The Workforce of the Future: A Q&A with Futurist Andy Hines

47Interview by Alice Waagen
Workforce Learning
Photo by Tom Kochel

I recently interviewed futurist Andy Hines, who since 2006 has been director of custom projects at the DC-based research and consulting firm Social Technologies. He also currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston MS Program in Future Studies, a program from which he graduated in 1990. Previously, he established the Global Trends Program for Kellogg Company, and served as futurist and senior ideation leader at Dow Chemical.

Andy has a passion for understanding the future of the workforce. In fact, last year he led a futures project for Social Technologies that helped the leaders at MTV determine what makes 12- to 24-year-olds happy. He called it “The Future of Youth Happiness” (click here for more information about the MTV study).

Here’s what Andy told me about the Workforce of the Future:

Alice: What are the key drivers of change in the world of work?

Andy: To make sure we don’t overlook the obvious, the shift to knowledge-based work is the overarching driver behind the changes in the world of work. A big way that is showing up, finally (we futurists can be impatient at times), is that working with digital information frees us from the tyranny of sitting at a desk. No longer do we work only where we need to work — increasingly we are working where we want to work.

Of course, we know people and organizations tend to not like to change. Inertia is a strong force. But it no longer makes any sense to force people to battle a congested commute to travel downtown, head up to the 35th floor, and spend their whole day working on a phone and computer in an office. That can be done from home, at a coffee shop, or at one of the emerging co-working collectives that serve telecommuters from different organizations. Going to what I call the “glass tube” downtown simply wastes time and energy (gasoline and the emotional sort), and doesn’t help the environment.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that there are no good reasons for people to meet face-to-face. In fact, I’d argue that a face-to-face meeting will become even more important in the future. But I think we need to be smarter about it and decide what chat, email, phone or even a computer camera can handle, versus what really requires a face-to-face.

Alice: How will the global economic crisis affect work in 2009 and beyond?

Andy: Beyond the obvious impact, economic downturns tend to lead to belt-tightening and cost-cutting, which often means cutting back on investments in new technologies and innovative approaches. Ultimately, it means a slowdown in terms of change. Now, one could argue, and many do, that if an organization has been smart in planning, they will make such investments during this period when things are cheap so they will be well-positioned when the economy recovers. Unfortunately, that is often an element of wishful futurist thinking.

That said, some interesting innovations are likely to emerge out of necessity. Rather than cut people from the staff, for instance, organizations could experiment with work-sharing arrangements. So, while a crisis slows investment, it can also stimulate creativity and innovation.

Alice: Our first generation of knowledge workers is approaching retirement age, but I don’t think most of them will retire because their savings got fried. How do you see things playing out?

Andy: I agree that I don’t think most boomers will actually retire. They will move from the jobs they had to do to make a living to the jobs they’ve wanted to do for self-fulfillment. These knowledge workers will be well-positioned to be choosy about whom they work with, how long and for what purposes, and it won’t be about the money.

My hedge was that I do think there will be a difference in the workplace because although boomers will continue to work, they will be moving out of positions of power and influence. We will see the generational transfer. What’s going to be really interesting, particularly for large organizations, is to what extent Gen X and Gen Y are going to be the kind of dedicated, loyal, long-workweek types of employees that the boomers were. You’re chuckling, too! Not bloody likely, right? Hard to see that same kind of work ethic — I am not suggesting they will not work hard, but I think they will pay a lot more attention to work-life balance. And thank goodness for that!

Alice: What advice would you give business leaders who want to flourish in these tumultuous times?

Andy: Don’t get caught up in assuming tomorrow is going to be like today. We will emerge from the current turmoil. In the meantime, be open to the creativity and innovation that is likely to emerge to deal with this difficulty. We all know that layoffs, cost-cutting and bad economic news can be de-motivating — so I hope employers combat that by encouraging creativity and innovation, and providing a vision of how we want to be in the future. That strategy will really help an organization weather the storm, and come through it stronger and poised for growth.

Alice: What advice would you offer 20-somethings just starting out in the work world?

Andy: Be patient! They don’t want to hear that, do they? But I want them to know that it will be their turn soon. They have the opportunity to make significant changes in the world of work, ones their own descendants will be proud of. But it will probably take longer than they want. Again, people and organizations would rather not change — and inertia is strong. I hope they hang in there.

ABOUT Alice Waagen’s Workforce Learning

Workforce Learning LLC is a leadership development company that provides managers and C-level executives with the skills and knowledge they need to build a more productive work environment. Since founding the company in 1997, owner Alice Waagen, PhD, has developed highly effective leadership programs and coaching workshops that teach the people in charge how to motivate and inspire employees. “Research shows that the single reason most organizations fail to thrive is a lack of strong people skills among those at the top,” Alice says. “We work to ensure organizations are healthy from the top down, and ultimately if an organization has happy, energized, effective employees they find it reflected in the bottom line.” For more information, visit www.workforcelearning.com.