The Future of Work Is Full of Paradoxes

Last weekend I co-organized an open-space conference here in Portland on the topic of the future of work. We had about 100 participants, and together we generated a rich marketplace of topics covering everything from culture, fractals, relationships and design to occupational hazards of the knowledge worker. (You can see the full list of topics on the conference website.)

 Future of Work PDX marketplace. Photo credit:  photosbyKim

Future of Work PDX marketplace. Photo credit: photosbyKim

My main takeaway from the conference is that the future of work involves many paradoxes. I think it is important to identify the paradoxes because otherwise it can feel like we’re contradicting ourselves, or that we’re not all on the same page—when in fact I think there was a lot of harmony among the sessions.

Here are just three of the paradoxes I identified in one of the breakout sessions I attended. First, we must take on more individual responsibility in order to ensure the welfare of the entire community. There were many discussions about what we as individuals can do to ensure a better future for ourselves. Indeed, the open-space philosophy itself encourages personal responsibility. The only “law” of an open-space conference is the Law of Two Feet: If you find yourself in a place where you are not learning or contributing, use your two feet to move to someplace where you can learn or contribute. 

But the conversations about personal responsibility were not suggesting that everyone should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Rather, the questions were about how we can use our people power to ensure that everyone is taken care of. On that topic, there were sessions about universal basic income and community responsibility for people with discontinuous careers.

A second paradox I identified has to do with leadership. In the same vein as personal responsibility, there was a lot of talk about grassroots, bottom-up change efforts within organizations. But at the same time, there was an acknowledgement that leadership is crucial in making significant progress. This discussion reminded me of something Frederic Laloux said in Reinventing Organizations: “You might have noticed a major paradox: CEOs are both much less and much more important in self-managing organizations compared to traditional ones. They have given up their top-down hierarchical power. The lines of the pyramid no longer converge toward them. They can no longer make or overturn any decision. And yet, in a time when people still think about organizations in [traditional] ways, the CEO has an absolutely critical role in creating and holding [a more evolved] organizational space.” In other words, we need to be working at this problem from both ends!

Third, the world in which this future of work will unfold will be both more global and more local. Thought leader April Rinne attended the conference, and this is one of the paradoxes she discusses: “We are in the early stages of a shift that ultimately will see less national power, more local and more global power. Effective mayors will command more respect and authority than mediocre presidents or prime ministers. Globally networked cities, communities and global citizens will do more together than any traditional international organization.”

Laloux talks about this same idea in Reinventing Organizations—that in the future we may re-localize many parts of the economy due to high energy costs, but we may also be more globally connected through new technologies such as augmented-reality videoconferencing and universal and instant translation.

In other words, by changing our mindset from either/or to both/and, we will be able to find win-win solutions to the many complex challenges our planet now faces.