Some time ago, The Future of Work was all the rage. I know because I was into it — big time.

Photo by Alan Scales on Unsplash

I would devour futurist blog posts, studies of amazing digital and mechanically advanced machinery, technological boundaries being pushed out to new frontiers in computational power. Transport, agriculture and biotech. I was gripped by it. And to a degree, I still am. Invention, pioneering creativity and imaginative sciences astound me. Vinci surgical robots, Strati electric cars, even Boston Dynamics somewhat creepy robot dogs and cyborgs.

So gripped by it all, and the impact on humans, human systems and leading enterprises I created The 7Dimensions (7Ds) of the Future of Work. I was sure it was a model, concept and theory that would land and I’d be busy consulting, researching, deploying new ways. I even ran some workshops going through such innovations and helping leaders scenario plan their way into that future.

It didn’t really materialise into anything — a bit like a lot of the hype around The Future of Work. However, some of that stuff has landed. Bots, machine learning algorithms, data analytics and some more responsive and adaptive ways of working have permeated our “norms”.

The Future of Work — when projected ahead — seems like a very determinable thing. Like on Friday, we log off of work and go home. Then on Monday, we’re working with a robotics assistant, building our own apps for our work, using machine intelligence to respond to our queries and deploying research bots to help us make sense of swathes of customer data.

It’s not like that though.

It’s more of what author and future gazer Tom Cheesewright calls low-frequency change. Gradual, smaller increments that add up and almost go unnoticed. Yes, there are some high-frequency changes — like the advent of the iPhone I guess 14 years ago. Those we notice more.

And so the future of work — to coin the overused William Gibson quote — is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.

Anyway, 8 years or so ago, I wanted to codify the future as I saw it. I researched the Law of Accelerating Returns. The Law of Diffusion Of Innovation, Magnus Lindkvist’s excellent work on Futurology as a modelled set of processes and approaches. I devoured content and teaching by Peter Diamandis, Ray Kurzweil, Salim Ismail at Singularity University. I looked into Nasim Nicholas Taleb’s work; Jamie Bartlett’s Dark Net; Evgeny Morozov, Douglas Rushkoff, Jaron Lanier, Nicholas Carr, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee at MIT, Keren Elezari, Don Tapscott, Bettina Warburg. None of these has much to do with HR, Organisation Development and Learning & Development (my chosen trade since 2003) and yet, I could see that what they shared needed to be known about because of its potential downstream impact on people, work, jobs, learning, communication and connecting.

Back to my 7 Dimensions of the Future of Work (7Ds). I had the:

  • Digitisation and Socialisation of work (that I still see and has been accelerated somewhat by the COVID-19 responses)

Demand for craft. My closing dimension and the point now to this blog post.

In facing into the Future of Work (now a largely retired and perhaps worthless phrase although arguably there are perhaps futures <a range of future options> of work rather than a future), I wanted to make the point that this wasn’t ALL about a digital and systems-changed future but also some restoration or renaissance for things we value because they’re different and made with love and craft.

If we can 3-D print everything, miniaturise and dematerialise things and virtualise and replicate/mass produce stuff at a fraction of the cost, maybe, just maybe we’d value a handmade table. A one-off picture in oils. A sketched drawing of a loved pet.

So that 7th D — Demand for craft was that. We would rediscover and yearn for artful creation. One-off, not mass-produced Ikeafied goods and services.

Etsy — as an example of this — accounted for $4.97bn of sales in 2019. Around the same as the Waitrose chain of supermarkets in the UK over the same period.

Craft is business. And might be even more so as we head into even more mechanised, replicant products in a race to be the most affordable in consumable goods.

Artful came to mind as I read this excellent post this morning from Dr Steve Marshall (https://www.drstevemarshall.com/) and a post on artful leadership.

He opened with this provocative line

I’m not chasing originality anymore.

I admire that. Is there really any such thing as originality? I certainly stand on the shoulders of giants. My 7Ds was merely a synthesis of all those knowing, imaginative people I listed earlier.

I don’t feel that artful at times. A remixer, maybe. I’m to the world of work and change and Organisation Design as Dave Lee is to music.

Dave’s a British artist, producer and DJ who is heavily influenced by Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, jazz musicians like Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock and a whole lot more. You could say his originality is in the art of “mash-ups”. Taking all those influences and putting them into his various guises like the Sunburst Band, Akabu, Jakatta and Sessomato.

