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Writing about the future of work naturally prompts reflection on how the world is changing. In many ways it’s changing at breakneck speed. Yet in other ways, it’s not changing at all, or too slowly to make the most of new possibilities. We see this very much in the world of work.
Flexible working was an oddity 20 or so years ago when I began working in this field. Now it’s part of the mainstream, offered by most large organisations and adopted organically by many small businesses. Yet still people need to be persuaded that flexibility should be a ‘normal’ way of working, rather than something granted as an exception on a case by case basis. New technologies are making a big difference to the way we work.
New communications technologies, new portable devices and moving physical resources to electronic environments enables people to have much more freedom about where they are able to work. New work environments based on ‘activity-based working’ enable us to move away from the century-old office paradigm of rows of desks + formal meeting rooms + file storage. Instead we have offices with (much) less focus on the desk and instead a range of spaces for collaboration, quiet high-focus working, project rooms, combined café/work settings, breakout areas, wellbeing facilities and so forth.
Add to this the ability to work almost anywhere away from the office, and we have the evolution of flexible working called ‘smart’ or ‘agile’ working. The potential to rethink how we work, where we work, when we work and why we work is immense. Yet most organisations approach smart working with extreme caution. At times it seems that each one wishes to reinvent the wheel. People cling to their desks – both artefact and symbol of their old ways of working – as if it’s the only thing that will keep them afloat amidst the tides of change.
The changes we have seen, though, are just the beginning. New and much more immersive forms of communication will greatly improve the experience and increase the functionality of working remotely. From intelligent surfaces to whole-wall screens to 3D telepresence to holopresence, we are about to progress from ‘flexibility as normal’ to ‘virtuality as normal’.
The generations going through school and university at the moment are much more accustomed culturally to virtual interactions as normal and they are doing it with pretty basic technology compared to the ones coming over the horizon. Artificial intelligence and robotics are also making a difference to who does what when, where and how. And with whom. Just as robotics has revolutionised manufacturing and distribution, it is making an impact on all aspects of knowledge work. Any work that can be automated, will be.
Turning up in the office to push paper around will fade into memory. However, having people who can supervise the automated workflow, help machines to analyse the output and innovate to improve the processes will be in demand. And such people can pretty much work from anywhere. Similarly with much high skilled work such as surgery. With the aid of robotic machines that achieve a precision the human hand cannot achieve, surgeons will increasingly be able to work from anywhere, alongside people who are physically present with the patient. Already there are many people involved in remote diagnostics in various fields who work remotely.
Culturally, though, we are lagging behind the possibilities. If organisations are slow to change, public policy is even slower. For example, I read article after article talking about building more homes, but no one seems to be asking “what kinds of homes” except in terms of tenancy and ownership. What kinds of homes do we need to support economic development locally, given that so many work activities can be carried out remotely?
Clearly homes with space to work or run a business for those that want to do so, alongside family life. Similarly, what kind of workplaces do we need? The fastest growing kind of workspace at the moment – though still overall a small segment of the market – is the workhub sector (also called co-working). That’s shared workspace, where people take out membership to touch down to work or rent space on an as-needed basis. Again, this would help local economic and community development and help to counter any risk of isolation amongst remote workers.
And how does public space need to be reconceived if people want to work on the move, or away from both the office and home? There is much scope for innovation here, but planners and developers alike seem to have mindsets rooted in the 20th century. The fastest growing kind of workspace at the moment – though still overall a small segment of the market – is the workhub sector (also called co-working). That’s shared workspace, where people take out membership to touch down to work or rent space on an as-needed basis.
There are other issues we need to address too. Like the amount of time that is considered the default working week. The Swedish six-hour day has attracted attention. And the New Economics Foundation’s proposals for a standard ‘21 hours’ or three-day working week is something we’re sure to be discussing as robotics and AI impact on the labour market and the demands for skills change rapidly over the next 10 years. So – we need to be both flexible and smart if we are to adapt to and make the most of these changes. Approached positively, the changing nature of work over the next decade can support a way of life that integrates work and the rest of life in a way that enhances personal aspirations, equality of opportunity, family life and reinvigorated instead of dormitory communities.