What is the future of work in the exponential age?

What is the future of work in the exponential age?

Podcast: future of work, remote, exponential age
Industry: Financial services, professional services, marketing

Hear from Azeem Azhar author of Exponential – a book about how Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It. We talk about how productivity, creativity, and innovation have increased in the last few years due to available technology tools and our ability to deliver working from…well, anywhere. And how stability in the future of work will feel a little bit like skiing. Listen to Azhar as he explain the exponential age and how it will impact the future of work.

Listen above to this podcast episode of Talk Roleshare or read the transcript below.

In this podcast episode of Talk Roleshare we cover the following:

  • The idea of an exponential age is that there are new technology platforms that will result in widespread changes to the way we live and work.
  • This was last seen in Western countries between the 1890s and 1920s, when urbanization and technologies such as cars, telephones, and electricity became prevalent.
  • Today, we are seeing a similar shift with computing and AI, renewable energies, and biology poised to change economies. Covid-19 has been a catalyst for this change.
  • Productivity around creativity and innovation has actually increased with remote work in recent years due to better technology tools available (Slack, GitHub) as well as people knowing how to discipline themselves for working remotely.
  • It is irreversible that remote work is here to stay – there are too many forces at play (productivity increases
  • Companies are increasingly colocating as it becomes more difficult to find office space in desirable locations.
  • This is due to a combination of factors, including changes in city infrastructure and the way businesses are run.
  • The future of work will be more flexible, with employees working from home or in co-working spaces as needed.
  • Leaders should take a stance that stability is dynamic, and build their information processing capabilities accordingly. They should also focus on meta learning - understanding what needs to be learned deeply vs. what can be ignored - to keep up with rapid change without getting overwhelmed.



Azeem Azhar: The idea embedded in the exponential age is that there is a series of new technology platforms that are sufficiently different to the ones that we had previously. That they will result in really widespread changes to the ways in which we live and work the ways economies run, the overall configuration of society and maybe the easiest way to understand that is to go back to the last time I think we saw a societal transition of this scale, which was in Western countries at some point between the 1890s and the 1920s. So in the 1890s most people were. Living a life that was not dissimilar from the 1840s or the 1850s urbanization hadn't really taken hold.

And these three amazing technology platforms the car, the telephone, and electricity were nowhere really to be seen. But by 1920, somehow in certainly the US and the uk, those technologies had become quite prevalent and the shape of the world had changed in. Where my house is in North London in 1895 was a field and about 200 meters away was a blacksmith's.

By 1925, the house is built as it is today, on the streets that are built today with the same 60 amp power cable running into it in 1925 that we have in 2022. And so that's what happens when you get these technology transitions, but it's not just about the technology. During that period of time, the nature of work changed.

So for example, you started to see the the rapid shift towards mass production, mass manufacturing, which meant people had factory jobs rather than artisanal jobs. And people had jobs that were not purely in extractive industries or in agriculture. They were in these sort of well organized, well-managed large scale employers.

And the prevalence of electric light meant that the day. Started to run later and start earlier. A and amongst that, you then started to see real shifts in the nature of work. So you had the development of stronger and stronger labor unions. You had the establishment of the weekend you started to see new job classes being created and all of that comes out as a result of those technology changes.

We're seeing something similar happening today. A and I call it the exponential age because the technology platforms in question computing and AI being one that we know really well, but also renewable energies also what's happening in the field of biology. Poised to change the way in which our economies operate. And they're exponential because as anyone who's had to upgrade their phone or the computer every couple of years knows these technologies improve really rapidly, In fact, far faster than electricity or the telephone ever did. 

Sophie Smallwood: If we look at where we are today and the exponential age of today, obviously Covid was in a way, a metamorphosis, in addition to technologies. What do you think the future of work will look like? Keeping all of that in mind.

Azeem Azhar: Transitions can happen really quickly. And even when they involve heavy, complex things and in the exponential age that's happening increasingly we had. Obviously the shock of covid and if we just take the lens of remote work, right? Which is one way of thinking about the future of work before the The pandemic struck if you went and looked at the LinkedIn job board. So LinkedIn has this very successful job class classified space.

Something like 2% of all jobs listed on it were remote jobs by May, 2021. So where a year into the lockdowns 15% or so of the jobs listed were. Remote and by February, 2022, more than 20% of all the jobs listed on there were remote. So suddenly remote was turned into this kind of huge thing.

