The future of work

Image of people at work in the background with technology overlay indicating techposter syndrome


How will we all be working in the future? Best-selling business writer Alison Maitland has seen the future and she says offices will become no more than meeting places and flexible working will be the norm.

Maitland argues persuasively in her new book, Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, co-authored with Peter Thomson, that the traditional 9 to 5 will be the exception in the future because the business case for flexibility will become overwhelming.

The book’s publication is timely. It will be out on 7th October, just two days after Maitland is keynote speaker at this year’s Top Employer Awards. The Awards promote best practice in flexible working and work life balance and that is exactly what Maitland’s book aims to do.

She says the title of the book says it all. It is about “future work” rather than “flexible working” which still has connotations of mums working part time. “We think this is how most people will be working in the future, but there is quite a lot of planning and leadership necessary to get to that point,” she says. “It is not automatic and it’s not the conventional idea of flexible working. It’s about making new ways of working part of an organisation’s overall business strategy rather than the HR strategy.”

She adds: “A lot of flexible working is currently organised via HR and is seen as an arrangement for employees. That has worked for many individuals, but a lot of people are frightened to ask for it. They think there will be a stigma attached. There are, however, very strong business reasons to transform the way we work and change management practice.”

These include boosting productivity, lowering overheads by reducing an organisation’s estate and enabling people to leave manageable lives. Another key benefit is environmental – by encouraging more people to work from home or locally you cut traffic and pollution.

It’s about managing by results and by performance rather than by time spent in a particular location, says Maitland. “Many organisations have teams that work across borders. You cannot micro-manage what people do on an hourly basis in different locations,” she says. She admits, though, that managers are scared of losing control, but says the new style of management is one that should be founded on trust. “This way of management has been preached by good management teachers for the last 50 years,” she says. “Management built on trust leads to more motivated staff and people who are willing to take the initiative.”


Maitland says more support is needed to train managers to implement new ways of managing staff. For the book, she and Thomson did a survey of managers. They found most managers didn’t get much training in managing remote staff. “The companies we spoke to who are leading the way spend a lot of time with their senior and middle managers talking through their fears and about the benefits of new ways of working. One company brought in a blind climber who talked about what it is like when every step you take could lead to your death. It really helped managers to overcome their fears about letting go, which is their default mechanism at the moment because it is how they are trained.”

The new style of management is about creating a new set of rules to make work more efficient, says Maitland. This touches on all aspects of how we currently work, including meetings. “The need to meet face to face will not disappear entirely,” she says, “but not all meetings have to be face to face. Offices will become meeting places with colleagues and clients rather than the places where you do all your work,” she says. “A lot of face to face meetings are pointless.”

She says management will need to focus more on how to motivate and inspire staff, on understanding team members and preventing remote workers from becoming isolated or overworking, which research shows is much more of a danger than the opposite. “It’s about treating people as individuals and understanding the different ways people work best,” she says. “Some people are more alive and creative in the evenings. Some people can only work to deadline with someone breathing down their neck. A lot of the skills managers will need are about understanding what motivates their staff.”

She adds that they will also need to be good communicators and not be so hung up on the trappings of status since the new style is more about people working in networks than in hierarchies. “Communication is vital in a remote team,” she says. “You can get away with poor communication in an office, but the new ways of working will separate the poor people managers from the good ones.”

She agrees that some employees will need help to work in new ways. Younger Generation Y people will be able to adapt easily as they are comfortable with virtual relationships and social media. They expect to work flexibly, but she adds that older workers are likely to want to change their work patterns as they get older and the retirement age extends. Interestingly, women may be ahead of the game in new ways of working since they have tended to be the early adopters of flexible working. Plus the new collaborative network style of working and leadership “plays to women’s traditional strengths”. She cites recent research from the Institute of Leadership and Management showing that employees believe female CEOs were more in touch with their people than male ones.

Breaking down barriers

Maitland says that future work will break down the barriers between part-time and full-time work which will also help women, who have faced being sidelined because they chose to work part time. “People will be judged on projects and tasks they perform so it will matter far less if it is done in a three- or four-day week,” she says, citing innovative work by Microsoft in the Netherlands where it is ok for staff to take time off in the middle of the week to, say, play tennis, as long as they meet their objectives. “Our whole lives are ruled by time at the moment. It’s about getting away from that,” she says.

For the book, the authors interviewed people in many companies. Best practice examples included IBM, 60 per cent of whose workforce is mobile. They had a policy of keeping a close eye to ensure mobile workers were not overworking. Maitland says overworking is something companies will need to address. With employees working across different time zones they can end up getting up at the crack of dawn for conference calls in the Far East and then doing late night calls with the US. It all needs to be properly managed to avoid burn out.

Maitland says that, contrary to what might be expected, it was not just technology firms which led the field in best practice since they had a vested interest in promoting mobile working. Moreover, not all technology are good at new ways of working. The authors chose models from different sectors and were impressed with the innovation going on across a broad range of organisations. Unilever, for instance, was aiming to make 30 per cent of its roles location free and were keen to promote the idea that work is not a place but an activity.

Maitland feels that the recession has not had too much of an impact on the adoption of flexible working. Those who were innovating have continued to do so. To some degree, she says, it may have speeded up the transition because of the emphasis on increasing productivity.

She says that in terms of British government policy, there needs to be a change in mindset about flexible working. “Legislation is good to prevent exploitation and protect vulnerable people,” she says, “but it tends to entrench the idea in employers’ minds that flexible working is something mums want to help them look after kids and elderly parents, that it is an employee benefit with costs for the employer. It is coming at it from the wrong angle. It would be more helpful if they emphasised the organisations who are revolutionising the way work is done so they can see the business benefits.”

The Government could also support smart working centres so people can work closer to home. The Netherlands has a lot of satellite work places and even South Korea, which has the longest working hours and lowest productivity rate of OECD countries, is starting to plan for this, she says.

“Flexible working legislation is tinkering at the edges. It is not about fundamentally changing the way we work,” she says.

To find out more about the Top Employer Awards 2011, click here. Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, co-authored by Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson, is published by Palgrave Macmillan price £18.99.

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