Will the future of work be successful?

It was 35 years ago this month that Charles Handy envisioned the rise of the portfolio worker. This increasingly popular lifestyle choice favored by many has given rise to a thriving creative class.  Personified by treadmill-standing workstations, office-optional upstarts and a plethora of co-working spaces – flexibility has now become the norm.

What might our workplace look like in 2020? Today and progressively more in the future – work may be less about occupying a physical place, than it is concerned with a practice.  The shift in our working behavior takes many forms: whether it is the trendy technique of working remotely with a strong WI-FI connection and even stronger coffee, a routine of being present through an annual retreat, or a method of employing an ever expanding array of powerful technologies to enable and foster collaboration.

This shift is not limited to technology or software companies – the development spans all industries.  A recent report by Raconteur claims that more than 60 percent of senior professionals from across sectors believe that their work is shifting more towards an experience than a physical place. And nearly 80 percent said that a rise of the anytime-anywhere work trend powered by mobile technologies is expected.  In this new world of – it’s not where you are, it’s what you’re doing – there can be a host of repercussions to both your professional and your personal life.

Reinventing the Economy

Many large organizations with outdated operating systems and coinciding corporate work cultures are playing catch up – trying desperately to transform and stay relevant.  In stark contrast, are the nimble networks characteristic of the entrepreneurial revolution that is now taking place. In the UK alone there has been an explosion of micro businesses, from just 700,000 in 1980 to 5.1 million today. The limelight for the small business is finally here – according to the European Commission almost half of the UK economy can be attributed to small and medium sized businesses.

The new cohort of entrepreneurs, or Generation Flux, is defined not by their chronological age but by their willingness and ability to adapt. Being the maverick is no longer the name of the game – it’s belonging to a distinct group of people best poised to thrive in today’s world of high velocity change.

The emergence and popularity of corporate accelerators whether for big banks, mobile operators or mega brands, demonstrates the appetite to bridge the divide between startups and large corporations.  In its simplest form these programs aim to nurture innovation mindsets and practices that might yield new and valuable products and services. The jury is still out on whether these attempts to change the corporate status quo are weakened in trying to reserve risky activities for the sideline, or strengthened by creating an environment where anyone in an industry feels welcome to participate in its development.

If it is the latter, then new and progressive ways of operating could flourish, become embedded into the heart of an organization and actually help to democratize innovation.

Reviving Our Spaces

The landlords of the new economy – Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey of WeWork (Forbes, November 2014) – have concocted the magic sauce for optimum creative and collaborative workspace.  While less than two years ago it had only 9 locations it now has 60, making WeWork the fastest growing lessee of new space in America.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Nearly 6,000 shared office operations dot the globe today – compared with just 300 five years ago. Startup veteran Gary Mendell captures the current sentiment well:

“The old model of office space is dead.”

Where office spaces like WeWork cater to creative, tech and professionals alike, others are more pigeonholed and tailored to a given demographic.  This covers the spectrum- musicians, artists, females and more.  Others are premised around utility (virtual spaces, by the hour or through drop-ins).

There is also evidence of the changing nature of workspace in established organizations. New research from Cornell University’s Ergonomics Laboratory found that small investments in ergonomic features can boost a company’s productivity by an average of 12%.  Other experts explain that office temperature, lighting and even artwork on the wall can all contribute to increased productivity and feelings wellbeing.  A word of caution however warns Sam Sahni, a senior associate at office interior design Morgan Lovell:

“Although the intention, almost always, is for a workspace to be physically appealing for the end-users, a ‘cool’ workplace for one organization may appear as ‘gimmicky’ for another.”

Reclaiming Our Time

Leading thinker and media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff, sums up our current relationship to time when he writes:

“We may not know where we’re going anymore, but we’re going to get there a whole lot faster.  Yes, we may be in the midst of some great existential crisis, but we’re simply too busy to notice.”

As the standard 9-5 office hours become a thing of the past so too do the work cultures that accompany them.  This presents both a host of challenges as well as exciting new opportunities.  In one instance we jeopardize losing the social connections, the office banter, the free coffee, the toiling away of hours at a workstation amusing oneself with cat videos.  In another case we encounter a blurring between work and leisure through the promise of hyper-productivity of an always-on lifestyle enabled by mobile technologies.

