Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Distributed work

How a futurist is thinking about distributed work

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Published on May 22, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

Future Today Institute’s Amy Webb explains how a little foresight can go a long way.

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As far as we know, humans are the only species that can think about the distant future and plan for it. We obsess over the future, and have for eons, whether it be about the next crop harvest or the afterlife. This future mindset spurs our thinking in a whole host of areas, from short-term business and government planning to anxiety about the unknown or imaginative flights of fancy, like how humans will live in the coming centuries.

Futurists, including writers, technologists, and economists, attempt to imagine possible futures. They do so by researching and extrapolating on present day realities, like the impact of climate change, scientific breakthroughs such as nanotechnology, or social factors like income inequality, and new financial technologies like blockchain.

As founder of Future Today Institute, Amy Webb and her cast of management consultants are in constant dialogue with the future. Webb, a quantitative futurist and professor of strategic foresight at the NYU School of Business, designed FTI to help leaders and their organizations, from businesses to governments, to prepare for “deep uncertainty and complex futures”. The techniques of “futuring” developed and practiced by futurists, Webb believes, can come in handy to everyone in these times of uncertainty. 

For a long time, futurists like Webb have imagined models or scenarios of “distributed work”—the idea that technology will allow workers to contribute from wherever they choose to be. Instead of planning for the future of work, workers, businesses and other organizations are evolving, fitfully, in real time during the coronavirus pandemic. While some businesses were ready for this transition, many others were not. But Webb believes the managerial and organizational response to the pandemic will ultimately accelerate positive change in work. 

Anybody can be a futurist

For many people, it might seem difficult to get a better grasp of what’s to come in the future, and how to reduce any anxiety associated with it. But, in a recent Medium blog, “How Futurists Cope with Uncertainty,” Webb describes a conceptual framework that anyone can use to wrap their minds around an uncertain future.  

The “axes of uncertainty” is a structure for brainstorming multiple possible alternative futures, caused both by external forces (like COVID-19) and internal ones (new skill training for distributed work, team cohesion, or wage fluctuations). Start with an an X-Y graph, with each axis representing a different variable and defining a possible future. In each of the four quadrants, the two possible uncertainties (signals or trends) combine to create a possible future outcome. Then imagine how you might best respond to each scenario. While it may sound a little academic, Webb says it’s an easy way for anyone to open their aperture to the future. 

The idea with the axes of uncertainty is to generate a wide range of possibilities to become more adaptable and better prepared.

“Start with some of the basic uncertainties, like what might happen with the economy, and add in questions from your own personal experiences,” Webb explains. “It's best to be as specific as possible with your experiences. For example: your project will continue or will slow down, your team will expand or contract, or your idea will or will not find an audience.”

Imagine a café and coffee roaster trying to figure out how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic’s social distancing and business restrictions. The coffee roaster could use axes of uncertainty to envision possible near future scenarios. On the top end of the y-axis, social distancing is maintained throughout 2020, while on the bottom end it’s soon relaxed. For internal or personal experience, the coffee company either has to shut down its physical locations (located on the left end of the x-axis) or figure out a way to keep its doors open (on the right).

The coffee roaster looks at these internal and external factors and writes headlines for each quadrant. In the upper left quadrant, the company opts to stop in-person cafe service, with a good possibility that they might go out of business if social distancing extends into December 2020. In the lower left, the shutdown is only temporary because state lawmakers and medical experts believe social distancing will be relaxed by the end of May. In the upper right quadrant, social distancing is maintained; but the café doesn’t just remain open to roast beans and sell coffee and tea for pick-up, it distributes some new functions outside of the café’s walls. In this scenario, the coffee roaster actually expands its brand into e-commerce and delivery. In the lower right quadrant, the café remains open for coffee, tea, and food pick-up but does not market any new products or services. 

Looking at the four possible near futures, the coffee roaster decides it’s best to stay open regardless of when social distancing is lifted. To differentiate itself from other local coffee shops, the roaster opts for the upper right quadrant scenario. It continues roasting and selling cups of coffee and tea for pickup, but also develops a line of bottled beverages, and packaged foods that customers can easily take out instead of eating on premises—something they’d never done before. Within a month of social distancing and business restrictions, the coffee roaster is packaging beverages and foods as part of a new branding, marketing, online store, and delivery initiative. Not only is the coffee roaster and café prepared for the short-term future, but it has expanded its brand for the long-term, and distributing its workforce to include product sourcing, digital marketing, accounting, and other business operations.  

As Webb notes, the idea with the axes of uncertainty—as in the example above—is to generate a wide range of possibilities to help a person or organizations become more adaptable and better prepared. Webb calls this pandemic one of those “who moved my cheese?” moments. Compared to last month, the world is fundamentally different today. Webb says this means most people will need to develop new strategies for the future. 

“There is no way to know exactly what the world will look like a year from now,” she says. “Instead of predicting that world, focus on preparing for it. Everyone must adopt a flexible mindset and be willing to accept alternate futures.”

“Companies, like people, have limbic systems,” Webb writes. Anxiety is a natural response to uncertainty in organizations as well as in bodies. Taking a structured approach to scoping the possibilities is one way to calm down and make things feel manageable. While companies will be motivated to use the axes of uncertainty to make game plans for the future, Webb notes it works for individuals as well. 

“People work within organizations, so this technique still applies,” Webb says, explaining how individual workers can create their own axes. “Begin with a list of uncertainties. The four primary areas still apply: economic, technological, social, and politics/regulatory. These are areas over which no one person, company, or government agency has complete control.”

“There is no way to know exactly what the world will look like a year from now. Instead of predicting that world, focus on preparing for it." —Amy Webb

Webb recommends adding to that list those uncertainties directly related to work, even if this work environment is distributed. An individual could experience problems with internet bandwidth, particularly in rural areas. The slow rural WiFi speeds present some interesting internal and external issues for a distributed workforce. In fact, rural communities are already dealing with slow WiFi even as the pandemic makes distributed work a necessity for many. 

Imagine a company thinking of embracing distributed work, and a pandemic is not a factor. If an employee wanted to see how this might give them geographical flexibility for finding a home, they could construct a quadrant map of future scenarios. On the top of the y-axis, the business opts for a distributed workforce, while on the bottom the company does not. On the left of the x-axis, rural WiFi is not improved, making work harder, while on the right WiFi connections are enhanced, making work easier. 

In the upper left quadrant, the individual writes a headline that distributed work in a rural area with slow WiFi might limit their home search. In the lower left, there is no distributed work, so they are locked into city living. In the upper right quadrant, distributed work is embraced and rural WiFi speeds improve, making that rural home an attractive possibility. And in the lower right quadrant, distributed work is rejected but rural WiFi speeds improve, inspiring the individual to look for a new job that embraces a distributed work environment. 

Internal uncertainty, Webb notes, is where an individual or organization can think about the longer-term implications of a distributed workforce. In one scenario, productivity increases or decreases, and in others, the workforce shrinks or grows, and digital skills meet new demands or not. “Given our current situation, most companies wanting to understand the future of their distributed workforce are going to want to use external/internal,” says Webb. 

Distributed work after COVID-19

Individuals and organizations should be thinking about the future of distributed work and planning for it. Data analytics can be part of this picture, but Webb thinks many companies are too enthusiastic about data and too cautious in deploying human capital, like individual creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

“I actually worry that in our current climate, we’ve traded FOMO for abject fear,” she says of over-dependence on data. “That was true before the COVID-19 outbreak, and it is certainly true now.”

Webb says that businesses that thrive in times of deep uncertainty, like in the present pandemic, tend to develop a culture of curiosity—one that rewards continued learning, “not training on internal dashboards and the like but enrichment in adjacent fields.” 

“I know someone—I’ll call her Sarah—who works as a middle-level manager for a company we advise,” says Webb. “Sarah happens to be an exceptionally creative thinker and someone who is always on the bleeding edge of new technologies. In other companies, she might not have the credibility to share her ideas with executives because she’s not in the technology group or on an R&D team. But Sarah’s company encourages cross-functional team research and ongoing conversations about signals and trends.”

"If you don’t want to experience future shock, then you have to get good at mapping next-order implications."

“Sarah has a conduit to share what she’s seeing, and there is a process in place to make decisions,” she adds. “Sarah also feels heard and appreciated, which motivates her to keep seeking out fresh signals. It’s a virtuous cycle of foresight, innovation, and evolution.”

“Leaders who communicate a clear purpose and vision, but allow employees to chart their own path forward, do well,” says Webb. And in a distributed work environment, this charting of the individual path becomes all the more vital, not just for the worker but the organization. 

For those individuals unsure of exactly how to think about possible futures or adjust to remote work, Webb suggests joining collaborative projects. She recently started an online group for futurists who want to develop scenarios together—an initiative many others could pursue as well. Webb has also started to see the re-emergence of chain letters aimed at supporting people during this transition into distributed work. 

“This time around, the digital chain letters are supportive and meant to help others work through isolation,” says Webb. “I'm seeing them in my inbox, on Instagram and on Twitter. My advice would be to find a group or a collaborative digital project and to plug yourself in to it.”

Webb sees a great deal of speculation about the future of work in the post-coronavirus world. While most knowledge workers are presently working remotely and video conferencing in for meetings, Webb just doesn’t see this as a revolution that will continue beyond the pandemic. Humans are social, says Webb, and do well in collaborative spaces, not just to complete work but to thrive in doing so. 

“Humans are by nature collaborative,” says Webb. “We learn from each other. Pre-virus, we were already hearing stories about how the collaboration layer has become oppressive, with managers, colleagues, clients pinging at all hours of the day and night. Some companies are now asking remote workers to leave Zoom on throughout their workday, which honestly sounds like what a dystopian science fiction writer in the 1960s would have imagined for the year 2000.”

“There are a lot of organizations that resisted remote work options before that are struggling right now,” says Webb. “The future should be about flexibility and adaptability. The present should be about flexibility and adaptability, too.”

Webb says that those organizations that were resistant to work-from-home options, either in general or for certain segments of employees, are finding that they have no choice but to enable remote work. And for those organizations with most of their workforce now working remotely, they are quickly discovering the major challenges of maintaining data and privacy protections, and how to follow cybersecurity protocols. After the pandemic subsides, Webb is certain there will be a new set of best practices that companies can follow.

“The future is always coming—it is simultaneously five seconds, five minutes, five years, five decades away,” says Webb. “The best way to shape the future is to develop the habit of always listening for signals. If you don’t want to experience future shock, then you have to get good at mapping next-order implications. The evolution of work doesn’t have to be painful.”