“The Future of Work”: Q&A with author Jacob Morgan

Jacob Morgan treated last year’s Collabosphere to a compelling keynote on the future of work. He expands on the topic considerably in his new book, The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders, and Create a Competitive Organization, now available for pre-sale from Amazon and other booksellers. Not only will readers get a glimpse into the future of their workplaces, but, more crucially, they’ll learn about the steps they (and their organizations) should be making today to remain competitive and successful.

Jacob and I chatted recently about some of the crucial topics he covers in The Future of Work. Oh – and he has a bunch of goodies to give away to a few fast-acting readers. Please see the bottom of the interview for details.

Your last book was The Collaborative Organization. In the time since you wrote and published that book, do you feel like most businesses are “getting it” when it comes to collaboration?

I think they’re certainly making investments. It’s hard to find an organization today that isn’t doing something with collaborative software. Most organizations have something going on, and most organizations are thinking about the next steps – so that’s reassuring. I don’t think there are a lot of organizations that are necessarily very mature or advanced, but I think they’re understanding why it’s important.

The other reassuring sign is that organizations are thinking beyond technology, they’re asking “What do we need to change within our company to make it more collaborative?” That’s essentially what this second book answers, exploring things like hierarchies and flexible work.

What are some clever ways you’ve seen organizations drive user adoption of collaborative tools?

We created a graphic called The 12 Principles of Collaboration. These are the common success factors that organizations are seeing when they successfully deploy these initiatives; it includes leading by example and integrating collaboration into the flow of work.

Jacob Morgan "The Future of Work"The future of work is obviously tied to millennials. What do you think businesses are getting wrong about attracting and retaining the top talent from the new generation of employees?

I talk about five trends in the book, and millennials are certainly one of them; the others are globalization, mobility, technology and new behaviors entering the workplace. The reason why millennials are such a talked-about factor isn’t just because we assume they have new attitudes and approaches to working; if you got rid of millennials in your company today, you’d still have employees that care about meaningful work,  want workplace flexibility, want to have their values aligned with their employer.

So these aren’t necessarily unique things specific to millennials. But millennials will be the majority of the workforce by 2020. I think by all accounts they are the largest generation to ever be in the workplace. This is a generation of employees that doesn’t know what it’s like to sit in cubicles, to get 200 emails a day, or use legacy technologies. So when the majority of the workplace is completely the opposite of the way most organizations are structured, that’s a big concern for companies, and that’s what they need to realize: there’s a gap between how they are working and how they should be working.

That’s a good point: these shifts in employee expectation aren’t tied to a specific demographic. And on the flipside of that, we just put up a blog article about the digital skills gap – and business leaders may assume that millennials are inherently tech-savvy, but they’re almost just as susceptible to the skills gap as older workers.

Yeah, making assumptions is not a good thing for anybody.

Let’s say I’m a crusty, old and very successful piece of a corporate C-suite somewhere. I’m reading The Future of Work and you’re telling me that instead of employees adapting to me, as they’ve always done, I have to adapt to them. This sounds like bad news to me. Why is this not bad news?

Well, I keep quoting Dan Pink: “Talented people need organizations less than organizations need talented people.” Basically what we’re seeing is that the war for talent has never been fiercer than it is today. People have a lot of opportunities now. The traditional approach was to work for a big or established institution to be able to pay my bills and provide for my family. We’re now seeing people take all sorts of avenues outside of that. They’re funding themselves, they’re working for smaller organizations that are challenging big companies, like what Netflix did to Blockbuster or what Uber is doing to taxi companies. New, smaller companies are really disrupting industries. Platforms like oDesk and Elance give employees the opportunity to choose their own hours, pick the projects that interest them and still make a good living.

Organizations can no longer assume that people need to work there, so they have to create an environment where people want to work there. If they don’t, then they aren’t going to be able to attract, retain or grow top talent.

My own impression in regards to flexible hours or remote work is that most businesses buy into the benefits philosophically, but feel their own business is somehow an exception, and thus aren’t swift to evolve. Do you feel like flexibility is catching on?