Busyness is the new cool. Entrepreneurs by necessity have a different work ethic all together, as writer Ali Mese sums up eloquently:

 “Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.” 

What is evident is that ever since the clock was introduced to coordinate labor, and in effect to store time – we have adopted the mindset that time is money. Our hours, days and workweeks are quantified in terms of profitability and hence related to value.  A recent article in The Economist captures yet another layer associated with city dwellers:

“Larger, wealthy cities, with their higher wage rates and soaring costs of living, raise the value of people’s time further still. New Yorkers are thriftier with their minutes—and more harried—than residents of Nairobi. London’s pedestrians are swifter than those in Lima.”

As we see our working practices develop into the future we face a decisive fork in the road concerning our domineering behavior.  On one path, we allow technology to dictate our working life and the complementary feeling that being busy is benevolent.  On the other trail, our experience of the present precedes the clock, and the ability to always be connected.  Here, we truly engage with and enjoy both work and play.

Better Ways

Enter the new purpose driven economy.  Value-led organizations putting purpose before profit (think Patagonia) and long term visions (think Cisco). The design of future businesses will focus on 5 P’s: Purpose, People, Product, Profit and Process. These forward thinking organization with evolutionary businesses models understand the need, more so than ever, to constantly transform:

“The nature of change is changing because the flow and control of information has become turbulent, no longer flowing top-down, but flowing in every direction at all times.  This means that the ability to manage and lead change is no longer based on messaging, communication and traditional sponsorship. Rather it is based on processes of informing, enrolling and adapting that are significantly more disruptive and difficult to manage for executives and leaders.”  – Mark McDonald, Gartner, IT Research and Advisory

Shifting established business practices that allow for more doubt and enquiry requires a shift in our policies and approaches.  The old businesses that fuel them no longer lend themselves well to a market that favors speed and collaboration.  What’s required for a future of healthy businesses and the working environments that spawn from them is a challenge to the established culture of covering your ass:

“The industrial economy was all about knowing the answer and expressing confidence. If you did your homework you were supposed to know. If you had unanswered questions that meant you did a bad job and wouldn’t’ get rewarded.” – Eric Reiss, Author of The Lean Startup

According to Vygeny Kaganer, Javier Zamora and Sandra Stieber in Rotman Management – the designing, deploying, and managing of businesses models is more important today than at another time in business history.  They explain that an organization’s digital density is measured by the capacity to enable workers to exercise their freedom, creativity and initiative:

 “The digital revolution has [forced many companies] into unfamiliar territory.  A company that has figured out the basic questions of digital density and purpose is in a better position to handle unsettling new questions such as “What business are we in now?”

A Word of Caution

With the rise of digital personal assistants, or Siri on steroids, and the popularity of outsourcing our work and personal affairs – for the attraction increased productivity we risk losing a part of our humanity.  Being connected is different than feeling it.

The psychological contract between employer and employee is under threat as loyalty based contracts and the security they provide are replaced by less formal contracts and potentially less commitment to a given organization.  For some, the uncertainty around income levels will be tantamount while the more transactional oriented will welcome the bonuses, stock options and flexible working that accompany the new paradigm.

With more highly skilled – hyper specialized – portfolio workers sitting at the top of the employment pyramid, an unevenly distributed economy also may emerge. This translates into restricted opportunities for middle workers, moving them down to roles that require lesser skills and fail to utilize their full potential.  As to the insurgence of artificial intelligence and a digital future powered by smart algorithms – in contrast to human choice – we may lose the need for some highly capable jobs altogether.

What is certain are the 3 pillars in our working life that Generation X and now Y will continue to champion.  According to authority on the subject, Daniel Pink, these are 1) Purpose; 2) Autonomy and; 3) Mastery.  As we aim to align these characteristics in the work that we do, we stand to also find work that holds enduring meaning.

Join Social Fabric on March 26th, 2015 for a panel discussion on the Future of Work with leaders from Hyper Island, WeWork and more. Further information available here.

Interested in workspace? Get in touch.