E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

The Mindset of Work

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What’s the future of work? I bet that’s probably the number one single question we all keep bumping into multiple times during the course of the day and, yet, we still haven’t got a clue about what the real future of work might be like in the long run. We know it’s going to be impacted big time by technology, if not already!, where we eventually might not even talk about work anymore, but more on that in another upcoming blog post. What I’m most interested in at the moment though is how we would probably need to start working things out not necessarily in figuring out what work might well be in 10 or 15 years, but perhaps dig in plenty more into what the present of work is nowadays and that ought to be something we need to fix first, before it all takes us by surprise and we find ourselves without work and without a future. Is work still a physical space or a mental state? Who decides?

Most people don’t know about this, but I was born a futurist. From a very very early age, while I was born and raised in a tiny village in mainland Spain, I have always been fascinated by the future and what roll humanity may well play in making it happen. I know plenty of people have always been obsessed with both the past and the present. Alas, for myself, it’s always been about the future and what it might hold for us as a species. That’s one of the several reasons why this is one of my old time favourite videos I keep re-watching every now and then to remind me (If you watched through it – it’s 6 minutes long – you will know why…). But, at the same time, I realised, long time ago, that in order for us to figure out what the future may well be like we might need to work out first what kind of present we want to have. And today, not tomorrow, as it’s not here yet, not yesterday, because it’s already gone. And it’s only when you insert words like ‘work’ you realise it’s a tougher job than anyone may have anticipated altogether. 

Take a look, for instance, into a recent blog post from my good friend Euan Semple under the heading ‘Being at work’, where he comes to question that despite our several attempts to travel into the future to see what work might be like in this day and age of social, emergent technologies, as far as work is concerned, we may have just gotten stuck in the good old 20th century, because we just aren’t there … yet. We still pretty much think AND strongly believe that work is a physical state. To quote Euan: 

I marvel at organisations agonising over whether or not to give their staff the choice to work at home, over engineering the technology they feel is needed to allow them to do so, and having time wasting meetings about whether they can be trusted not to waste their time!

Does it sound familiar? Have you experienced pretty much the very same thing, even within your own organisation? I bet you have. We all have. For plenty of knowledge (Web) workers, work still is a physical space you commute to, to get work done as effectively as you possibly can, within some of the given constraints Euan mentions on that quote, hoping the day goes by really fast without making trouble with your direct boss, to then start, once again, the journey back home. Day in day out. Week in Week out. Monthly pay-check in the bank. Oh yeah, holidays!!! Yay!!!

If someone would ask me if that is the future of work, as pretty much the present, today, I think I’ll just go ahead and scream my lungs out till the bleed. NO! That’s definitely not the future of work, and it shouldn’t necessarily be its present either! I mean, don’t we have all of these wonderful technologies that helps us get together, connect, collaborate, share our knowledge more openly and transparently, and innovate faster altogether, whenever and wherever we may well be? Why do we still keep thinking about work as a physical activity one embarks on from a certain time in the day to another? Why do we still think that work is something you do while at the office, where your performance is usually valued and measured more in terms of your sheer presence (and how pretty you are!) vs. the results and outcomes you keep delivering.

If you ask me what might the problem here then I’d venture to state it’s not necessarily an issue with technology, nor with business processes, but mostly with people. And more than people with our very own mindset and behaviours. Right at the core of any issues and challenges you may be facing at work with different change initiatives they are bound to be around people’s mindset, including your very own, as well as their own behaviours and business practices. Help shape, fix those accordingly, always under the premise you can’t change people per se, but provide the necessary conditions for them to figure out if they would want to change (or not) and you are off to defining what the present of work may well be like in preparation of the future, whatever that may well be.

Euan already hints what it may look like when he writes ‘Work is more about attitude of mind than place. Most of us can do it anywhere’, as he points out how we are not going to have a single barrier from either a technology or business processes points of view. On the contrary, it’s our very own mindset alone the one that’s stopping us, as we are still pretty much behaving and thinking in terms of the scarcity and constraints of the XX century as an opportunity of survival, when we should shift gears into the abundance of the XXI century. Based on what?, you may be wondering… Well, based on what is our new oil: knowledge, our collective knowledge.

Allow me to share an example … Every single time that I start working with potential clients, and before we get down to do some real hands-on work, I usually spend some time having conversations with them (either F2F or remotely, although the latter is a bit tougher, as I blogged recently) exploring their needs and wants, why they would want to change, as they have decided to embark on the Social Business and Digital Transformation journey, and how I may be able to help them accordingly, and during those conversations I typically have got a number of probe questions just to get a feeling as to how far their mindset may have shifted already or not. My favourite one that raises eyebrows time and time again is the following: with the emergence of all of these social, mobile and cloud technologies, ‘how does it make you feel when each and everyone of your employees is your new CIO?’ Pause there for a moment and observe with full intent their reaction(s)… Priceless! 

Here’s another example, if I may, that relates, pretty much as well, to my own recent working experience. I mentioned how, when I left IBM nearly three years ago, I spent a whole month doing tons of thinking to figure out what I wanted to do next. Part of that time was also spent on reconnecting with folks in my close networks to rekindle our working relationships, to let them know I had become a free man, and to also get my act together about my own online social presence. While all of that was happening, I also had the opportunity to be interviewed by a few Enterprise Social Networking vendors, as I was just becoming available out there in the Social Business market and perhaps a bit too appetising at the same time for some, who knows.

The thing is that I went through those interviews and we had some pretty amazing conversations about potential job opportunities with each of them, but then again I just couldn’t help myself throwing out there some additional probe questions of my own, one of them in particular rather critical for me to decide whether they may well have shifted mindsets or not and therefore be able to join them or not. This particular question is, to me, the defining one, whether you’re walking the talk or not in terms of thinking of work as a mental state enabled and self-empowered by these emerging social, mobile, cloud technologies or whether you still think work is a physical activity you do at an office under command and control: ‘Can I work with you remotely from where I live?’ The answer to that question by all of them was along the lines of ‘Well, we were hoping you’d relocate to our central offices [in whatever the major European city] and work from our office’. Yikes! No, thanks! 

See? If that probe question would have been asked in such manner for any other kind of job, I would have taken the answer as in I’d need to relocate and start working from their office(s), but this time around things are different. There were all Enterprise Social Networking vendors, who are supposed to live and breathe the social technologies they want to sell to their customers. These are the ESN vendors who claim, out loud, a new way of working, a new state of mind when thinking about work, about the huge opportunity and incredible perks of working remotely to help unleash the true potential of your employee workforce, yet, they themselves don’t embrace what they preach and act accordingly.

Of course, I kindly turned those ESN vendors down and rejected their very generous offers to join them. Of course, there have been several potential client prospects I have attentively declined working with because of the answers they gave me to those probe questions. Why? Well, mindset, that’s what it is all about, I am afraid, folks. And while I realise I’m hurting my own business by either not having some amazing steady full time job at a large multinational or by decorously declining to work with clients despite their good disposition, some times one has got to realise and come to terms with the fact it’s better not to feed the dinosaurs, specially, if the mindset is just not there. 

That’s how we might still have a good chance to change the future of work starting off today… Not tomorrow. 

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