Is the Future of Work a Utopia or a Dystopia? Here's What You Should Know. Let's discuss the trends in managing distributed teams and what the future of work may look like.
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Distributed team management is increasingly relying on data-driven decision-making, automation and much more granular performance tracking. What will be the eventual result of this trend in the future of work?
Will employees be treated as replaceable numbers as their every waking moment is monitored? Or will the ability to track and quantify more soft skills allow for a more fair and objective way to recognize and develop global talent?
Let's take a look at the recent trends in managing distributed teams and predict how these trends could lead in both good and bad directions.
Related: What Is the Real Future of Work?
The elephant in the room
The technological, cultural and workplace changes driving the future of work promise a better world. Automation and digital manufacturing technologies offer the promise of shorter working hours and more time for leisure — but those promises haven't been directly delivered.
Still, a titanic, nerve-wracking question mark provokes utopian and dystopian future visions.
Utopians see a future where technology enables and facilitates a global workforce that is able to interact seamlessly — where opportunity is no longer bound by borders, and anyone has access to highly skilled work. Without this future, innovation ability at a global level will stall and put humanity at risk of extinction. If, or when, our planet is ever faced with an existential crisis, being able to leverage the entire human race efficiently to solve it is our only hope.
Dystopians see automation and global talent access as a way for money-hungry leaders to further cut costs while maximizing profits at the expense of their workers. The profit maximization theory introduced by Milton Friedman in the '70s saw the death of the stable middle class and has caused the income gap to rise exponentially ever since. Unless mediated and executed responsibly, AI and distributed workforce could cause further separation as fortunes are concentrated at the top of the pyramid. The rise of contract workers will create a race to the bottom as employees are forced to underbid each other for the limited "human work" available.
The elephant in the room then is predicting which reality will unfold.
Trends in managing distributed teams
Most of us have used products and services from companies like Stack Overflow, Zapier, Stripe, Automattic, InVision, Gigster and GitHub that successfully operate distributed teams. These enterprises have succeeded at remote management minus physical face-to-face communication. Among the trending approaches used in managing co-located workers that can yield results when applied to distributed teams include:
Data-driven decision-making: This involves using facts, insights and metrics to make strategic business decisions that align with a company's goals, strategies and initiatives. Instead of making assumptions, the technique leverages accurate, verified data to understand a business's needs. The process comprises collecting and analyzing data through research and drawing insights that benefit the company.
Automation: Companies are future-proofing by building cross-platform automation infrastructure that facilitates asynchronous work and reduces human capital expenses and latency while enhancing productivity and team experiences. This helps to address the most significant challenges facing remote teams, like loneliness, unplugging after work and communication/collaboration across teams.
Performance tracking: Companies are accurately monitoring productivity and performance levels among remote teams by implementing data-driven performance evaluations to assess each staffer's progress within their role. The assessments that are performed using various tools like Asana, Jira, 15five and Impraise, etc., also allow the employer to align the company's objectives with daily tasks and actions.
Collaboration tools: During the pandemic, we saw massive spikes in use and stock prices of remote tooling such as Zoom, Atlassian and others. While there are a few tools (Microsoft Teams, GSuite) that own a large portion of market share, we are seeing insurgents move into the space that "unbundle" these platforms. These new tools offer hyper-focused capabilities that often outperform the incumbents. Using remote work-first tools is imperative to success. Trying to shoehorn tools made for IRL work for distributed teams will fail.
The future of work's potential dystopian outcome
What can we expect in the event of a dystopian outcome? Most jobs we reckon as "safe" will become candidates for AI takeover, with displacements only comparable to the industrial revolution. "Data-driven decision-making" will cause the increasingly rare human employee to be seen as just another cog in the machine — easily expended and replaced. "Low-skill" work that cannot be automated will be outsourced to low-cost regions, effectively building a Mariana Trench in the U.S. class gap.
Amazon has been criticized for ceding tasks like human-resource operations to bots that use software to manage and oversee contract workers. A contract driver recently lamented after being terminated by an algorithm that tracked him and decided "he wasn't doing his job properly."
The gig economy, where workers don't receive statutory benefits, will become the order of the day and probably plant the seeds of radicalism as workers become a permanent underclass with no prospect of advancement. Companies will turn to cost-cutting arrangements that favor them regarding salaries and only pay as and when they need work done.
The book Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future draws the most vivid picture:
"There's an old joke that the factory of the future will have two employees: a human and a dog. The human's job will be to feed the dog, and the dog's job will be to keep the human from touching any of the machines. Is that actually what the company of tomorrow will look like?"
The future of work's potential utopian outcome
On the other hand, there's great potential for a utopian outcome as AI and data seamlessly integrate into all aspects of life to deliver greater efficiency. The wave of automation will increase efficiency as machines perform repetitive tasks cheaper and better than humans. The emerging AI-powered distributed teams will decimate the traditional 9-to-5 jobs, and companies will repackage the existing work into part-time and contract jobs or outsource on a need basis.
We see the future workforce taking a "portfolio" approach in which they're able to pick and choose what work they want to do and when they want to do it. This ability to opt-in will create a workforce that feels more fulfilled and stable than what we have today.
By leveraging the wealth of democratization of business intelligence software and available digital insights, managers will make data-driven decisions based on accurate trends and tangible visualizations. This will remove many of the biases and prejudices that cause many good employees to go undervalued. We have seen from internal studies that distributed workers are supportive of algorithmic performance tracking if they know how they are being measured. However, when not told how they are being measured, we saw immediate backlash.
The result will be a proper work-life balance that will eliminate stress and burnout while boosting clarity of mind and creativity.
What is the future of work?
What's important to understand is that when we think about a "utopian" or "dystopian" future, we're looking 30 to 50 years down the road. You have to imagine how differently future generations will perceive "work." Millennials have a drastically different work philosophy than Baby Boomers, which only represents an 18-year difference. It is our job to see this future and lay the groundwork to enable it.
The trends in managing distributed teams we mentioned aren't based on future predictions, though. They are happening right now. How will your company use them to build and manage successful teams that help lead us toward the utopian side of things?