The rules of business have changed. Automation is setting a new bar for operational efficiency, communication technologies are allowing new work models to scale at speed, values-driven consumers are seeking greater purpose in their purchasing, and employees are increasingly prioritizing flexibility.
But with such opportunity comes the very real danger of being left behind. People are quickly outgrowing the rigid control of traditional workplaces, with their slow decision making and hierarchical structures – so much so, that only 13% of the global workforce is actually engaged at work.
To stay relevant – let alone survive – our organizations need to offer us something different. They need to excite us, push us to become better, create with purpose and harness agile work practices. For many, the future organization is already taking shape. Here’s a summary of what it looks like so far.
Traditionally, organizations have maintained a hierarchical structure made up of distinct teams, each with their own focus. These teams work within centralized office spaces and form specialized business units; together, the distinct parts work together to maximize the efficiency of the company as a whole.
But this model is increasingly being challenged – markets are becoming increasingly global, consumer-led, and controlled by complex regulation. Rigid specialist teams are no longer sufficient for understanding and adapting to these emerging challenges. Instead, information needs to be shared between versatile teams, which are constantly being built and reshaped to adapt to the needs of the market.
Instead of hierarchy, organizations of the future will be defined by a network of teams built for specific projects, collaborating across a flat business structure.
These shifting teams won’t all be based in a single office – or any number of offices for that matter. Tools like Zoom and Slack allow us to collaborate in real-time with anyone around the world. Rather than needing the whole team to be present within the work space, innovative collaboration will happen pretty much anywhere.
And it’s a beneficial change, since flexible work is something we enjoy; a survey of recent college graduates found that 68% valued the opportunity to work remotely. This isn’t surprising, since flexible working allows us to manage our lives and workload in a way that suits us. Companies seeking to attract the best talent will have to respond to this desire.
But it’s not just employees who profit from this flexible work; businesses do too. Flexible workers are both more productive and engaged and the model helps businesses reduce costs. Recruiting remote employees also overcomes the limitation of geography, allowing organizations to recruit a more diverse workforce from a wider talent pool – a factor that BCG suggests is vital for innovation.
We’re already well on the way to seeing this future of flexible organizations. A recent Gallup report showed that 43% of employed Americans spent at least part of their time working remotely. But as organizations become more tech-savvy and realize the benefits of flexible working, this number will only increase.
Work in future organizations will also be more fulfilling. Whilst a handful of low-skilled jobs will be entirely replaced by automation, a McKinsey report suggested that thinking of automation in terms of occupations is misguided. Instead, in the short- and medium-term, we should understand automation as replacing specific activities.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an entry level employee or a CEO, there will be elements of your job which can be made easier with technology. AI technology already exists to track time and create time sheets for you, prioritize your emails and translate meeting audio into minutes – outsourcing all the low-value, unproductive tasks we hate doing.
Rather than threating our jobs, this automation will make life working in organizations more fulfilling for all of us; we’ll have more time and space to focus on the social and creative tasks we excel at as humans.
Though these networked organizations will be decentralized, they will also be managed more effectively. Cross-organizational communication is set to change dramatically: becoming more considered, intelligently structured and personalized. Many workplaces are already moving away from “instant response” communication towards employees setting their own “periods of availability” for email and small queries.
The market has also seen a boom in collaboration and employee tracking software, with a view to helping managers check-in on employee progress without interrupting them or holding more meetings. Tracking per se is no longer seen as sinister surveillance; it’s an empowering tool helping teams coordinate more effectively, balance responsibilities and become more self-managing.
AI will play a central role in all of this. It can enable positive company culture, by helping managers identify and celebrate employee achievements, and ward off employee burnout. But it can also proactively anticipate problems – like predicting which employees may be tempted to leave the company – and react to their needs accordingly.
Flexible working does not mean chaotic management. On the contrary, smart and purpose-driven leadership can provide remote workers with a quality experience – and that’s set to become essential as more companies realize the central importance of “employee experience” to retention and growth.
Given the growing demand for flexible work and proliferation of remote managing tools, one pressing question arises: should organizations still be considered the future?
The number of us freelancing is certainly growing - platforms such as Uber and UpWork have helped turn 36% of the American workforce into freelancers, and independent workers could make up the majority of the U.S. workforce as early as 2027. But while these are big numbers, it seems unlikely that organizations will be entirely replaced.
Stability is still needed at the core of any company to coordinate remote workers and teams. Whilst high-skill experts can be brought in and low-skilled jobs outsourced, an entire workforce of freelancers would create increased search costs, weaken coordination and provide potential problems for data security.
So organizations will likely remain at the heart of how we do business for some time yet, but their fundamental characteristics will continue to change. For now, that means working towards a more flexible, decentralized and automated model – and if your organization isn’t yet considering these, you may quickly be left behind.