A lot of organizations are starting to offer some form of flexibility – and some of these are mega-organizations, like Unilever or IBM. I think the key thing people need to realize is that flexibility and telecommuting are not the same thing. Telecommuting means you have a full-time job and you do not show up at the office. Flexible work means that you have a choice of when you work and where you work; that means that, yeah, sometimes you’ll be in the office. But some days you won’t have to be or need to be, so you’ll work from a coffee shop or your home office. That’s a big thing people need to realize. We’re not talking about sticking everyone in dark corners somewhere where they never see another human being.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where flexibility wouldn’t be beneficial. We spend more hours working today than ever before. The majority of our lives are spent working; I think in 2014 and beyond, it’s a little bit absurd that we spend most of our lives doing something that we don’t have control over. It’s no wonder that employees feel like cogs or servants. I think that’s dramatically shifting. I don’t think it’s an acceptable way to get work done.

In this era of flexibility but constant connectivity, unplugging seems pretty crucial. Who has the responsibility there? How do you feel about businesses that are trying to be proactive about enforcement – for example, policies about not checking work email after a certain time?

That’s a great question. One of the things I talk about in the book is that connectivity does not imply availability. I think responsibility falls on both managers and employees. Managers need to understand that employees are people, not robots. Sometimes it’s not okay to send meeting requests for 8:00 at night or 6:00 in the morning. We’re obviously seeing a blurring of work and life, but there still needs to be some common courtesy and respect. Occasionally, it may be unavoidable, but doing it regularly isn’t okay.

The second part is that employees need to manage expectations. If a manager keeps sending you think at seven or eight at night and you keep responding, always making it look like you’re available, then guess what? You’re going to get more stuff at 7:00 and 8:00 and 9:00. Employees have the responsibility to manage expectations and say “Hey, you know, it’s 9:00 at night… I’m done. I’m not going to look at my email anymore.” Just because you’re alwyas connected doesn’t mean you always need to be available.

If someone wants to help champion cultural change but they aren’t in a position of leadership, what advice would you offer them?

Whether you’re an executive or an entry-level employee, I think there are a couple things that can be done. The first thing I’d do is build a case for it. If you’re looking at flexible work and you commute an hour and a half each way to work, you should bring it up to your manager: “Look, I spend three hours a day driving. I make twenty dollars an hour. That translates to x-amount of dollars every year that I’m wasting by being on the road. Why don’t I use that time and those resources to actually get something done productively?” Test certain things out. Maybe you try a program like that for three months. Maybe you try not doing annual employee reviews for a year and see how that works.

Managers need to be much more receptive to hearing these ideas – and I think, unfortunately, the reality for some companies is that a lot of managers aren’t comfortable with that. So those employees are going to get disengaged and they’re going to leave. Over time, those companies will be forced to change – or they’ll disappear.

Let’s talk about robots. You touched on this at Collabosphere and you wrote an article recently about dispelling the dystopian idea that robots will eventually take over the workforce. Can you explain why robots are our friends, not foes?

There’s an ongoing debate about robots and automation. Some people say technology will create more jobs than it replaces, other people say that technology will replace more jobs than it creates. Nobody knows the answer for sure. You look at self-driving cars. I think there are somewhere around 250,000 or 300,000 drivers or chauffeurs in the United States; when self-driving cars come around, those jobs will be displaced. Truck-driving jobs will be displaced. Waitressing and bartending jobs may be displaced. Where are these people going to go?

A lot of people theorize that more automation means we will work less and see improved productivity. We’ll be able to focus on the things we want to work on, and leave the boring tasks to the robots. I think we’ll see a lot of cool things and new opportunities: wearable devices in the workplace, smart artificial intelligence systems. I think it will be a very, very interesting and exciting time. But the debate is still out there as to what the economic impact will be for the United States and the world.

Good. Our interview can end on a cliffhanger.

I read a lot of sci-fi books and I love sci-fi movies. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get to a point like I, Robot, and we’ll have a robot-human war. Or maybe everything will be just fine and dandy. We’ll see you in the future to talk about it.

Let’s catch up in 2045 and do a recap.



Readers are welcome to contact Jacob at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter and on his blog.


Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.