Who could have anticipated in January 2020, as we were putting the finishing touches on our manuscript The Human Cloud - a guidebook on the future of work - that our world would be upended by a pandemic a few short months later?
And now, many of us are considering a return to the office (at least in some limited fashion). Vaccination rates are increasing, cases are dropping, and states are relaxing restrictions at an accelerated pace. While we don't know exactly what this will look like going forward, we do know it won't be a fully virtual world, but it also won't be a return to the old way of things
So what will this new world look like? A lot depends on your particular industry and role. If you are in the service industry, a routinized task-based role, or a paper-intensive desk job (Yes, they still exist), not much will change. Let's be honest.
But - and this is BIG - more and more of us are in project-oriented roles. Our main job is to deliver outcomes, either individually or as a team, using a combination of our intellect, best practices, processes, and technology. And these jobs, these project-oriented roles, are ripe for disruption. So what will this new world look like for many of us? Here are some of the key highlights from our book.
Work can happen anywhere.This may seem obvious now, but think back 2 years. Did you REALLY believe this to be true? Did you live and breathe it? Would you let your go-to specialist - you know, the one that was key to the whole project's success - work from home? From her friend's flat in London? From a bungalow in Costa Rica?
We argue in The Human Cloud that with the right guardrails, communication vehicles, and expectations, remote work is not just possible but in some ways preferable. And given that our companies didn't crumble when project work shifted to 100% remote, it's safe to assume it can and does work.
Going forward, we need to assume that work can happen anywhere and manage to that expectation, even if the majority of the team happens to be local and in-office. Having a virtual mindset and set of best practices mean we can be more flexible to our team's needs and hire talent where it is (vs. limiting ourselves to a fixed geography).
Work is a team sport.This goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway): work is increasingly team-oriented. It's hard to think of an occupation or task these days that is truly best done in isolation. Work has gotten too complex for any one person to reasonably do it all. We're constantly forming teams, both formally and informally, to tackle the varied demands of our day.
Managing teams is an artform - part science, part gut, part leadership - but like managing remote work, it includes a heavy dose of communication, task management, and expectation setting. We talk a lot in the book about managing freelancers and AI capabilities, but those same skills apply to traditional full-time human workers as well.
The lines have begun to blur between an FTE, a contractor, a freelancer, and a "bot". That's not necessarily a bad thing. Why? Because you can learn one operating system, one way of managing teams, that applies to a wide variety of circumstances.
Freelancers are a viable - and valuable - part of the team.Coming out of COVID, many of us are learning the hard way first-hand that talent is in high demand. Supply is limited, and if you are still sticking to only localized full-time talent, that short list becomes even shorter based on your geography and network as well as worker preferences. Smart companies are increasingly looking to freelancers to do more than traditional low-value tasks. They are looking at hired guns for high-value project work, specialized skills, even leadership roles such as a virtual vCIO, vCISO, or vCFO.
There are still structural impediments to hiring freelancers: from risk management and compliance to practical considerations such as payment and systems access. These are solvable problems though.
We're seeing an increase in companies that serve as brokers between freelancers and companies, providing the underlying infrastructure and compliance checks needed for freelancers to work within an enterprise. And these brokers charge a fraction of what traditional agencies command for a similar service. As with other disruptions, technology is displacing what used to take large teams to accomplish, and companies and individuals benefit from this disintermediation.
Technology is part of the team too.Increasingly, technology is not just part of our work life. It is becoming inextricably intertwined. Deloitte, in their annual Human Capital Trends report, talks of "superteams" that combine humans and technology into a unified whole. They talk not of technology as a replacement or something outside of a team. They envision AI as central to how teams function and talk of redesigning work around these new superteams.
We couldn't agree more. We talk of the "Machine Cloud" and the ability to tap into these AI capabilities to create outsized change. We also highlight how you don't need to be a software developer to work with these new machine colleagues. But, we do need to be technology literate - including being conversant with data, logic, and their capabilities and limitations.
In our book, we imagine what a world looks like when work is outcome driven, virtual, and dynamic. COVID made that world happen yesterday, overnight. Many of us were thrust into this new world unprepared, but we can and must adapt. We have faith in humanity's collective ability to grow, to rise to the challenge. Our hope is we can help, just a little, with the right tools.
Read more in our latest book The Human Cloud - How Today's Changemakers Use Artificial Intelligence and the Freelance Economy to Transform Work.
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Matt is a seasoned C-level product and technology executive, entrepreneur, advisor, author, and speaker with 25 years of experience helping business and technology work better together. He has led divisions and portfolios for large global corporations, co-founded three companies and advised several others, been an early-stage employee of two successful tech startups, advised dozens of business and technology professionals across all stages of company formation and growth, and launched over a dozen successful products.