When looking at the future of work, we first have to look at the past. Before the industrial revolution, people worked individually or in small groups. In communities, each would specialise and trade with those with different skills. In the industrial age, mass production became the norm, with many people involved in producing the same product. In this environment, the factory or office was sacrosanct. Those looking for work had to migrate to where the factories were and the work could only be done on site. Time spent at work was how workers were measured and paid. What is now sometimes referred to as ‘presenteeism’ was unavoidable.
In areas like manufacturing, hospitality and catering, this still exists, mainly because it has to (although with additive-layer printing and home delivery of meals, there are even changes here). However, in the last half of the last century, the mentality of presenteeism was still prevalent in areas where it need not be, given the increase in knowledge work which involves the brain – something we carry with us wherever we go.
With social and technological changes over the last two decades or so, working practices, to some extent, now seem to be changing back again; reverting back to a more specialised and local working method, except that local can now mean working with someone on the other side of the planet.
In sociological terms, individual values and expectations have changed over the last two decades. There has been an increasing demand for better balance between work, family and social needs. There is also a reluctance to be tied to the office doing repetitive work at set times. Parents want to work round their children so they see more of them: In The Shift, Lynda Gratton describes ‘the balanced man’ as someone who will ‘make a trade-off between wealth and spending time with their family and children’.
Additionally, individuals want more from their lives generally. Younger people particularly are focussing less on money and more on quality of life and self-realisation. They are happy to forget the commute and tend to work longer and harder as the trade-off. Workers want more variety, more challenges, more self-development and more fun – working when and where they want is one way to achieve this.
A global online survey conducted between April and May this year by Chess Media Group illustrated these points:
- 80% of people expect flexible working to improve their work and family life balance
- 77% of people expect flexible working to improve their work satisfaction
- 68% of people expect flexible working to give them greater personal happiness
- 85% expected improved productivity and efficiency
Connectivity plays a part in this – it broadens horizons, delivers new knowledge instantaneously, enables ideas to be shared and nurtured, exposes people to other cultures and philosophies and challenges set ideas and insular thinking.
Further changes, like the proliferation of coffee shops and other third places in which it is easy to work, a more relaxed culture, even at work, and the ease of working from home promote the idea of ‘anywhere working’. None of this, though, would be possible without the recent technological developments.
The internet and mobile technology have brought about a great many developments that would not otherwise be possible. Cloud computing, social media, video, email, mobile devices, apps, expansion of connectivity, through mobile networks, wireless, blue-tooth, have all contributed to a changed landscape for work and play.
Behind the social changes, technology enables work to be undertaken in a variety of places, on a variety of devices and with a greater number of people. Work can be done anywhere there is a connection and this is expanding all the time. Mainly this tends to be coffee shops, co-working spaces, home, trains, hotels, client premises, satellite offices, etc.
Whole industries are growing up around this, providing touch-down work space, virtual desktop and telecoms services, software and applications that mean each worker can carry their office around with them, wherever they go.
The benefits of agile working
Many companies are already out of the blocks as they have already seen the benefits of flexible working, which include happier and more productive employees and real estate cost savings. This is flexibility not just in terms of when you work but where you work, with measurement based on output rather than time at desk.
BT’s 2007 Workstlye case study (Flexible Working, 2007) clearly illustrate many of these points:
- 70% of staff are flexible workers
- Home working call centre operators handle 20% more calls than office-based staff
- Home workers take 63% less sick leave than office-based staff
- 99% retention rate following maternity leave
- Over €725m a year saved through reduced office estate
- €104m a year saved in reduced accommodation costs from home working
For small businesses and start-ups, the adoption of technology is fairly straightforward and low cost and the economic climate is not slowing down start-up rates: according to Start-up Britain, there were over 500,000 start-ups last year, as opposed to 484,224 in 2012 and 440,600 in 2011.
Small businesses are the backbone of the economy and if they are leaner and performing better, they are more likely to survive and make an ever greater contribution.
What is the future of work?
The office of the future is the ultimate in flexibility. Use of virtual desktop services, VOIP phones, soft phones, mobile phones and other mobile devices, cloud computing, will all play a part in creating your office wherever and whenever you need it to be. Location will depend on the nature and objective of the task, but could also depend on personality, mood and other commitments.
So the future of work may not require an office; indeed we may never see a full recovery of office space as we knew it before the recession, due to the cost, commitment and inflexibility of traditional office leasing. The many empty office buildings in Bristol alone (now turned into residential) were testament to this. However, offices will still work and still be needed: as an administrative, strategic and logistical hub: to facilitate meetings and collaborative work between colleagues and clients and as a place of work for those who cannot or don’t want to work from home.
This last point is interesting in that not everybody enjoys working from home and certainly not all the time. It can be a very isolating experience, many people struggle with self-discipline, knowledge-share and relationship-building are more difficult and it can be good to change environments when you change from work to family. In a recent study ‘Does working from home work?’* CTrip, Chinas largest travel agency, made some interesting discoveries. Although those who volunteered to work from home enjoyed the experience on the whole and became more productive, many decided they would prefer to be based at the office.
The future contains the office, but the office of the future will not contain everyone working in the organisation.
Alternatives to the office
There are various alternatives to a full time, dedicated office.
- Home-working – this is the first choice for many for convenience, avoiding the commute and working around family life. All that is required is, ideally, a separate working area, good broadband and at least one mobile device.
- Co-working – this is an open space with workstations, informal and formal meeting areas, possibly some smaller booths for concentration and support facilities like copying, fax, admin support, etc. Some will have mentoring, business support services and events, acting a lot like incubation hubs.
- Mobile working – there is usually a specific reason why people are mobile and sales representatives is the obvious example, although regional managers, exhibition company workers and trades people are further examples of those who are rarely in one place.
- Third places – an array of additional places to work include cafes, libraries, trains, client offices, etc.
- All of the above – many of course are using a mixture of these options.
Where do employers stand?
From the available research it is fairly obvious that employees get the idea of agile working. Business owners and managers, however, are still learning and can be resistant, doubting whether the starting gun will ever go off. An O2 study, in 2013, revealed that ‘whilst employees are ready to embrace new ways of working and understand the benefits, it is employers who are holding them back.’
The main issue here is trust. Employers find it hard to move from a closely supervised workforce, to remotely managed team where, it is assumed, staff will abuse the distance and not perform. On the other side of the trust exchange is that employees do worry that the distance will mean they are forgotten by their employers, their achievements not noticed and passed over for promotion.
This is why it is important to manage remote teams and that both parties need to learn new skills. Communication channels need to be clear and efficient, face to face time needs to be a part of the schedule, clear direction and expectations are needed for both sides, data needs to be central, secure, available to all wherever they work from and safe, the technology infrastructure has to facilitate this way of working.
UK, US and Europe finally coming out of recession – although slowly; developing countries growing; Asian manufacturing getting more expensive; other countries taking over; green technology; sustainability; commercial property prices still depressed; growing competition
Business owners and managers need to be aware of and responding to these changes. The flexible workforce is demanding attention and won’t wait for everyone to catch up but will gravitate towards organisations that show they understand. These employers will then attract and retain the best talent and leave others behind. Are you out of the blocks or still limbering up behind them?