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A New World of Work

19th February 2015

I was fortunate to end my 2014 speaking at three WORKTECH Conferences – in London, Buenos Aries and Santiago, Chile. One of the things I said at each of my keynotes was that the make-up of the WORKTECH Conferences programs has changed significantly since its inception in 2003. WORKTECH has always been about the future of work, of course, and has always sought to bring together experts from architecture, office design and the new technology that powers those workspaces, but what was more observable than ever before in the 2014 Conferences was the human element. I suggested that this is ultimately because we are all of us in the people business, whatever our job title, but I think there are some other interesting themes to explore also.

What I believe is being born is a new paradigm about work and the leadership of it – and the 11 year span of WORKTECH Conferences is tracking its birth.

The old paradigm, when it comes to work, is around ‘Have To’. I see now that the old paradigm of organizations is grounded in the fact that we have created a core belief in society that we ‘have to’ work to pay the bills. The best we can offer as leaders, then, is to create some level of ‘want to’ on top of this grounding of ‘have to’ – and we call that leadership or creating engagement.

So as a leader in an old paradigm organization, I ‘have to’ do everything I can to create the best possible conditions for success that I can, while at the same time being faced with the ‘truth’ that everyone around me – including, possibly, me – ‘has to’ be there in the organization with me (rather than ‘wants to’ be there). So as a leader in an old paradigm organization I do everything I can to make the work efficient and the situation as tolerable as possible for all. Pay, working conditions, career path, parking spots, even office design and technology, in the old paradigm world, are the rewards of loyalty and status. The longer you stay with us the bigger and better those perks get.

The new paradigm that I saw in the 2014 WORKTECH conferences was from a different world.

The new paradigm ‘Wants To’ work – and, moreover, wants to do great work, to do meaningful work.

The new paradigm associate is not too interested in the trappings of ‘Have to’. They don’t need persuading or encouraging to be there – as long as their work is going to be important and clearly make a difference in the world.

The new paradigm ‘Want to’ is of course about being materially well-rewarded for energy and talent, but is also about contribution, connection, collaboration and purpose (Simon Sinek is hardly the first thinker to point out the power of Why? but his work is incredibly resonant for this new paradigm).

The new paradigm is also ambitious, impatient, excited and intolerant of rules and conventions if they appear to get in the way of getting great work done. But old paradigm never got anywhere challenging the rules and conventions. That’s why so many old paradigm leader conversations about ‘those millennials’ sound like frustrated parents disappointed by their recalcitrant children.

The thing is those ‘recalcitrant children’ are not all that interested by our old perks. They are starting from a different place.

So an old paradigm leader would look at the lunchtime yoga classes and the coffee area fuseball tables as objects of distraction – “I hope my staff don’t waste too much time on these distractions and will be back in the office on time to get back to work”

The new paradigm associate says of the same artefacts – ‘These will help me perform’ and is curious about ‘How these things will keep me energized and alive so that I can keeping tapping in to my skills and talents to deliver great work.’

The old paradigm leadership builds an office so that it ‘looks good’ to potential new-hires and clients (which is why the public areas are always so magnificent and the back rooms bland at best).

The new paradigm leaders and associates are concerned primarily with office space and technology that enables great work. And there were some wonderful examples being shared in the WORKTECH Conferences for example, Motorola,, Soundcloud and Airbnb. They were in stark contrast to the old paradigm skyscraper testaments to linear power, grandeur and might that we built to honor the ‘masters of the universe’ view of business in the 80s and 90s.

These new work-spaces can be seen as expressions of what matters for great work in particular but for the human condition in general. These new buildings are expressions of light, space, connectivity, creativity and beauty. Of life.

I was speaking at these Conferences about what it takes to love your work. When I coach or consult, I help my clients express their deepest talents and connect to each other in the most authentic, powerful and effective ways so that they can create great work together. Our work can be part of the best of us and what we value. In the case studies of the new workspaces presented at WORKTECH, I could see these designs – full of heart and spirit and creative ideas – as a complement to that: a collective-level, company-wide, unmistakable expression of “who we are and what we stand for.”

This post was written by David Firth. David is an consultant and author on organization development, employee engagement and leadership. His forthcoming book, Change Your Organization One Word at a Time, explores the nature and use of language as the foundational tool of leadership.

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