11/19/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Trusting the Crowd and the Machines

We exist in a context that is constantly and rapidly changing and the way we work is central to that change. Economic growth used to mean more jobs but that is no longer the case. These days, output can grow overall, with no increase in employment. Since 2000, GDP in the US has been able to grow faster than employment suggesting that technology already destroys more jobs than it creates. The robotics and 3-D printing revolutions could accelerate this trend still further, as the comparatively low entry cost for these disruptive technologies makes them widely accessible to everyone, including developing economies. Losing occupations does not necessarily mean losing jobs in the conventional sense -- just changing what people do. A growing proportion of jobs in the future will require creative intelligence, social intelligence and the ability to leverage artificial intelligence.

A recent Future of Work Conference in Chicago established that physical and reasoning tasks are increasingly being done by machines alongside people, enabling people to work on more strategic things rather than look at spreadsheets. Through the 'creative destruction' of technology a lot of jobs will disappear (particularly for middle management) and a lot of new jobs we cannot yet imagine will be created. The growth in new jobs will occur as much through crowd sourced freelancers as within the bounds of the corporation.

Whilst middle managers seem to be at risk of extinction, senior managers are far from obsolete. According to Mc Kinsey:

As machine learning progresses at a rapid pace, top executives will be called on to create the innovative new organizational forms needed to crowdsource the far-flung human talent that's coming online around the globe. Those executives will have to emphasize their creative abilities, their leadership skills and their strategic thinking.

As the war for talent increasingly happens outside the traditional organizational boundaries the implications are immense. 45 percent of workers in the US are already described as contingent and this trend is now spreading to other regions. Young people in countries across Europe and Asia are choosing to work this way as their preferred lifestyle. New organisational forms will evolve that overlay the responsiveness of start-ups through the nimbleness of network structures with the execution efficiency of traditional hierarchy.

To facilitate this transformation the employee-employer relationship is shifting from how much value can be extracted from workers to how much can be instilled in them. The benefits of tapping the full range of people's knowledge and talents may be obvious, yet it's surprising that so few companies do it. Elite universities and hospitals, Goldman Sachs and McKinsey have all been adding value to valuable people for a very long time. Google and Apple are more recent examples. They do this in myriad ways -- by providing networks, creative interaction with peers, stretch assignments, training and association with a brand that confers elite status on employees and collaborators.

At LVMH, the world's largest luxury-goods company you'd expect to find brilliant, creative innovators like Nicolas Ghesquière and Marc Jacobs. But alongside them you also encounter a high proportion of executives and specialists who monitor and assess ideas with an analytical business focus. One of the ingredients in LVMH's success is having a culture where opposite types can thrive and work cooperatively by enabling connections within and beyond the organization.

Connections can lead to new learning. Companies should create environments-both physical and virtual-that help employees to develop new connections and also to strengthen their existing relationships, as traditional work environments of rows of desks are obsolete to do so. To support effective connections it is essential to create workplace environments that foster serendipitous encounters. Many firms already build their workplace environments with the common areas strategically positioned to allow workers to "bump into each other." These types of environments should also be developed in virtual settings. A recent Harvard Business Review article notes that social media has the potential to save companies $1.3 trillion, largely owing to improvements in intra-office collaboration. It is clear that the experience of work needs to be understood and curated inside and outside corporate office space, in both the physical and virtual realms.

At Microsoft the Workplace Advantage program supports people to work flexibly from anywhere within and outside the office and has modernized the workplace by introducing a variety of vibrant and dynamic collaborative environments to bring people together within and across functions to get more done. Individual and team effectiveness have both increased by more than 10 percent as has overall workplace satisfaction.

This trend is not just evident in technology firms who are expected to be leading the way but across even more conservative industries like financial services. After several years of development Rabobank Nederland, the banking arm of the largest financial services provider in the Netherlands, Rabobank Group, has rolled out Rabo Unplugged; an organizational and technical infrastructure that allows employees to connect to one another from practically anywhere while still meeting the stringent encryption standards that banking systems require. With no fixed offices or rigid job descriptions, Rabobank's employees are responsible for the results of their work, but they are free to choose how, where, when and with whom to carry it out. This approach requires managers to place an extraordinary amount of trust in subordinates, and it demands that employees become more entrepreneurial and collaborative.

Piet van Schijndel, member of the Board of Directors of Rabobank Nederland, says:

I predict that over the next ten years, one of the biggest problems we will face is how to get good people to join our company. If you have something to offer where people can balance their work and their home life in a modern way which suits those people, then that would naturally be a way for our company to attract people.

The business environment of the future needs to trust people and technology and provide flexibility and choice for employees to connect with complementary skills across a network, to work together on challenges, to learn fast, unlock their passion and improve performance. Such an environment helps people feel energized and connected to the organization and attracts, inspires and retains talent. Ultimately, that's what productivity improvement really means.