The future of work is full of promises:

  • we will have workspaces configured (and reconfigured) to match the specific tasks we are working on at that moment
  • the constant, reliable feedback we have on our heart rate, sleep patterns and steps will expand to include how we spend our working time, the diversity of our networks, and the speed with which knowledge is moving across a group
  • there will be a focus on the development of portable skills and the building up of intangible assets over long careers

It all sounds extraordinarily positive and energizing and, indeed, these are the trends and predictions we have been exploring at the Future of Work Research Consortium with more than 90 of the world’s leading companies.

But here’s the catch. In most companies right now, much of the technological infrastructure and know-how are in place to bring these new ways of working into everyday practice already. And yet they are rarely the reality. Something is happening in our organizations and in our individual behaviours and mindsets that is causing these promises to be left unfulfilled.

  1. Blame the industrial revolution

No one living today in the West was around during the industrial revolution. Yet, centuries later, the legacy of this revolution still affects how we think about work. During that period the workplace moved from the home and the farm to the factory and the city; no longer dictated by the seasons, it became broken into specific segments of time; and holidays were mandated by when the factory was to be left idle. These ways of thinking about work have become so deeply rooted that it’s near impossible to think of any other way of behaving.

  1. Blame bureaucracy

In an ideal world, people would be trusted to perform to the best of their abilities, their work would be assessed on the quality of what they craft and produce, and feedback from trusted peers and colleagues would be what motivated them. Instead what we see in many organizations are layers of bureaucracy designed to retain order and accountability, but that stifle innovation and progress.

Take performance management, for example. It seems to me that for most people appraisals have become an empty annual ritual, often humiliating and sometimes involving the spurious measurement on a five-point scale of capabilities that are hard to evaluate. In fact, the executives I talk to often say that performance management is the most broken of all the management tools. What started as a good idea 20 or 30 years ago – to measure and understand performance – has morphed into a piece of unfathomable bureaucracy hated by all.

It is this that then becomes the barrier to much of the promise of the future of work by discouraging people from trying new ways of working that may not fit neatly into known performance parameters. Too many rules mean little space for innovation.

  1. Blame the expanding talent pools of the 1970s

There is an implicit assumption in many executive teams that there is a lot of talent out there, and much of it is keen to work with their company. Of course, this belief was largely true in previous decades when big companies were the top destination for talented people. It’s also why some executives see no point in making significant investments in making the promises of the future of work a reality: they believe talented people will want to work with them either way.

But here is the challenge: imagine that in your industry talent is distributed in a normal way. There are some who are very talented, some who are very much less so, and the majority fall into a neat bell curve between the two. These days, people who are in the “very talented” section have several types of employment to choose from. Their decision will be influenced by the importance they place on working in an environment that has realized some of the promises of the future of work, including developing portable skills and having advanced workspaces.

This means that while executive teams may continue to receive a lot of applicants from across the normal distribution, they may increasingly struggle to find the quality they desire, as the “very talented” seek out more forward-thinking and innovative work environments.

So what can be done? Clearly there are no easy fixes. But it seems to me that much of this rests with attitudes and ways of thinking about work that reach back centuries. Realizing that these are assumptions and not realities is the great first step.

Have you read?
How technology will change the way we work
World’s best job? The answer might surprise you
Personalities that succeed in the workplace

Author: Lynda Gratton is Professor of Management Practice at London Business School and a Faculty member of the World Economic Forum Global Leadership Fellows Programme. 

The Global Leadership Fellows Programme (GLFP) is a unique leadership development programme run by the World Economic Forum.

Image: A freelancer uses his laptop while having an espresso in Los Angeles October 19, 2010. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni