Future Perspectives: The Future of Work

At this time of year it’s interesting to look back at the year so far and see what themes have dominated or been significant. What has struck me is that directly and indirectly much of my time has been spent this year on the future of work.

It’s 25 years since I first spoke at a telework conference. We’ve been debating and trying to understand the nature of work for at least that period. The days of the 9–5 job, career for life, where work is defined by time and place have been eroded steadily and the advent of mobile computing and wireless access on trains, for instance, means that people can ‘work’ while travelling to ‘work’.

The concerns over the ‘always on’, digitally addicted 24-hour on-call workplace gets much media coverage.

This year there seems to be a broadening of the agenda and the scope of the changes seems to be hitting organisations in every sector.

In the 1990s, I felt that the description of the internet and the World Wide Web as a new ‘industrial revolution’ didn’t chime with my experience. I have for a long time argued that the era we are living in is much more akin to the Renaissance than to the Industrial Revolution.

Many of the people who seemed to me to thrive in the new world have broad technical and creative skills, more aligned with Renaissance man and woman than the C.P. Snow arguments over the two cultures.

I have visited many workplaces with visible signs that things are changing. Sandpits in reception, ball pits in the boardroom and ‘always available’ Caramel Macchiato show that ‘we are different’.

When asked why, the answer is usually couched in terms of ‘creativity’. Yet I’ve been to dingy, chaotic and depressing offices where the staff are switched on, energetic and clearly enjoying producing creative output. At the same time, some of the hightech environments have been accompanied by cultures so driven that the likelihood of any serious creativity is miniscule. Often I’ve come away clearer about what these workplaces are not, rather than what they are.

An example from this year illustrates the challenge in creating digital workplaces. An organisation I know has three times as many people working on its projects as it employs directly. The majority are freelance. How do you create high performance teams that might never meet? How do you manage the risks when key individuals are not employed and can just walk out? How do you build reward systems to keep a team of 10 people, including 8 freelancers, focused on a 12-month project?

In professional services, the arrival of automation is challenging the business models and the skill sets required from newly hired graduates. Staff recruited in the last few years might not have the right skills for the next five years. How do you develop the people while also being busy delivering day-to-day business?

In the broader economy, we see official figures suggesting record numbers of people in work, yet no increase in the tax base and at the same time persistent low productivity. Is the new work environment capturing the productivity of new ways of working? I suspect that this is not the case.

I find many organisations deeply uncomfortable about the changes that we are experiencing, whether large or small, private, public or third sector. At the heart of this concern lies a common theme that the existing management approaches and culture doesn’t deliver what is needed.

Help is at hand! I’ve just read a well-researched and practical book by Paul Miller and Elizabeth Marsh: The Digital Renaissance of Work. I confess that it was the word ‘Renaissance’ that attracted my attention.

What appeals to me about this book is that it avoids thoroughly the technological determinist approach and looks at collaboration, teamwork and so on from a human perspective, aided by technology. It also avoids the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy that there is a fixed quantity of work in the economy or a firm.

The book’s starting point is that there is a lot of work around, but not necessarily jobs. In a world of portfolio work and freelancing this seems closer to the mark than traditional models.

There is some practical guidance on how to start the development, building the business case and how to measure progress.

Importantly, they don’t claim to have all the answers and leave some open questions. I think that’s the right approach. However, looking back at my year, if I’d read this in January I might have been more insightful.

The principle case studies are all large private sector organisations. Some of the thinking would probably need to be adapted to suit the reality better in some public and third-sector organisations. However, the overall framework looks pretty robust.

For any organisation trying to get beyond the visual symbols of new ways of working to deliver high-performance workplaces that are manageable and deliver for staff and customers, this is the most coherent and pragmatic text I’ve come across.

Certainly, as a freelancer, sometimes working with large organisations, the approach outlined here would make it easier to be effective and productive in multi-organisation projects.

Chris Yapp has blogged for BCS for over six years on the future of technology and how the economic and social impacts of technical developments may play out. Find out more about Future Perspectives.