• December 2010

Alice Waagen + Futurist Andy Hines On The Future of the Workforce

By Dr. Alice Waagen
Founder and President
Workforce Learning

I recently interviewed futurist Andy Hines, a lecturer at the University of Houston’s Masters Program in Future Studies, a program from which he graduated in 1990. He is also the principal of the futurist consulting firm Hinesight.

Previously, Andy established the Global Trends Program for Kellogg Company, and served as futurist and senior ideation leader at Dow Chemical. He is the author of Thinking About the Future, a book that offers guidelines for strategic foresight that he co-authored with fellow futurist Peter Bishop in 2007.

Andy has a passion for understanding the future of the workforce. He has conducted studies for MTV about “The Future of Youth Happiness, and for Spike TV about the “Future of Men.”

Here’s what Andy told me about the Workforce of the Future:

Alice: What are the key drivers of change in the world of work?

Andy: To make sure we don’t overlook the obvious, the shift to knowledge-based work is the overarching driver behind the changes in the world of work. A big way that is showing up, finally (we futurists can be impatient at times), is that working with digital information frees us from the tyranny of sitting at a desk. No longer do we work only where we need to work — increasingly we are working where we want to work.

Of course, we know people and organizations tend to not like to change. Inertia is a strong force. But it no longer makes any sense to force people to battle a congested commute to travel downtown, head up to the 35th floor, and spend their whole day working on a phone and computer in an office. That can be done from home, at a coffee shop, or at one of the emerging co-working collectives that serve telecommuters from different organizations. Going to what I call the “glass tube” downtown simply wastes time and energy (gasoline and the emotional sort), and doesn’t help the environment.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that there are no good reasons for people to meet face-to-face. In fact, I’d argue that a face-to-face meeting will become even more important in the future. But I think we need to be smarter about it and decide what chat, email, phone or even a computer camera can handle, versus what really requires a face-to-face.

Alice: How will the global economic crisis affect work in 2011 and beyond?

Andy: Beyond the obvious impact, economic downturns tend to lead to belt-tightening and cost-cutting, which often means cutting back on investments in new technologies and innovative approaches. Ultimately, it means a slowdown in terms of change. Now, one could argue, and many do, that if an organization has been smart in planning, they will make such investments during this period when things are cheap so they will be well-positioned when the economy recovers. Unfortunately, that is often an element of wishful futurist thinking.

That said, some interesting innovations are likely to emerge out of necessity. Rather than cut people from the staff, for instance, organizations could experiment with work-sharing arrangements. So, while a crisis slows investment, it can also stimulate creativity and innovation.

Alice: Our first generation of knowledge workers is approaching retirement age, but I don’t think most of them will retire because their savings got fried. How do you see things playing out?

Andy: I agree that I don’t think most boomers will actually retire. They will move from the jobs they had to do to make a living to the jobs they’ve wanted to do for self-fulfillment. These knowledge workers will be well-positioned to be choosy about whom they work with, how long and for what purposes, and it won’t be about the money.

My hedge was that I do think there will be a difference in the workplace because although boomers will continue to work, they will be moving out of positions of power and influence. We will see the generational transfer. What’s going to be really interesting, particularly for large organizations, is to what extent Gen X and Gen Y are going to be the kind of dedicated, loyal, long-workweek types of employees that the boomers were. You’re chuckling, too! Not bloody likely, right? Hard to see that same kind of work ethic — I am not suggesting they will not work hard, but I think they will pay a lot more attention to work-life balance. And thank goodness for that!

Alice: What advice would you give business leaders who want to flourish in these tumultuous times?

Andy: Don’t get caught up in assuming tomorrow is going to be like today. We will emerge from the current turmoil. In the meantime, be open to the creativity and innovation that is likely to emerge to deal with this difficulty. We all know that layoffs, cost-cutting and bad economic news can be de-motivating — so I hope employers combat that by encouraging creativity and innovation, and providing a vision of how we want to be in the future. That strategy will really help an organization weather the storm, and come through it stronger and poised for growth.

Alice: What advice would you offer 20-somethings just starting out in the work world?

Andy: Be patient! They don’t want to hear that, do they? But I want them to know that it will be their turn soon. They have the opportunity to make significant changes in the world of work, ones their own descendants will be proud of. But it will probably take longer than they want. Again, people and organizations would rather not change — and inertia is strong. I hope they hang in there.


About Alice Waagen

Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 organizations have graduated from Waagen’s unique leadership-development workshop series. Learn more about Waagen’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.

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