Have you considered what “work” might look like in 5, 10, 20 or more years? What will workers be doing? How will work be defined and managed? What will we be working for?

More than 100 people showed up to Portland’s first Future of Work Conference, to discuss these topics, and many more. The excitement and energy of the crowd was organized and channeled into lively discussions via the Open Space format of the conference. Open Space allows anyone with an idea they want to discuss to announce it to the group and pick a time and location for the discussion. Then, anyone interested in taking part in that discussion just shows up – and either participates or, if the discussion isn’t engaging them, leaves to find a different session to attend. This egalitarian format ensures that everyone gets to share the ideas they’re passionate about, and everyone gets to participate in sessions that interest them.

In this case, the result was over 44 individual topic discussions, over the course of 8 hours…on a Saturday, no less! It turns out, many people in the Pacific Northwest have deep interest in what work will look like, in the future. Here is just a sample of the many topics offered up by attendees:

  • Portland’s Strategy, Relative to Independent Workers
  • Measuring Team Health
  • Advocating for Age Diversity in a Multi-Generational Work Place
  • Gender Freedom at Work
  • Employment Laws & HR Policies as Barriers
  • Attrition – Recruiting and Retaining Talent
  • Agile/Scrum in a Gig Based Economy
  • Mindfulness at Work
  • Best Practices for Distributed Teams
  • Future-Proofing Yourself 

The topics generally fell into 3 main groupings.  Here’s a quick run-down of those groupings, and some of the big questions that were discussed:


Traditional, hierarchical org structures appear to be falling out of favor, and there were many ideas shared about what can or should replace them.

  • How might natural, fractal designs influence and guide our corporate structures?
  • Distributed teams:  how they can help maximize value, and how to grow and nurture them?
  • City governments and opportunities with the emerging independent or “gig” workers?
  • How will the rising gig economy impact work management concepts, like Agile, which rely on trust, familiarity, and tight coordination – which all require teams working together for long periods of time? What if organizations treated their employees as economic assets on their books, rather than liabilities – thereby rewarding investment in employee development & training (improving assets), and adversely impacting the bottom-line if layoffs happen (writing off assets)?

The days of people staying with one company for their entire career are over.  It’s estimated that, by 2020, 50% of workers will be part of the “gig” economy, taking on temporary or contract jobs, instead of full-time roles.

  • What do / should workers expect from organizations, in terms of acknowledging and accommodating the diversity of ages, gender identities, skills, and motivations of their employees?
  • How should today’s workers & companies prepare for the future work environment, in terms of their hard & soft skillsets, location (urban vs. rural), expectations (financial, and otherwise)?
  • What are some of the relational and organizational complexities that future leaders will need to navigate, and what skills will be needed to do so?

With the increasing efficiencies and capabilities of machines & technology, attendees wanted to discuss what work will be left, needed, or in demand, in the future. 

  • As automation & AI improve, reliance on human labor will decrease (e.g., agriculture, shipping, distribution, manufacturing), so what are the options for our growing society, in the future?  Social services, the arts, education, and what else?
  • If automation & AI lead to lower costs of production, then should our government look to provide basic income, or some other means of securing the basic needs, for all people?
  • How do workers keep up to date on emerging skills or technologies, so that they can remain vital parts of the economy – or should they expect that there will be a need for legacy skillsets, as technology lifecycles continue to speed up?

While the conference didn’t necessarily lead to definitive answers to all of the questions posed, it absolutely energized its participants to carry on these important discussions, afterwards.  Because these questions need answers, as they will help define what our work, our companies, and our society looks like, in the future. 

Propeller is excited to support these conversation-starting events, because we know that big, systemic, organizational changes don’t happen overnight, and they shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. We help our clients ask the right questions, engage the right people, consider all of the implications, and chart a thoughtful path forward, so that they can arrive — step by step — at a future of their own design.

Want to know more about how Propeller can help you prepare for the future of work? Learn more about our services here.