Back to artfulness. Steve’s post (here) talked to his photographic image project #1000Steps and the repetition and thirst for new, different images to portray and his mild frustration that he had started to see repetition in his work limited by his 1000 Steps radius from his own house.

Yet his closing words are the powerful part of this:

Our new work as leaders is to shift focus; to bring energy and fierce attention to the patient discipline and craft of carefully looking out on the world. If we subscribe to the notion that the only constant is change that is often out of our control, then sensing into minute shifts, before they induce seismic fault lines within the ground upon which we stand, is our best chance.

And the ritual of repetition will let us see that change is happening in every part of our world.

Artists — and by this I mean painters, sculptors and poets — must be in a constant state of looking for originality in what they see becomes a repetitive element to their craft.

Van Gogh might have thought to himself “Here’s another artful interpretation of another everyday thing”. And whilst his own style was an artful expression in and of itself, he might have been taxed by the seemingly repetitive nature of his craft.

Surely all artists feel this? Crave originality. Even get mildly tortured by the apparent sameness of their products. Is it that creative tension that releases hitherto unseen or unheard brilliance? Probably. But I’m no art critic nor even appreciative amateur connoisseur.

And yet in a replicable world of sameness, my sense is that we all crave more artful pursuits in our lives and work. We just don’t declare or actively think/pursue it that way.

Take the current raging debate about Hybrid Working. We are being very unartful about this model for work. 2 days remote, 3 in the office is almost the most creative we can be. Really? Or an individual choice model where rotas, forms, quotas and schedules create more machine-like bureaucracy to avoid a ghost town Monday or a crammed Tuesday. So not artful.

If we took a more artful and less mechanised approach to this, maybe we could create more breakthrough, inspiring ways to make choices and do our best work.

Let’s use Hybrid working as an example. Why is the place of work so important beyond the financial and material investment in a building with rooms, lighting, power, facilities and comfortable fittings?

What artful wonder is there in returning to the beige, grey and blandness of an office? OK, it may separate from home, but in our homes, we’re surrounded by things we love. Pictures, art itself on the walls. Mementoes of holidays where we experienced the world. Ornaments passed down by beloved family members. Gifts from appreciative human beings close to us.

When I look up for inspiration I see Italian craft (a Lambretta Scooter from the 1960s); African-American poetry and consciousness (Marvin Gaye’s 1970s imagery); Cinematic imagination and escapism, storytelling and characterisation (my Star Wars commemorative stamps in a frame) and African-American musical harmony (a crafted form of Chicago’s The Ringleaders and their 2.5 minutes of musical genius in the song “All Of My Life”)

I wouldn’t have those inspiring artful stimulators in that beige office.

They are artful expressions of my life that are sat on the wall above my PC Monitor.

So if the office becomes a place of desire, stimulus, comfort and inspiration we have a lot to do in making that so, from the previous ubiquity and replicant “white-collar factories” we’ve made; with our open-plan rows of desks, docking stations and blandness.

So we need more artful design in the place of work if it is to become not just a productivity hive, but an inspiring, stimulating and soulful place to be with our fellow humans.

Several years ago I coined the concept BYOD — Bring Your Own Design. I wonder if now is the time we say to people: How do you want this space to be that makes sense to you, is useful to you and yes, inspires you.

No more forced design but parameters set; a space we can all call our own. And this is where artful expression will need to displace convenient catalogue replication. Away from “any colour as long as it’s beige” to personalised workspaces.

We’re perhaps focusing on too much “in or out” of the office and maybe we should be asking more artful questions “what would “in” need to be like to make sense to you?”

And here’s another artful leaning we might need.

Listening to other people. Hearing the artistic and soulful insights of Helena Clayton and Megan Peppin my team and I People and Transformational HR Ltd. were encouraged to let love come through as much as we can to feel our work and interactions. And to listen more. Intentionally and with heart and head engaged. Truly listening and truly loving.

We’ve been very much doing that. Sharing our thoughts in our digitised channels like Slack, has been clearly more emotive, appreciative, graceful. And the vibe has changed. We feel something different about each other and our work and our ways. It’s like our culture has become an art form in itself.

