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How to Make the Future Work – Book review

Review of ‘How the Future Works’ by Brian Elliott, Sheela Subramanian & Helen Kupp

While many organisations are debating the “return to the office”, hybrid working and how many days people can work from home, others have forged ahead with transforming their ways of working. Many had done so before the pandemic. Others learned very quickly from the changes that were initially forced upon them. The organisations who have been doing it well provide valuable insights into “How the Future Works” – and that’s the title of a book by the Future Forum’s Brian Elliott, Sheela Subramanian & Helen Kupp.

Written with an evangelical zeal for creating better work, the book also takes a strongly evidence-based and practical approach. Using both data and case examples, the authors set out the kind of changes that organisations are making as they both respond to and seek to take advantages of the new possibilities of working in more distributed, and smarter, ways.

The book also navigates well the delicate balance of showcasing successful practice on the one hand, and open-minded humility on the other. For the authors, it’s a process of learning, not of having all the answers. And that’s an attitude they recommend for organisations – to become learning organisations and to keep adapting to both the changing world of work and to what their employees are telling them.

How to be successful in flexible work

The new world of work is described as flexible work, rather than smart, agile hybrid or some other brand. But it’s a comprehensive approach to flexibility. As the authors write: “Flexible work, in our view, is more a mindset than a specific set of rules or policies”.

That’s a really important principle. HR departments and legislators have often responded to the potential for flexibility by seeking to nail it down as a set of rules and policies.

At the time of writing, , for example, the Dutch government has just introduced into law a right to request working from home. And, as in the UK, there will be a process for employees to request it, and HR departments will no doubt be tailoring their response to such legislation with appropriate procedures. But real flexibility needs to be much more dynamic, responsive to changing situations and possibilities as well as recognising the wishes and needs of employees, and it has to target improvements to ways of working. In other words, it needs to just be all round more flexible!

This involves a complete reassessment of how an organisation works. It requires looking at the why, the what and the how of work. A thorough rethinking of everything, in the light of new and emerging capabilities and the quest for better ways of working.

Flexibility needs to have a strong business focus. The book outlines 3 key areas of competitive advantage:

  1. Winning the war for talent – who wants to work for companies that are rigid and controlling in ways of working?
  2. Engaging employees – at a time when so many employees are disengaged from their work. This involves recognising different needs and personalities and inspiring their creativity
  3. Building better results – keeping a sharp focus on business improvement and productivity by finding better ways to engage with customers as well as enabling employees to work at their best.

Flexible teamwork

At the heart of the book is an approach to building flexible teams. This is about new approaches to distributed teamwork. It involves rethinking meetings (something we’ve always strongly advocated here!), and remodelling ways of communication for all the tasks we carry out.

I was particularly struck by the way brainstorming is reconceived as “brainwriting”. This recognises that the practice of bringing everyone together in one room “is often a waste of time … [and] can lead to the dreaded groupthink and even harm productivity”. Instead, the authors propose the term “brain-writing”. That is, you have a process of sharing ideas without, or prior to, getting together. This is in line with recent studies supporting the view that individuals are more likely to generate new ideas when they are on their own. It also has the advantage of being able to include more people – wherever or whenever they are working – in the process of taking ideas forward as they share ideas asynchronously. And when they come together, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same place. Retaining the advantage of including more people can be done using technologies like Mural and other tools for sharing and documenting ideas – which can then be part of a longer process of asynchronous sharing, discussion and synthesis.

Having worked in numerous virtual teams, including international research teams where you rarely meet in person, I think it’s in fact often been the way innovative ideas have been generated for some time. The urge to assemble and cocoon ourselves in flip-chart paper and post-its, while having its place on occasions and for specific purposes, has always been somewhat over-egged as a generic way of inspiring innovation.

The recommended approach to building flexible and successful teams is underpinned by having Team Level Agreements. Clearly there are different requirements for different kinds of work. But rather than being dictated by a manager, it’s about having a team decision, based on the needs of their work activities and in line with the principles and purpose of the new ways of working.

These Team Agreements are supplemented by having a Personal Operating Manual in which each team member explores and documents their preferred workstyles, their values and their preferred communication styles.

7-step approach and a toolkit

The book brings together a useful 7-step approach of defining the purpose and principles for how work is done, creating guardrails to keep the programme on course while allowing variation, creating those Team Level Agreements, adopting an approach of “experiment, experiment, experiment” to normalise a learning culture, training leaders and managers in the necessary skills, and keeping the focus relentlessly on outcomes.

These steps are described in detail with examples, and supported by a suite of tools and templates at the back of the book.

The importance of design thinking is stressed throughout, and one of the tools sets out a process for applying design-thinking principles to developing flexible working, and responding positively to the challenges that may arise on the way.

Flexibility Verdict

How the Future Works is well-written, insightful and full of practical suggestions for implementing transformative, flexible working.

I have no hesitation in recommending this for any organisation that wants to move beyond the sterile home-versus-office debate and introduce a much smarter version of flexibility.