, if anyone’s interested. I worked at home all day today and didn’t even leave the house. I got real work done. Work that was important and matters. And, I probably achieved more in my work today than I had in the last week. i didn’t watch TV or waste my time. I did do some exercises and take a shower in the afternoon when I felt my work flagging. That left me ‘good to go’ for a few more hours afterwards.

So, why do i feel guilty?


Long Life Changes Everything

For nearly 10 years now I’ve been telling parents something that I know many of them struggled to get their heads around. Mostly, I’ve saved this message for parents of children in Kindergarten and Primary classes. My argument is a simple one. If your child is going to live more than 100 years on this planet, what should be changing in our thinking about how we prepare children for such a life?

One of the reasons parenting is such a challenge for so many is that the temptation is to see our children’s lives as an extension and a progression on the experiences of our own lives. However, in a world that’s changing as fast as ours, that generally is a big mistake. So, I understand that the first reason so many glaze over when I talk about children living to 100 is that when adults look at their own lives and those of their parents, it doesn’t seem possible. However, this article from the Telegraph shows that, quite frankly, I might be being too conservative with an age expectation of 100 – maybe we already need to be getting our heads around the idea of 110 or even 120!

Telegraph – World’s First Anti-Ageing Drug Could See Humans Live to 120

Inevitably (just think who reads the Telegraph!), the article focuses on the more immediate life change implications of this drug for people who are already in their middle ages or older. However, as an educator, my mind immediately turns to the implications further out in time for the young people who are now undergoing education and how we need to change our perspectives and approaches to education.

Since the start of the Twentieth Century education has been almost entirely a process that stats around age 3-6 and ends in the early twenties or earlier for the vast majority of people. Most countries use the law to force parents and children to stay in the process until age 16 or in some cases age 18. What a strange state of affairs that is – legal coercion is necessary to make people do something that’s supposed to be essential to prepare the individual to lead a successful and productive life. All of this may well have (sort of) worked in the time of a life span of three score years and ten (70).

If you were going to live at least 50% longer, how much would that change? Where would be the tearing hurry to start hot-housing children so early? Wouldn’t it make more sense to allow them to play, to learn at their own pace and naturally develop the neural networks that will support their future learning? Shouldn’t we all be going the Scandinavian way and delaying the start of formal education until age 6 or even 7?

Even after that, when you have so much time available, learning deep rather than broad makes more sense. Also, greater emphasis on developing the skills of independent learning – being a lifelong learner become critical. There’s time for so much more focus on the development of ‘soft skills’ and skills for life that are of use across a whole variety of professions or life areas.

How soon does it make sense to start narrowing down and specialising? Right now, children as young as 14 are pressured to make decisions that will narrow their future choices by deciding what subjects they will study. Wouldn’t we better allowing personal motivation and interest to define what is learned and for how long?

When you consider how much has changed in the world in the last 110 years, how much change would a person see who is going to live through the next 110? How much flexibility would they require? How much resilience?

Most have seen education as a preparation for an economically productive life. How long will that economically productive period last? Plainly the idea of stopping working at 60 years will be a nonsense. Also, if the drugs available mean that people are that much healthier at older ages, then there would be no sense in withdrawing ones contribution from the world at such a young age. Quite frankly, I already believe that doesn’t make sense today.

In recent months I’ve seen a number of studies from different countries regarding people’s attitudes to work, professional life and the role of what they do to be economically productive in their lives. All indicate, give or take a few percentage points, levels of disengagement in the workplace exceeding 70%. I have a separate article that I’m in the process of putting together on the subject of work and how we perceive it, so won’t go in to a lot of detail here. Fr the purposes of this article though, I suggest that if our ‘productive’ stage of life is more likely to be 60 years than 35, shouldn’t we be bringing children up with healthier attitudes and feelings towards work, expending effort – in short a complete change of mindset towards the meaning of work? That starts with favouring the pursuit of goals and visions that are meaningful to the individual – that people do work that matters to them. It also requires a massive raising of the bar on the way people in workplaces are lead. Leadership skills need to go to a whole new level.

In short, if trained and permitted to follow their dreams, people can really learn to love work and find it an engaging and exciting part of their lives.

My final thought on this – longer life span becomes a strong case to stop the process of schooling being a massive filtering mechanism from which people are sifted in to future life streams according to arbitrary factors related to passing examinations. Instead, education has to focus on every pupil, as an individual, being set on a path to live and fulfill their potential and make their best contribution to the world around them in all respects.

In the face of such massive changes in human lives, the changes in education can’t just be about incremental tinkering around the edges. That’s just like rearranging the deckchairs as the Titanic sinks below the waves. We need to be fundamentally questioning, challenging and inventing anew if we are to meet the needs of people leading a new kind of life.

Motivation: The Meaning of Work

One of my favourite writers and a regular contributor to TED Conferences, Dan Ariely. Here, he talks about what motivates people in work and what this tells us about effective leadership.

As well as drawing on this to understand how we motivate people in the world of work, i believe it also has a lot to tell us about motivation for children. As educators, how much of what we ask children to do in school matches up to what Ariely talks about here?