The Future of Work Culture: Three Heresies

Most people hate the future, and the future of work is no exception

I’m doing a short presentation tomorrow, and sitting on a panel at A/D/O, a creative space in Greenpoint Brooklyn ‘dedicated to expolring new boundaries in design’. I have only a few minutes — a pecha kucha sort of format — but here’s what I’ve prepped.

I’ve pulled out three heresies — out of a possible million — from my thoughts on work culture. Note that I was asked to talk about the future of business culture, which I am sliming out of, in a way.

Culture is not an object to be designed and built, despite contemporary efforts to the contrary. Culture is the outgrowth of the independent interactions and decisions of those living within the culture, while efforts to ‘build stronger culture’ in business is a form of coercion or propaganda, intended to impose or justify selected norms.

Work culture is bottom-up, while company cultures are top-down. As a result work culture is persistent, while company culture falls apart without constant monitoring and manipulation.

Work culture is rooted outside any specific company and represents the shared beliefs and common principles of the community of working people at large, and people bring work culture with them as they move from company to company.

What is happening — reflected in social trends like the sexual harassment meltdown in VC/tech circles — is a transition to a deeper work culture, and diminishment of shallower company cultures.

The world of work is moving toward the bottom-up ecosystems of forests or cities, and away from machines or armies.

The great majority of the time, in the discourse about the future of work, we focus almost exclusively on the full-time managerial/professional/creative class, and exclude other groups from consideration, except as numbers in spreadsheets. Freelancers, the outsourced, and blue-collar workers are invisible.

But we need to pull all the workers into the light if we are to actually understand the totality of the future of work, and not just the most privileged and protected subset.

Today’s management theory and organizational structure is basically a holdover from the earliest days of the industrial age, a time prior to democracy, an era when monarchies ruled.

Businesses today are oligarchies, where the few lead the many, and ‘leaderism’ is the norm.

In recent decades, there has been a transition from coercive controls to more consensual ones, but turning the corner on a postnormal economy will undo the vestiges of feudalism in the mitochondrial DNA of business.

These are still trends of the future, mind you. And people will be dissatisfied, distrustful with these ideas. I know. I encounter huge resistance every time I speak in public. Most people hate the future: the unknowability scares them, and that leads to hatred of even the idea of the future, and especially those that talk about it.

Kevin Kelly said ‘future-blindness is simply the inescapable affliction of our modern world’, and the future of work is no exception.