Some 30 years ago, it was believed that technology would change the way we work: more automation, more part-time jobs, the paperless office, etc.
Of course, these changes are nearly always more evolution than revolution and often don’t turn out quite in the way originally envisaged.
However, a few large companies have pioneered new ways of working and many more appear to be following suit.
What has changed?
Social and technological developments have contrived to create a situation where workers both want to change the way they are expected to work and have the tools available to achieve this.
With the family model of only one parent (mainly the father) at work being thrown into disarray by the Second World War, women have increasingly taken their place in the workforce. Our economy has grown with this development to reach a stage where many families could not survive without two salaries.
For some time many parents have put up with this, but younger generations coming into the workforce are rightly saying there has to be a better way. They want to work more around their partner’s and children’s lives and create a balance that is good for them and the family as a whole.
Employment law has also evolved to protect women at work and provide far greater flexibility in relation to childcare. The final missing link was the technology to enable and empower a more mobile, flexible, autonomous workforce.
The technology at work
First, came the internet. It took a while to develop, having first been around since the 60’s. Then we had mobiles – although the first mobile phones stretched the term ‘mobile’ to the limit. Networks and electronic engineering developed rapidly, however, and we now have near ubiquitous coverage and pocket sized phones.
Similarly wireless networks and the cloud (again, not new, but newly modified) have given us more choice about where we can work and how we can access our work.
The workforce can now work from home, from cafés, hotels, client premises, trains, planes and automobiles.
Is this the end of the office?
Humans are social animals. For the most part, we need physical contact and work better as part of a group. The office is not going to go away, because it is a convenient base for administrative functions, planning and meeting superiors, colleagues, clients, etc.
However, there is no need to be there at set times, in set places, to perform set tasks in set ways.
The technology now enables us to work from smaller interfaces: laptops, net-books, tablets, mobile phones and from many more locations: anywhere there is wireless and/or mobile network.
Now, a typical flexible worker might work for a couple of hours in the morning, before taking the children to school, after which they put in a few more hours before meeting friends for lunch and doing a bit of shopping, Skype with the team, enjoy late afternoon and early evening with the family before checking emails and getting a couple of jobs off their ‘to-do’ list after supper.
They might have meetings in the office once a week or month, chat with colleagues about projects via telephone, video conferencing, Skype, social media, etc and perhaps hot-desk in the office now and then.
Benefits to the business
It is not just about saving money. Early pioneers in this practice include BT, Microsoft, Orange, Vodafone and Hewlett Packard.
Their experiences, along with a great deal of supporting research, show that while money is saved on real estate, utilities and infrastructure (this is despite money needing to be spent ensuring staff have training and all the right hardware, software and equipment), there are also increases in staff engagement, morale and productivity.
This has a direct impact on staff attraction, motivation and retention; employing the best staff and lowering the churn rate improves business performance and saves time and money on recruitment. It can also change staff engagement; some employees may be happier to work on a self-employed basis, with contracts based on specific projects or terms.
In turn, these improvements make companies more agile: they can adapt to changes in their environment and client needs; service existing markets over an extended area and move faster into new markets; grow when business demands and contract when it doesn’t; and minimise interruption through improved disaster recovery ability.
For organisations seeking to improve their environmental credentials, there are also benefits in reducing their real estate footprint, utilities bills and staff commuting levels. Fewer cars on the road reduce emissions and fuel requirements as well as reducing congestion.
Is this your business?
There is no doubt in my mind that this is the future of work. As a provider of office space, it means I am going to have to ensure I keep abreast of these changes and offer what businesses will, increasingly, need.
However, with a sea change in how people view their working lives and technology as enabler, we are all going to have to look at the best ways to work.
If we are all prepared to measure staff by performance rather than time present and trust people to not abuse the autonomy they are given, then the truly flexible worker can become the norm and we will all benefit.
Member since: 15th February 2012
Marketer, content creator, social media enthusiast, business agility specialist and interested in the future of work. Currently Director of Agile Business Partnership CIC offering specialist advice on...