And there are entire job categories, which are now, 90% of the ads or 95% of the ads will say this can be a remote job. But when you look at the number of job applicants applications that have been made, 50% of all applications in February 22 on the LinkedIn platform were for remote jobs. So a remote job was gonna get two and a half times as many applicants as a located job.

The thing that's fascinating there, of course, is. That makes sense because now I'm hiring for a job in Chichester, which is a small town in England, and I can take candidates from from Esfahan, from CH Christ Church in New Zealand and from Lima in Peru. And the world is my oyster, but it also shows that people are really willing and excited of working remotely. And I think what it shows there is there's a kind of pent up and unrealized demand in for those types of solutions that individuals wanted. I'm just gonna keep going on remote work for a second, but of course there are a couple of other trends as well that we should think about.

The thing that we noted with remote work was that companies that were unable to digitize and allow people to work from home suddenly found themselves in two days doing that in March, 2020. And, you can look at the, the big banks and so on, and they just, they've never managed it and then suddenly they could manage it.

And it's amazing how much necessity pushes through organizational in iner. And there's been this question about whether non-traditional forms of work can be as productive as as the traditional form of work. In other words, when teams are we've used, Scott used to this world where teams are very synchronous and they're co-located.

In other words, we're in the same place. In time and space, we walk to, 77 Fleet Street, floor six, and we all sit together in our little cubicles and we, every two hours we have a pointless meeting. And that has been the sort of modality for a lot of work for, 70 or 80.

And there was this argument that when you start to distribute teams in, in, in space and time, that is people can start to work asynchronously. They can work remotely, they don't meet in person. Productivity starts to decline. And in particular, the kind of productivity that declined would be in the field around creative and innovative areas. And there was a really interesting paper from the Fantastic Oxford Economist Carl Frey, which came out in May this year, May, 2022, where he looked at the remote work penalty around creativity and productivity. And, Carl I trade an anecdote.

Carl does real research and I was thinking about remote work and productivity. I've been remote working for several years and in my previous startup, which we found in 2008, we were using Slack and its precursor, hip chat, and all the remote tools for quite a long time. And people were able to work remote if they wanted to. And so it, had always had this question about the reality of that. In Frey's paper he identifies that from about 2011 and 2012, the penalty for remote work, particularly around innovation and creativity. Has diminished and actually in many cases, reverses. And, we know of anecdotes where that's the case, right?

One of the most complex projects in the world is the ligo, the Laser Interference Gravitational Observatory, which is the one that proved the existence of of gravitational waves, which involved over a thousand scientists distributed around the world who never worked in par in person. Highly complex engineering projects.

Highly creative, phenomenal century at once in a century. And Frey's argument ultimately is that, the tools have got better. So it's not just WebEx and Skype. It's Zoom, it's Slack, it's GitHub, it's Notion, it's Jira and Atlassian products. It is the arrival of Miro boards, the extensions that we now see for the way teams work remotely.

But of course, the corollary of the new technologies is that the individuals know how to work remotely. They know how to discipline themselves. They know how to manage themselves. They know how to set up their workspaces. They also know how to make those subtle changes in their home. When should you know, when should the cleaner come?

Whose turn is it on the washing machine rotor? How do we fit this around school drops? And those are things that take a few years to establish. And on the other side, managers have figured out how to work remotely. Maybe it's not that managers have figured out, maybe there's been a generational change and the managers of 2008 are now playing golf and the managers of 2020 are just a bit more, sort of Instagram sophisticated and so know how to work with these remote teams better.

Now the funny thing about this patterns of history is that we saw exactly the same thing with the typewriter. It took, or in the case of the typewriter, it took about 25 years for the typewriter to show any kind of Im impact. And James Bessen, who's another economist type, talks about this quite extensively in his book Learning by Doing.

And his point, the typewriters shows up at the end of the 19th century, but it's not until the 1920s that it's really embedded. And it's not as complex, by the way, as bringing electricity into a building with typewriters. But two things had to happen. People had to learn how to type.

And there was a lot of typing and then there was a lot of, there was also a standards battle around the keyboard and managers needed to learn how to manage this new capability. And it's not just about telling the typist what's type it's about. Now you have someone who can produce these information nuggets on bits of paper.

What new management tool does that give you? And it takes time to figure that out. And so I think we've gone, we're going through some kind of analogous process right now on, on the scope of remote work. This is a massive answer to your big question, but what it tells us really is that remote work is working and largely it's working for workers, it's working for managers, it's working for companies.