Now to avoid any pretentiousness in how that sounds, it’s not some boastful virtue-signalling here, it’s that through a more artistic frame of mind, we’re clearly settling into very comforting, appreciative ways. And it’s making a difference JUST as the intensity, volume and demands of our work are thankfully increasing.

Art is also found in the way we do our work. That might seem odd but if you really think about your work as a form of craft, it might just shift you from being a cog in a machine to a one-off with each call you handle, email you reply to and with each conversation you engage in.

Listening — in the above example — can be made more powerful, useful and impactful if you treat things more artfully than transactional. OK, maybe not the discussion on whether to allocate £400 or £4000 to a project or what to have for tea, but when people are confused, need some guidance, to learn something, grow in confidence or to diffuse tension. More artful listening might just make the difference in many complex and challenging situations.

In further exploring this and thinking about the artful possibilities in the systems and design of work, my mind went to a post a few years ago by the highly followed Corporate Rebels. They posted on the subject of Teal. A concept brought to life to many by Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organisations. A book that has shifted my mission in life and work quite considerably. They said “Teal ain’t Real” meaning this concept (a bit like disruptive innovation and more) has perhaps become the latest trendy Kool-Aid people are drinking (I’m interpreting and oversimplifying their post for brevity) and that actually, Teal is not a real thing and the pursuit of it could be a fallacy or false hope or overly deified cut and paste thing.

I argued (in my own post here) it was as real as was helpful to you and when it became real enough for you (just as totalvoetball did to the Dutch 1974 Iconic World Cup Squad). I won’t get into those who denounce the work of Professor Clare Graves or more so Ken Wilbur, Don Beck and others (who created Spiral Dynamics on which Teal is based on by Laloux — for more read here).

Because I see Teal as an impressionist painter like Monet might do of their work. Different to the norms of art “defined” by the experts or critics. Their interpretation of their world and is meaningful to them, as an expression of their form of art. It may be some liking but not to everyone.

Is the Mona Lisa the truest form of painting ever or simply the most iconic of paintings and our fascination with it is because of the untold story, of Da Vinci’s genius and its now value in $’s?

So in looking at work, what’s stopping us from being more artful about things?

Seemingly nothing, yet we transact, perform and machine-tend our way through much of it and so it feels soulless, perfunctory and tame. OK, maybe not all work can be glamorously reinvented to be an art form, and no, I’m not talking about the NASA Janitor here either.

Author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman amongst others John Fowles is famed for 2 quotes on art.

All good science is art. And all good art is science.

And this one I found particularly poignant and relevant

http://www.picturequotes.com/john-fowles-quotes

Science disembodies. Art embodies.

As powerful and necessary as science is, that’s a telling quote to me.

Art embodies, can be construed as thus:

  • That artful email full of emotion (backed by fact); hope (backed by inspiring vision); and appreciation (backed by emotional gratitude) from a client or collaborator that affirms what you’d hoped: That you brought your art (and heart) to the game. Knowing the time, thought and sincerity in such a message is more artful than a certificate on the wall following your successful completion of an academic course.

It’s not pretentious or delusional to think of your work as craft, artful and expressionist. It’s equally not always practical to be overly flamboyant, esoteric or ethereal about your work. Context and realism are important.

Yet art seems to always lead the way.

Just take a look at Philip K Dick’s novels written years before the technology we know now was even conceivable.

And I’m sure as practical an inventor as Nikola Tesla was, think about the artfulness of his pioneering thoughts and product innovation.

How artistic Ada Lovelace was with her Notes that became arguably the first forms of an algorithm.

And how artful Dr Martin Luther King Junior was in his turn of phrase and speeches that highlighted wrongs and injustice in 1960s America, and brought grace and civility to an uncivil approach to segregation on racial terms.

OK, we’re not all artists in the sense of those legendary figures. Or are we? In our own way, we can be artful and more craft-like with how we view and deploy our contributions to the world.

And as we head to ever more automation in the future of work, even the science-led World Economic Forum, predict that the desired future skills are more humanly, artistic and creative of ilk.

Art for art’s sake? Or artfulness in how we’re being?

Conversations, solutions, applied endeavours. Perhaps a renaissance of wholesome, virtuous and appreciated work lies in our future.

And perhaps our answers do not lie simply in the data-fuelled ways of the world but in random but connected, distinct but related, artistic but scientific ways to work, live and love life.

More tender than tinder. More impressionist than impersonating. More artful than automated.

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017-2019 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan