The State of Work 2023

Adobe's latest whitepaper says it's as radical as the changing world around us.

Future of Work

The Adobe-commissioned whitepaper "The State of Work in 2023" has been sitting dormant in my ever-expanding collection of open Google tabs for some days now. Always the optimist, I've been waiting in hopeful anticipation of a dedicated quiet time to read, absorb, and savor every delicious word. That time just stubbornly refused to arrive... until now.

I'm not the only one who may not always act on their best intentions, right? Life happens and all that jazz? So, for my fellow tab-overwhelmed, here's a summary of what jumped out at me from the report. (True confession: I'm writing this piece as much to organise my own thinking as to keep you informed. Lets' call that "efficiency".)

The first thing I do with a paper like this is jump to the end: not for spoilers, but to gauge a sense of the credibility of the respondent makeup. Happily, right there on page 28 of the 31-page report was a vivid infographic with just the information I was looking for. The survey was completed by 803 currently employed full-time respondents, all managing a team. They were largely located across North America (38%) and Western Europe (37%), with the majority being from companies with 1,000-9,999 global employees. They were split 50/50 between IT teams vs. those outside of the IT function from Director level. And they spanned multiple industries, the most prevalent being Software, IT & computer services (19%), Financial services (12%) and Business/professional services (9%).

Back to the very top and right to the subhead below the title... "A radical rethinking of work is underway" and I am immediately transported back to the days of Covid-19. The legally mandated lockdowns. The work-from-home culture explosion. Everyone suddenly becoming an expert on the intricacies of the various videoconferencing platforms.

But was that really a radical rethinking? Seems to me it was a radical action on what we had already thought but chose to resist for a host of reasons. Most of those reasons were (and are) unjustified, steeped in outdated ways, (subconscious) fear of change, and perhaps the need for many to retain control. The "if I can't see you, how do I know you're really working?" mentality is still quite rife and validated by the many major companies mandating employees return to the office. You can read all about that here, and here, and here, if you've managed to miss the saturation media coverage of the "back to the office" movement.

Before I digress too far left or right, let me get back to the whitepaper. My expectations of a tagline like "A radical rethinking of work is underway" are that the contents will be more radical than Covid-19, so before reading on, I'm going to pause, breathe and adjust my thinking.

As one who strongly advocates for human development and the nuances of behaviour both at work and play, I find myself nodding already at the introduction section. The writer poignantly states that there are "growing expectations from employees regarding their day-to-day experiences". Indeed.  I also fully agree and align with the sentiment that "work transformation will require new operational cultures; a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes modern, effective collaboration; and more intentional technology strategies..." By now, I'm absolutely engrossed. This report is speaking my language.

Note: I'm not going to give everything away here as I really really really want you to click on the report link so you have a better context of the content shared alongside the pretty graphs and designer layout. This is not a flippant statement, for the survey itself speaks of the importance of creativity. If 31 pages of reading pleasure is simply too much for your brain or time to handle right now, Adobe shared a post of the Top findings of the report which I found of equal value.

The paper is divided into four neat sections, the first of which covers "Challenges in modern work." This was in many ways the spiciest of the four sections, and the most urgent. So I'll elaborate on it just to whet your appetite for the whole paper. 

Challenges in modern work: the struggle is real

"Many fundamentals of effective work are now more difficult to get right": It's been a rough few years. People are increasingly feeling overwhelmed at work. More and more of us feel disconnected from our colleagues. Things like company strategy and personal goals are harder to stay on top of. And for more than half of respondents, work-life balance is sliding out of reach. Is it any wonder we're finding it harder to get things done?

"Organizational leadership is struggling to meet core workforce expectations": In my opinion, if our leaders don't have the tools on hand to do great work, filtering great behaviour and understanding and commitment to their fields of influence becomes one hard job to do. It shows in the data, with some 70% of respondents saying their managers do not care about their well-being or give them the right technology to work effectively. The paper cites the need for significant change management competency, something we know and understand is critical for solid human development and adoption of technology, systems, and processes. Yes please.

"Employees are expecting more from their day-to-day technology experiences": This really is relevant and something we highlighted a few months ago in our blog post De-Stress your process: how integrated work & automation beat burnout (I'm sharing the link for you to open up in a browser tab for reading later ... just so I know that I'm not the only one who does that!). 65% of survey subjects said their expectations of technology have risen in the last few years vs. just 6% who say they've fallen. In short: knowledge workers are turning to technology to remedy the problems mentioned above.

"There are significant concerns about the consequences of the economic downturn": We always fear what we can't control. So this external uncertainty is a real and currently recurring one. I am concerned that 41% of respondents are expecting less budget for important technology investments, when with the speed tech is morphing, businesses need to keep ahead in this sphere or suffer the longer-term consequences. With tighter budgets comes less operational flow, so maintaining employee morale becomes more of a factor and creativity is required.

Some eye-opening insights there that confirm and quantify what we've seen working with our clients. The friction and tensions and dislocations of our time have not yet been matched with the technological and process solutions that could ease them.

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The tl;dr: 5 things you need to know the most

All that is in just the first quarter of the whitepaper! The three other sections - "New operational cultures and values", "Rethinking collaboration" (always of premium interest to me), and "New technology strategies" - shed just as much light on where work is headed, with key insights into the evolving roles of creativity, communication, data, and leadership.

But I'm intentionally skipping over that juicy middle, and not just because you should read it for yourself. I want to spotlight the paper's conclusions while you're still reading. It would be a shame if you missed these takeaways that you can start putting into action today:

Transform, don't tinker. It's up to leaders to - wait for it - lead. Those changes should be as bold as the transformations happening in the world around us every day. A clear vision and continuous operational improvements are table stakes these days to keep employees and customers engaged.

Get collaboration right and so many other good things will follow. Engaging, inclusive collaboration is the force multiplier that not only boosts outcomes, but builds resilient, invested teams. But effective collaboration doesn't just happen, especially in times of rapid technological change. The organisations that win will be those who look at the realities of today, listen to what employees are trying to tell you (verbally and otherwise), and invest in the solutions that foster great collaboration.

Silos are for grain, not data. Say goodbye to the days of engineering staying on their turf, and operations on theirs, and marketing on theirs... it takes aligned, data-driven collaboration to create great experiences and products. So data and information must be set free to be shared, not just on an ad-hoc basis but as a fundamental way of working, built into the organisation. (As a bonus, de-siloing will cut unnecessary stress, re-work, repetitive drudgery, and other drags on productivity and satisfaction.)

Employees want both flexibility and clarity. The increasing demand for flexibility around getting work done makes it all the more important to provide structure around what matters: goals, expectations, strategy, the "what" and the "why". This strong shared understanding enables employee autonomy to unlock innovative solutions without losing momentum. Effectiveness and flexibility shouldn't be a trade-off: they should build on each other.

Yesterday's "good enough" isn't good enough. Customers expect more from experiences. Technologies (up to and including generative AI) support greater personalisation, speed of production, executional sophistication, and consistent quality than ever before. Embracing those possibilities is essential to engaging customers today and tomorrow.

I'm glad I finally revisited that tab

OK, so it took me a while, but insights like these were absolutely worth the wait. And not just because this whitepaper's vision of a human-centered, technology-powered future aligns so perfectly with what we do at WNDYR. We've been helping organisations of every size bring that future to life, long before this "radical rethinking" of work became a front-page story. Contact us now to bring our expertise to your organisation. Or at least open our site up in a new tab. Just don't let it lie there as long as I left this Adobe whitepaper ;)

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