Every few months I help one of the world's largest firms kind of graduate, a bunch of their their sort of new hires. They do a three month boot camp. And then I give a presentation. And so these kids are all in their like early twenties, I dunno, 21, 25, 26, whatever.

And I ask them this question, which is how are you finding the remote work? Because the theory is that you're new graduate and you're gonna be in a poke shared flat. And many of them are indeed in poke shared flats. And what they say is they actually love it and they only really. To be in person once every week or once every two weeks.

So what we've done is we've challenged this idea that in order for work to work, we have to be co-located in space and time, right? Synchronous in the same room, breathing each other's breath in order to be effective, productive or creative.

Sophie Smallwood: One thing that I think is really interesting, consumer trends oftentimes are more advanced in comparison to workforce trends and asynchronous communication has been something that consumers have adopted. I remember when I moved from California to London, had no family around. I used voice notes like no other to communicate with my family who were in a totally different time zone. And then fast forward a few years later, I'm now working on Roleshare share with my team. We're fully distributed remote.

Some of us are in different time zones. We use voice notes like no other via Slack. So it's nice to see that workforce gets inspiration from consumer. In the case of Covid, Covid really was a catalyst for remote working, but technology really is what enabled it, and it enabled managers to let go of this sense of control with confidence.

But what I'd love to get your view on now, is do you believe that there will be a reset point that where we are today is irreversible, or do you believe that it could potentially go back to where we were before office-first mindset, and if so, what might trigger that?

Azeem Azhar: No, it's completely irreversible by the numbers now.

Great. And it, there will be companies who. Insist on on colocation, just like there were companies years after dress codes were abandoned, that still insisted or either explicitly or through Praxis on. People wearing suits and ties, into the office. There are too many forces now that are that are at play around remote.

So if we if we think through them, the way cities are now operating and running themselves is to put sort of the 15-minute life closer to heart to improve things like bicycle tra transport, to punish and penalize car traffic. That signal goes into the landlords and so landlords are turning.

Properties into things that were office blocks, making a very expensive conversion into turning them into mixed use. A good example of that is down in in London. Just between Oxford Street, which is the main shop, shopping street, and Regents Park, which is a park sort of about 600 meters to the north, are some roads, like great Portland Street and great Portland Street in particular, which is a sort of north south drag. Was full of office buildings. And it had a couple of co-working spaces and so on. And I've, I have over the last 20 years have many of times had offices around there.

And there's a sort of untold number of those office buildings that have been torn down and turned into 1, 2, 3 bedroom apartment complexes with retail and restaurant on the ground floor. Now, the thing is that once that change happens and that land use shifts you are, it's you're tied for 25 years, right?

Becauset the developer's not gonna rip that thing down before they've made their money back. And for zoning reasons, you can't go off and turn a bunch of three bedroom apartments into an office block again, without ripping it down. And starting again. So there's this sort of very there's these two very powerful slow moving forces, which is what town mayors are doing and what what property developers are doing that.

That will make it harder and harder to find that sort of office space in those locations, and people will be living there. That, so that's one side of it. I think the second side of it is that we're also starting to understand that a mixed form of work is going to be, is gonna be valuable and desirable and it will show up in in terms.

Where people choose to work. And if you think about so many of the things that employers and employees were stressing about in April, 2020, which is How we gonna look after our equipment? I don't have a good station, work station at home. We don't have secure access to documents. Who's gonna train our juniors?

How are we gonna manage a work life balance? Those things are starting to be addressed by internal capacities and capability building within. Companies themselves, right? Their HR teams are getting better, their managers are getting better, but there's also a whole slew of entrepreneurship in this space.

So sectorally it's something that, as I have, I've invested in, So I've backed a company called called Hofi, which effectively. Provide a home office as a service for for companies. So you are, you've got a thousand workers who are gonna need to work at home and you can't have them working on their their Ikea b bad desk chair and their kitchen table, right?

They'll get bad back and so on. And hopefully we'll deliver you the choice of really nice Capco or Herman Muller chairs and. Vds and so on. So that's one example. Another is a company called Settle, where, which tackles a problem as an IT manager, which is, my remote workers, my work is all remote now and I can't keep track of all the assets, the computers, phones, printers and so on that we've lent them and Settle provides a solution for that.

And then, another company is a company called Patch, where when people are working. Away from the central office. They may also want to be able to work in a space where other people are working because it's just too quiet at home, at least a couple of days a week. And so patch is building these, that exact type of co-working space, but not in the kind of, Super flashy WeWork, locations of May Mayfair and shortage, which are two Tony districts of London, but actually in the kind of commuter towns where most people will end up being.

