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Future of Work

There Are Many Futures of Work — Which One Are You Creating?

The nature of work is changing in profound ways. We can help you identify the best path for your business.

woman in dress on computer
For the last several years, no topic has been more relevant for leaders than how teams work, thrive, and create value – the ideal future of work. [Ezra Bailey/Getty]

If you’re worried about the ever-changing nature of work and what the future holds for your company, you’re not alone. The long-established social contract between employees and employers is being rewritten on a global scale. One thing is clear – there is not a singular future of work. There will be a variety of futures available to your organization, and you will need to decide which one makes sense, and how to create it. 

We can help. 

I am the Chief Strategy Officer of Salesforce Innovation. In this capacity, I help our most strategic customers – and our own organization – explore opportunities for growth leveraging world-class technology, design and thought-leadership. For the last couple of years, no topic has been more relevant for leaders than how teams work, thrive, and create value – the ideal future of work.

According to my colleague David Berthy, director of research for Salesforce Futures, “In an environment like this, it’s a mistake to assume all talent wants the same thing. Employers need to be really intentional about building the kind of workplace that attracts the talent they need, and build in mechanisms to adapt as employee needs evolve.”  

I’ll describe four future of work scenarios that we have identified, and provide some things for you to consider as you create the future that will work best for your organization. 

One future, many scenarios

There are two major tensions framing our four scenarios — business philosophy and talent philosophy — which are the fundamental guideposts driving your future. 

When determining your business philosophy, ask yourself whether you are stakeholder-oriented or shareholder-oriented. In a stakeholder-oriented company, many parties (employees, the community, partners, suppliers) have an interest in the long term performance of the company for reasons beyond financial performance. They are purpose driven. A shareholder-oriented company is one driven primarily by considerations for people or institutions that own shares in the company. They are profit-driven.

When determining your talent philosophy, ask yourself whether you and your workers take a transactional or developmental approach to your relationship. In a transactional environment, employers acquire talent who perform a job in exchange for pay. A transactional company is more likely to hire skilled talent than develop skills from within. Companies that take a developmental approach invest in developing talent and skills from within. If a role becomes unnecessary in a developmental company (say, due to automation) that person is likely to be retrained for another role versus being let go. 

Our team has identified four viable futures for your company. You should be clear on which you want to create, and be intentional about the strategies that will lead to a thriving workforce.  

Model #1: Mercenary Mountains

This is a transactional employer/employee relationship where employees work for the paycheck, and employers exploit all their resources to maximize profitability and shareholder value. Workers exploit these relationships for their own gain, too. One example is retail, where retailers hire seasonally, then let workers go in the off season, and workers are eager to switch employers for a slight bump in pay. Many hard-driving financial services companies also use this model. Each exploits the other to make as much money as they can. 

Model #2: People Preserve

Here, businesses function much like consultancies that collect, develop, and deploy talent for a profit. Employees work on anything managers request, in exchange for job security, a work lifestyle that includes colleagues with shared culture, and a clear development path. One example is the utility company Engie, which built an internal talent marketplace to post vital projects for employees to join. This gives employees an opportunity to do work they want to do, and saves Engie the expense of hiring people to do those jobs. Here’s a sign this approach is taking hold — there are a raft of talent management startups (Gloat, Hitch, Fuel50, Eightfold AI) developing technology that matches employees to internal gigs.

Model #3: Hustle Harbor

Employee-entrepreneurs form small enterprises within a company to serve all stakeholders. These decentralized companies act more like venture firms, and encourage collaboration within their ecosystem of portfolio companies. Haier, the China-based appliance manufacturer, has turned a workforce of 55,000 employees into entrepreneurs by dividing itself into more than 4,000 microenterprises with about 10-15 people in each, removing the traditional top-down management structure. CEO Zhang Ruimin told McKinsey that the value of each individual is reflected in the value they create for customers. “For example, typically an R&D person works without worrying about the final sale of the product,” he said. “But in our model, everyone must be responsible for the final sale – or lack of sales – of the product they develop.” 

Model #4: Cooperative Campus

We are seeing many customers working to create a Cooperative Campus within their organization, where companies and workers prioritize the care, wellbeing and education of workers, their families, their communities and the planet.Everyone is expected to serve the needs of one another, the business, and society as a whole. Salesforce is a model Cooperative Campus, doing well by doing good. Our company is at the vanguard in prioritizing and investing in workforce wellbeing and development. Some examples: wellbeing days off; equal pay and 26 weeks parental leave; paid volunteer time off, countless employee assistance programs and upskilling opportunities with our learning platform Trailhead; and Trailblazer Ranch, a new off-campus gathering place where employees can forge trusted relationships with colleagues, grow their career, get trained on the company, and much more.

Which future are you creating?

Every decision you make and action you take leads to one of these futures. Which future are you striving for? Which future would resonate with the talent you need? There are successful strategies aligned to each. Consider the following challenge, and your preferred approach to it. It’s indicative of the type of scenarios we run through with our customers. The strategies you deploy in this scenario will help you identify which future you are creating. Then ask yourself: is this the future you actually want to create?  

Scenario: How should you reap the rewards?

Your company has saved millions by cutting travel expenses, reducing its real estate footprint, and lowering the salaries of employees who moved to less-expensive cities. How do you allocate the savings? Do you use them to:

  • Pocket the profit and improve the bottom line
    • This option aligns most closely to Mercenary Mountain
  • Invest in the next big thing in your market  
    • This option aligns most closely to Hustle Harbor
  • Invest in real estate again and get everyone back to the office
    • This option aligns most closely with People Preserve 
  • Invest in employee greater connection and collaboration from anywhere 
    • This option aligns most closely with a Cooperative Campus

As you contemplate and debate these options, you’ll come to find your colleagues may have valid counterarguments and interesting insights to consider. The key is to actually discuss, listen and align on strategies.  

Together, ask yourself, which strategies and employee experiences should your company choose if you want to be a “Mercenary Mountain”? Which should you choose to become a “Cooperative Campus?” Try mapping these and other strategies you’re considering to these four futures of work. The future is simply the implication of your choices today. Be clear and intentional about the choices you make to create your desired, best, future of work.  

Katherine is the chief strategy officer of Salesforce Innovation. An entrepreneur and intrepreneur, Katherine’s work spans two decades guiding leaders to seize bold opportunities for growth while doing good. At Salesforce, Katherine and her team passionately investigate, inspire, and inform strategy and solutions to meet today’s most urgent business imperatives including the Future of Work and innovating employee experience to unlock human potential and value creation.

More by Katherine

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