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For the first time, these five factors of modern work are changing all at once

Alex Shootman Profile picture for user Alex Shootman July 23, 2019
The five factors affecting modern work are changing at an unprecedented pace. Workfront President and CEO Alex Shootman explains why - and offers his tips on how to respond.

globe in hand

How often do the fundamentals of work really change? A million years ago our distant cousins were hard at work near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. They used simple tools, such as sharpened stones and hand-axes, for cutting.

They controlled the use of fire for cooking and moved as nature dictated, adjusting to proliferation of vegetation, the presence of predators, and deadly storms.

If we had been present one million years ago, we would have seen the five factors that have always been at the core of work:

1. Worker (How close is the worker to the work?)

  • The hunter was so close to the work they could smell its breath.

2. Tools (How varied are the tools and how fast do they evolve?)

  • There was one primary tool, a shaped stone called an Oldowan, and it took almost 800,000 years for it to evolve into the next tool: the hand ax.

3. Time (Is the work dependent upon or controlled by time?)

  • The work was perpetual and did not have a fixed beginning or end.

4. Interdependence (Can one worker complete the entire work to be done?)

  • There was no division of labor. Everyone did the same job.

5. Location (Is the work location dependent?)

  • You had to be at a specific site to get the work done.

These five factors of work evolved as humanity moved through different phases of civilization. For instance, in the agrarian era, the primary tool became the plow, time centered around the agrarian calendar, work became specialized, and location became more sedentary. In the industrial society, factory tools became the norm, the clock united teams to the minute, specialization increased, and workers gathered in cities. In the knowledge work society, the tools centered on information, the workweek became standardized, specialization accelerated, and work most often happened in offices.

Lead the Era of Modern Work

If we want to lead in the world of modern work, we have to understand how work has changed throughout history and how it will change in the coming decades. The most important thing to know is that for the first time all five factors of work are changing at the exact same moment, making modern work particularly challenging.

The five factors are changing because everything is suddenly social, mobile, and networked. More than two billion people use Facebook, 450 million people use LinkedIn, and 350 million people use Twitter. The growth has been exponential. The one billion users on Instagram didn't exist in 2008, and on YouTube 70 million videos a decade ago has turned into seven billion today. There are more than four billion internet users today, and 80% of them are on social media.

Today's companies simply can't succeed in the market without adopting digital solutions such as chat-based support in multiple social platforms, electronic access to their customers' transaction records, and products that seamlessly merge technology with analog capability. For example, my EpicMix ski card tracks my skiing, tells me where I like to ski, connects to my Strava account, recommends a restaurant, allows me to charge to an account, and shares photos to social media. And that is what I expect it to do.

In addition, creating these types of products and services requires that companies transform the way they work. Companies have to facilitate rapid, collaborative, and dynamic work between functions that are not used to working together. This transformation is driving the changes systemic within modern work.

If we apply our five factors of work to the modern era, we see:

  1. Worker - Instead of the division of labor, today we see the division of work, which refers to dividing large tasks into smaller tasks, each with a separate schedule within the overall project schedule. This division is sometimes called disaggregated work, which often shows itself in the rise of increased specialization. For instance, some of the hottest jobs today barely existed a decade ago: iOS and Android developers, social media interns, data scientists, big data architects, cloud services specialists, and digital marketing specialists. Specialization and disaggregation means that the worker today is often distant from the final product or the customer.
  2. Tools - The era of modern work is characterized by the sheer number of tools available to the modern practitioner. When Scott Brinke r first published the Marketing Technology Landscape in 2011 there were 142 companies on it. Seven years later, it's 32 times bigger with 6,829 companies. The tools of modern work have multiplied, and they are evolving rapidly. Throughout history,the mastery of the tool allowed a worker to excel; that is now becoming nearly impossible.
  3. Time - Time is being compressed in every industry. For example, e-commerce in the United States and Europe is growing north of 14% and is the fastest growing market. A consumer may find a product online one evening, try it on in a store the next morning, and order it on their mobile phone for home delivery on the way to work. Companies employ follow-the-sun support, 24x7 chat, and aim for next-day delivery. Work doesn't center around daylight (as the farmer experienced), nor does it center on 9-5 as the knowledge worker experienced. Instead business is always-on.
  4. Interdependence - The products and services desired in a digital economy require continuous interaction between critical parts of the organization, including product, marketing, distribution, support, and administration. Yet these parts only ever episodically work together. This is why, according to McKinsey, the most commonly cited objective for digital transformations is digitizing the organization's operating model, an objective cited by 68 percent of respondents .
  5. Location - Modern work has become the province of the nomad. For instance, Rose Hayes , VP of Program Management at the real estate company JLL (a Workfront client), works remotely - in Kauai, Hawaii. Technology and attitude has finally allowed people to start working where they want to work, but the impact to this is that the group of people who need to work together to get work done are hardly ever physically together. If the first worker was nomadic within a community, the modern worker is nomadic as an individual.

What should you do with this information?

Start by analyzing how each of the five factors of work is shifting at your company. How is labor being divided? How are your tools transforming? How is the sense of time, interdependence, and location being upended? You may have an unnerving feeling that things are shifting beneath your feet, but you might not be able to articulate exactly what that shift looks like. By listing out each element individually, you'll get clear about where you are and where you want to be.

From there, you'll want to develop a new model of work - a model that's built with modern work in mind. This new model enables you to record all work activity across content and conversations, see results in real time, and move at the speed of digital, all while being intuitive and integrating the tools you're already using. Most importantly, this new model of work helps you navigate the chaos that surfaces as all five factors of work are in flux so you can move forward confidently.

As the philosopher Heraclitus wrote, "the only constant is change." Those who have a clear understanding of exactly what is changing in enterprises across the globe will lead the future of work.

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