And of course, I'm involved in Roleshare where you are tackling the point that alongside hybrid working comes this idea that the flexibility might also. I'm only able to commit on, or I only want to commit on certain number of days. So my sense is that like lots of the frictions that existed, but in this notion of what a future work might look like, are being eliminated also by smaller entrepreneurial endeavors as well that are small today, but of course will be very big in a few years time.

So I, I think that there's not a reset and why that reset would even be desirable. Even law firms who deal with confidential documents have realized they've actually got much more resilience when their employees can work from home at times of crisis, right?

Because you distribute your points of failure away from the single office. Yeah. It'll, we won't go back.

Sophie Smallwood: What advice would you give to people and leaders who are finding themselves struggling to keep up with all the change happening around them, around workforce in this new age that we're in?

Azeem Azhar: I think maybe there's stances and there are quick holistics. So I think the first stance is that stability means two different things in something like a snow sport like skiing or snowboarding, than it does in something else like. Standing in a line, right? When you stand in a line, you just stand and stability is static. But actually when you are on skis, stability is dynamic, right? You're stable when you're moving.

So one part, I think is to not, to take that stance, that stability is going to be a dynamic changing equilibrium that, that you just have to, you have to get used to rather than. Frightened of it. It is literally the terrain that you are now on. And you need to therefore think slightly differently about what it is to maintain composure.

And then I think the second thing is that you don't know enough as a manager or a leader. You, your information space is inadequate. And your ability to process that inadequate information is also inadequate.

So you're doubly inadequate if you take that kind of a modality. Whereas if you take if you recognize that those limitations. And you realize that you're gonna be much, much more dependent on the information that comes back from the field and back into you. Then you need to build whatever you need to build there.

Now that's easier in high skilled, high motivation high reward jobs, and it is in jobs which may have much higher tur staff turnover and so on and so forth. But I think that becomes quite important. It, in other words, Yeah, remote work is going to benefit, or the sort of future of work is gonna benefit from when you can trust what the people who work for you tell you much, much more.

And you have to figure out what level of trust and what those, that shape of that trust looks like given the team that you are running. And I think the second her ends up really being around, it's about meta learning. It's. Learning about what you learn. The thing about rapid change is that we can get lost in the.

Massive stream of startup announcements and the latest feature update on the iPhone or on teams or whatever it happens to be. And, I actually, I can't keep up with them at all. In fact, just this week that my daughter was teaching me, I was saying to her, my friends', Instagrams have got these circular pictures at the top.

How do you post one of these circular pictures? And she's laughing at me because they're called Stories and I haven't, I just haven't kept up with it. I knew there are these things called stories, but I  never, ever used them. And I didn't know how to use them and I didn't know that I was looking at a story when I was looking at one because there's honestly too much.

And the question is whether something like that is. Fundamental theme that one needs to learn or not. If you're a social media manager, you absolutely have to learn it. If you're not, you don't have to learn it. And so this notion of meta learning for me is what are the learning strategies that you choose to take?

What are the kind of fundamental deep themes that you need to. Really understand and what are the things that are specifics that may or may not be relevant for your particular job. And I think an example of a deep theme that people need to understand in this new world of work, that the and I'm gonna say this because it's technical and had you been working in an office, you would've thought, this is not my job, this is it's job.

But I think a sort of deep theme that people need to understand. Just the absolute basics of how computers and networks work because now you are on the front line. What is the difference between your wifi going down and your internet connection going down? What is the difference between wifi and 4G or 5G mobile?

When are you on a vpn? When are you not on a vpn? What does basic OPSEC look like? These are the hygiene factors that you need to learn and know about as a as a A manager in this world, and some of these sort of deeper skills are actually not as technical as that.

They're much, much more abstract. So for example, they might be about, Understanding how you're gonna manage the flow of information between your subs your subordinates. But I think that there are certain things that end up having to be foundational within a within this new world of work.

And then there are other things that you only need to learn. For example, me and Instagram stories,  if they're actually part of your day to day job.

Sophie Smallwood: So that's a really good example of reverse mentoring, right? Your daughter now teaching you something, multi-generational knowledge transfer, which by the way, happens when people are sharing role.

Azeem Azhar: and, Oh, I'm sure it does.

I just gotta say though, my last story I went on holiday and I tried to post a story with. Holiday photos and out of which I had 60 and I managed to post one to the story and I couldn't work out how to post anymore. So when she next is willing to talk to me, I will be I'll be able to improve.

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