This article is a part of The Human-Centered Work Project, a hub of research-based insights and resources on redesigning work. The following insights come from research exploring what remote work looks like today as homes have become offices and classrooms to uncover what actions can improve the precarious work and life balance for caregivers working from home.
We are in the midst of a cultural sea change. Everywhere we look the shift is subtle but palpable. As a species, we are leaving a centuries-old paradigm of human institutions built on fear and control — and entering a new era of organizations founded on trust. The shift from a fear-based to a trust-based culture is bringing about new ways of designing work experiences.
For all its difficulties, the pandemic year foregrounded new possibilities in trust as the glue of organizations. With our conventional work patterns disrupted, we evolved new ways of trusting each other and our larger world. We have new resources to draw on as we explore the next chapter of work, especially as so many companies announce their return to office plans this summer and fall.
Robert Gilman, a sustainability pioneer and cultural theorist, has been researching the shift from fear to trust for about four decades. He characterizes it as a shift from an Empire Era in which the primary way of organizing was “religiously sanctioned, violence-enforced hierarchies” to the newly emerging Planetary Era, which is full of self-organizing, collaborative, influential teams.
When we set out to research remote work for our Human-Centered Work Project, our goal was to discover inspiring innovations that would help our team at AnswerLab — and hopefully beyond. We wanted to redesign work to be more inclusive — of parents, of BIPOC communities, of everyone. We didn’t expect that the threads we untangled would lead us to a whole new view of human culture, but it did. Based on all we learned in the past six months, we have eight predictions for how this emerging new culture will take shape in our lives.
1. Inclusivity at the cultural level
Conventional corporate work culture functions as a kind of operating system that desperately needs an upgrade. Scholar Tema Okun has articulated all the insidious and surprising ways racism can be embedded in an organization’s culture, through values like perfectionism, and norms like constant urgency, shaping individual and team behaviors and experiences. To counteract this, teams will grow culture intentionally, building learning organizations that are deeply inclusive of people of all backgrounds, identities, and family and life situations. Teams will leverage new kinds of group processes, create access to facilitative resources, offer continuous communication upskilling, and cultivate literacy about power and how it works.
2. Co-creative work relationships
We are entering an era in which the idea of holding power over another or controlling her actions will be seen as increasingly distasteful and passé. Teams may consent to data-gathering tools for a narrow, defined scope; mass corporate surveillance with its roots in enslavement will be increasingly uncool. Individuals will expect to have agency and autonomy over their work lives as table stakes, and we will see a new class of “yin managers” who facilitate this. Influence will flow not from rank and title but rather be earned by breadth of perspective, depth of experience, integrity, and simple kindness. Whether between colleagues, a manager and a direct report, or even a teacher and a student, we will relearn what it means to dance as a co-creating partner in a relationship of equals.
3. The evolving role of the home will shape workplace innovation
We’re seeing how COVID has revealed the interconnectedness of our institutions by putting everything — work, school, and family life — under the same roof: the home. Although many families may be counting the days until their kids can return to school, many are also finding joy and value in the home as a hub of learning and work, enjoying the opportunity to provide children with more autonomy, play a bigger role in their development, and strengthen parent-child relationships. The pandemic has revealed pain points, leading to a sudden efflorescence of networks and resources that facilitate home-based learning, and contributed to their visibility.
Because of all this, we anticipate that the number of families who freely choose to combine home-based, self-directed, eclectic learning with a flexible remote job will grow. Companies have the opportunity to lead the way by embracing home as workplace and partnering with employees to prototype gentler, more human-centered patterns that help all parties meet their evolving needs. The ones that thrive this decade will be those that seize this opportunity.
4. Time-zone co-location
The always-on, instant-response, 24/7 global culture will be transformed into a more durable and pleasant way of life through increased attention to time-zone co-location when building teams. Team-building will become more intentional, designed for stability. Stable, committed teams can provide excellent service to time-zone-collocated clients while enjoying body-friendly and family-friendly rhythms.
5. New experiments in commitment-structuring
We imagine that as the wellspring of trust is filled, schools and companies will do away with black-and-white arrangements (full-time employee/full-time student or nothing). Building on the research of clinicians like Stanley Greenspan, who outlined the “four thirds” method, an innovative approach to parenting and child care in which each parent works a slightly reduced schedule, companies will begin to gently explore different ways to structure commitment to a team, such as fractionated work arrangements, and more norms and options around ways of taking temporary leave. Similarly, schools will focus less on hours “in school” or “at school” and more on weaving together rich learning experiences provided by daily life. Portfolios, not masses of time, will provide proof of excellence.
6. Two-way flexibility
Work cultures that thrive will exhibit two-way flexibility, safeguarding quality-of-life for all stakeholders. They will function as a living membrane that negotiates client needs and employee needs. Ultimately, they will replace an overly simplistic “the customer-is-always-right” mentality with a new skill set focused on communication modalities that help get everyone’s needs met.
7. Deep work, not counting hours.
In knowledge work, organizations will optimize for deep work instead of counting hours. The outdated concept of a 9-to-5, 40-hour workweek will continue to erode in relevance and increasingly be seen by knowledge workers and their managers as too blunt of a convention for meeting the needs of employees, clients, and business. The same will happen with schooling. Instead of a one-size-fits-all schedule, people will have the agency to organize their work and learning around ultradian rhythms so contributors can make the most of their natural daily cognitive peaks (according to some, about 3 or 4 90-minute sessions) in the service of life and work. The result will be reduced presenteeism in the workplace and in school, and more authentic and thoughtful self-managed contribution.
8. More authentic evaluation
Systems for quantifying knowledge work (hours at work/school, test grades, client feedback scores) will be complemented with more complete, holistic, and authentic systems for growth and learning, leveraging the principles from deliberately developmental organizations and self-directed learning. Companies will commit to developing, iterating, and socializing user-friendly review rubrics and matrices, and facilitating meaningful peer-to-peer learning. Learning in the context of committed partnerships, like mentorships and apprenticeships, will continue to flourish. Facilitative structures for honest self-assessment and peer-assessment to identify growth opportunities will also become cultural norms.
Seeing and naming possibilities is only the first step of moving into them. As we gain more familiarity with the new world that’s emerging all around us, we have the opportunity to take active steps to bring it more vividly into being. There is more to learn than ever as we live into this kinder, more creative, and more humane world.
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The Human-Centered Work Project Resources
Tools you can use and customize to take action with your team, organization, or community.
Use this discussion guide to conduct listening sessions with your own BIPOC employees about their experiences.
A framework to give employees more flexibility and autonomy over when they work to help balance work, life, and caregiving needs
Read more insights:
- Introducing the Human-Centered Work Project
- Building the Foundation for Anti-Racism Research
- Redefining "Professionalism"
- How Employers Need to Address the Balance Between Work, Life, and Caregiving in the Coming Months
- Stories from the Field: Employees and Employers Navigating Work and Life Remotely
- Why We Need to Disrupt Perfectionism for More Inclusive Workplaces
- Making a Corporate Commitment to Dismantling Institutional Racism