What I know about the future of work: Claire Burge

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“People spend 90 percent of their time at work and yet so many people are unhappy at their jobs. There is still this reality that people want to escape work and live their ideal lives and it’s just so wrong. It shouldn’t be like that,” said Claire Burge, CEO of This is Productivity.

During an enlightening conversation with Burge in November, the South African CEO shared her insights from years-long research into the three elements of workplaces: technology, humans, and physical spaces.

Claire Burge, CEO of This is Productivity.
(Image via Claire Burge)

Burge’s first claim to fame came in a well publicized experiment in late 2011 where she gave up email for a year. Her experience, and even more importantly, the visceral reactions - both negative and positive - to the experiment, furthered her interest in studying the current and future status of work as a cornerstone of modern human lives.

“An accountant sits behind [accounting software] Sage an entire day. What is Sage doing to an whole population of accountants in the world? What are marketing and sales tools doing to marketors? We haven’t actually stood back and questioned the systems and how they actually affect us. And I saw that. Not using email saved me three hours a day,” she said.

Burge’s This is Productivity aims to be the go-to company and platform that collates all data on how humans work in their physical offices, and how they interact with their peers and with technology.

“Eventually my big dream is to become the world's largest conglomerate with regards to work. I want to have many brands within the company that are all impacting work very positively,” she said.

Here are some of Burge’s pointers on you need to know about the future of your work.

Where you are now is not the future. Your current job has zero to do with your job in three years. As an employer or employee, you are most likely going to have to reinvent yourself inside a job about 20 times in a given career. Unfortunately, the way humans are being trained now is very traditional. Inside companies and universities, people are being taught skills for jobs that will not exist in a few years time. And that’s a major crisis.

Skills in humanities > STEM skills. If you look at the current trend, skills in science, technology, engineering, and maths, like coding, are in vogue right now. That’s good as they are very important skills. But all of those humanities skills that have very much been sidelined, are the skills that machines cannot replicate. While a machine can work out a mathematical formula better than a human can, a machine can’t learn empathy with random factors thrown in like cultural nuances inside facial expressions. So in the future, we’re going to start seeing the humanities degrees becoming highly valuable.

Actively think about the human component to your startup. Google, Facebook and Linkedin have set the tone as amazing places to work for, and yet the employees are very unhappy on the ground. So there’s a very fake concept in the world right now about what makes people happy and engaged in work. Happiness at work depends less on having a Chief Happiness Officer position or massage room, and more on interconnectedness between employees and engagement in the actual work. And if you’re not building that interconnectedness between your team members, you are sacrificing your own competitive advantage. The way competitive advantage has been seen is in intellectual property (IP) and it’s not that. It’s becoming more and more human.

Hire the human first, their resume second. Don’t only hire for technical skills but also hire for skills such as cross-cultural intelligence, social intelligence, new media literacy, and computational thinking. Hire people who have travelled the world or have experience in various cultures. You should be hiring people with a deep skillsets, like engineering or a coding, but also those who have a very broad skillsets to prove that they can work in various settings and are adaptable.

Create meaning inside the work. Meaning is derived from four different areas. First, play. Am I given the ability to get playful with this work and push back sometimes? Second, challenge. Is this work just outside my skillset where it’s a challenge to reach but not impossible to obtain? Third, autonomy and fourth is mastery, where an employee is able to see a clear path to excelling at the job. So instead of focusing so much on surface level changes to workplaces like adding a billiards room to keep employees happy, start to dig into the work itself and structure it differently.

Employees need to be learning iteratively and getting curious. With all the technological advancement like artificial intelligence, virtual reality etcetera, the era of specialization is coming to an end. Instead, focus is shifting away from that deep skillset to being the jack of all trades. Getting a degree and then do a course in something five years later will not cut it in the future. The best way to keep your mind switched on, is to be curious. Employees need to be iteratively learning all the time. And learning can just as likely happen by having a conversation with someone than by being in a classroom.

There must be a shift in leadership. An employee can only really work on their own skillset but they can’t make significant shifts within the company. So what we are talking about is significant shifts in leadership and in corporations. Leaders needs to have continuous dialogues with their employees, dig deep into what each employee actually does day to day, rather than have a top down hierarchical interaction.

Email is sucking the life out of us. In my process of documenting the no-email experience and deconstructing it, what I realized is that an inbox is coded in a way that determines your behavior. It creates a neural loop in your brain because of the functionality of the system that forces you to empty the box out. So that’s what people do, all day long. They empty the box out. The same is true for many of the systems we interact with on a daily basis. We haven’t actually stood back and questioned the systems and how they actually affect us.

Feature image via Claireburge.com

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