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Forget the future of work and instead focus on its futures

Over recent months I’ve had a lot of conversations with organisations about their workplace plans and strategies as they plan for their own future of work. And I’ve listened in on even more conversations. One notion that is constantly expressed by the people developing such strategies is that they are very uncertain about both the present and the future but they are planning and implementing them anyway. But with the capability to adapt as more becomes known about the nature and scale of the changes we are seeing.

They are not the first to exist in this superstate. You could argue that it is a feature, not a bug, in the human condition. As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it, we are doomed to live our lives forwards but only understand them backwards. “Livet skal forstaas baglaens, men leves forlaens.”

We may not yet be able to describe the exact type of change we are currently witnessing in the way we work. Is it a Black Swan? – the term coined and popularised by Nassim Taleb as things that “seem to us, on the basis of our limited experience, to be impossible” but which happen anyway, have a major impact and are often rationalised later.

Or is it a Gray Rhino? – a term defined by the author Michele Wucker as an event we can or could have seen coming and should have expected? Maybe it’s a Dragon King, a predicted or predictable event that has large and potentially unexpected consequences in complex systems, however well prepared we may have been for them?

Lernerfolg Sedus sofa future of work

However you categorise what we are seeing, this is not a great time for making precise predictions about the future of work or much else. Rather we might be better employed thinking about futures. We should make predictions about work and workplaces as a range of potential outcomes, based on what we already know, what we are seeing and what might yet come to pass. There are many paths ahead.

So, this is not purely about innovation. We don’t need to press the reset button and forget all we know already. These may be unprecedented times and we may have new tools and new knowledge at our disposal all the time, but there is also old knowledge and some elements of change that are at least somewhat consistent.

That includes people and their relationships with each other. It seems likely that the debate about offices and the wider world of work will be informed as much by disciplines such as anthropology, physiology, neuroscience and psychology as it is by the traditional concerns of businesses.

The way people work and the ways in which they work as a community are explored in the latest issue of Insights, the Sedus trends monitor. But it can also be unpicked on the pages of this blog and elsewhere.

If we are to shift our focus from some predictable vision of the future, and towards potential futures, we will have to absorb a wide range of ideas and knowledge. And as the best and more foresighted organisations are now doing, draw up plans for an uncertain way ahead but with one consistent principle. That the workplace should be about people and community. That is one thing we should always be sure of.

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