The uneven future of work

The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson

While there has been a lot of evolution and mainstream acceptance of tools that let us talk about work, the same cannot be said of tools that we use to actually perform work. At the very least, progress has been very uneven across industries and tasks. Recently some of the smartest people I've ever had the pleasure of working with - all remote workers - got involved in a conversation regarding an article by Stowe Boyd about what he calls the "failed promise of social collaboration".

Project management apps (Jira, Pivotal Tracker, Basecamp, Asana, Trello et al) have progressed immensely, as have communication tools such as Hangouts, Slack, Screenhero, etc. These are all tools that let you talk about and manage work - the "metadata" of work, if you will. This is all very important, and for some roles this is work.

But the tools were most people actually do the work haven’t kept up, or at least not uniformly. If you spend your work time mostly writing, you're in luck. However, a mechanical engineer working on a CAD model still works on his own. An audio technician mixing a track will do so working alone on ProTools. A product manager creating a mockup still does it individually on Axure or Keynote, though you can present and discuss your mockups quite collaboratively (again, talking about your work).

Of course, you can argue that by throwing in Hangouts in the examples above you can then collaborate, but the experience is not on par with what you get collaboratively editing a doc on Google Drive, for instance, which is designed with that way of working in mind. You may be fortunate enough that most of the work you do in your role can be done with tools that are specifically designed for collaborative work - i.e., I spend 80-90% of my time on a combination of Google Docs, Hangouts, Pivotal Tracker and Slack - but this is not yet the case for a bunch of other occupations.

Even when tools have moved to the browser, in a lot of cases the workflows are mostly the same they have been for a long time. In a way, they have simply been transposed into a new medium, but have not significantly altered the way people work and collaborate around those flows. Of course there are exceptions, and lucky you if you are able to tap into that.

I think this is changing, and perhaps the specialised tools that will stand out in their markets are those that realise this trend and get designed to facilitate this.