Some thoughts on the future world of work

I have been absolutely useless at blogging recently, largely because there has been so little time and head-space for it. If I thought I was taking a career break to take it easy, I was very much mistaken!

Although Semester 2 has just started, there was no real Winter Break for the EMA cohort, with intensive courses all through June and July. We just finished one on the Secret Life of Organisations, which I found utterly fascinating and will probably be the broad domain for any future research, if that’s the route I decide to take.

While reading the final set reading for the course, Workplace 2025–—What will it look like? by Linda Gratton (Organizational Dynamics (2011) 40, 246-254) I came across the following paragraph:

[At] the U.K. telecom company BT ,…flexible working has been embedded across all the corporation through home-based working, flexible and part-time work, and job sharing. BT found that the real win occurred when senior executives became role models for flexible working, and when it was conclusively shown that those who work flexibly are up to 20 percent more productive and significantly less likely to leave the company . This wide-scale adoption began after a series of trials in which BT employees began to discover new and more flexible ways of working, with the real shift coming from measuring output instead of measuring input. At first, employees working from home or working flexible hours found it difficult to escape the engrained attendance mindset. However , once the metric of value had been explicitly inverted from time to output, then flexibility became more acceptable. A second breakthrough came when the executive team at BT decided that it was the responsibility of the employee to present a business case that illustrated the personal, collegial and organizational benefits of working flexibly . Over time, these initial experiments became custom and practice, with over 20,000 people from all generations working on tailored flexible working programs.

I’ve highlighted the three sections I think are particularly salient. Firstly, flexible working isn’t some kind of sop to working women, or a way to appear progressive. It makes a difference to productivity and staff turnover, two crucial factors for any organsiation, public or private. Secondly, I believe we have to move away from a mindset where presence and process is all that is measured, towards one more focused on outcomes and outputs. I admit this is not easy in an organisation where there is no money coming in, like the one I used to work in, but I truly believe it is worth the effort. Measuring our worth to an organisation by the amount of time we spend at a desk, or the number of pieces of paper we move from one place to another just seems anachronistic. Thirdly, there is a cultural change that is necessary and the senior management have to be on board with that. I have been lucky enough to have a number of managers, since the very earliest days, that trusted me to be working out of the office when that is what I said I was doing. And of course, they saw the results. But it is still the case that people have called me when I am working from home and said “sorry to bother you”. I’m WORKING, it’s fine to call me! For some, there is an implicit assumption that if you are working from home, it’s because there is some other priority. Sometimes, often in fact, I work from home because work is my priority and I can do it better there.

Gratton’s article (very interesting if you can get your hands on it) highlights three major factors that will affect the future of work: technology, globalisation and carbon. The third of these is another reason why working outside the office is going to become so important. How many times did I think, as I stood on the train to Cannon Street, squeezed in with hundreds of others, ‘Why are we all doing this? Why are literally millions of us all spending 2 or more hours a day travelling to and from an office to do things we can do as well, or better, walking distance from home?’. There are of course reasons to go into the office – meetings, interaction with staff and colleagues, for example – and occupations where you can’t work from home, but for a large proportion of us, it’s an option. And think of the impact it would have on any major city’s public transport and road systems if hundreds of thousands of people were removed from rush-hour.

Looking to my future, I’m still not sure what it holds. But I’m pretty sure I want to work in a place that allows me to organise myself best to deliver what is expected of me, rather than somewhere that focuses on desk- and clock-watching.