Revolution in work within next decade?

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In the 21st century, we still cling to a rigid model of fixed working time and place better suited to the industrial age. Long hours are often required and rewarded without any measure of the productivity involved. But a revolution in work that will see many employees decide when, where and how they do their jobs could well take place within the next decade. It’s already happening in some organisations. Offices are shifting from being nine-to-five workplaces to meeting places, and successful businesses of the future will be those that measure and reward people by results, rather than hours.

These are just some of the ideas that I and my co-author, Peter Thomson of Henley Business School, put forward in a new book published this month. In Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, we argue that a radical change in working practices will help businesses boost output, cut costs, speed access to new markets, and afford employees greater freedom.

The book comes off the back of overwhelming evidence that employees are more productive if they have greater autonomy over where, when and how they work. Trusting people to manage their own work lives, individually or in teams, pays off. This could see the traditional 9-5 working day disappear and be replaced with a model that rewards people by performance and results, rather than hours worked and presence in the office.

At Google, engineers are already judged on what they produce, not where or when they do it. They can be nocturnal workers, providing they co-ordinate with colleagues and deliver what they’ve agreed.

There are several keys to successful implementation of ‘future work’. The first is that it requires leadership from the top of the organisation. You also need to treat it as a business strategy. Then you have to measure people on performance and output. By agreeing what needs to be achieved, managers can set their employees free from the constraints of ‘presenteeism’ – the belief that they must be present in the workplace, often for long hours, regardless of whether there is work to do – and allow them to work more productively. This often requires a big change in management attitudes, and managers may need help to overcome their fear of losing control of their team.

But it produces significant results. Gap, the clothing retailer, halved the rate of loss of employees in the production and design department of its Outlet division in California when it introduced a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). ‘It’s like being back at college’ says Eric Severson, senior vice-president of HR & Communications at GAP. ‘People are held accountable for what they achieve rather than how much time they spend on a project or where they work’. Gap executives believe the approach has given them a three-year competitive advantage.

In addition to improvements in productivity, the business benefits of ‘future work’ include major cost savings on real estate, particularly beneficial to business in difficult economic times, and on employee turnover and absenteeism.

A study of 24,000 IBM staff worldwide found that those with flexible working could work an extra 19 hours a week before experiencing the same levels of stress and health issues as those without it.

The growth of ‘future work’ will also see more work being done remotely and more ‘work hubs’ - specially designed workspaces equipped with the technology to support mobile workers. Instead of being the location where employees gather at fixed times to do concentrated work, the office could become primarily a place for developing and maintaining connections between people.

In the Netherlands, Microsoft has designed its building near Schiphol airport for a world in which work is independent of time and location. It’s primarily made up of different spaces for meeting, with just a few stations for concentrated work. The Macquarie Group, a global financial services company based in Australia, has adopted ‘activity-based’ working. Everyone uses a laptop so people can choose places for their changing needs during the day – from meeting rooms and themed breakout areas to quiet zones and cafes.

We believe that a switch to ‘future work’ could be just around the corner. Of more than 360 international managers surveyed from 40 countries, two-thirds believe there will be a revolution in working practices in the next decade. Nearly 90% believe people are more productive given autonomy over their working patterns and over 80% also think new ways of working would benefit their business.

It takes bold leadership to break with old habits, but today’s workforce wants a new deal and it makes business sense to do it. Organisations that have discovered this are already reaping the rewards. Those that have not are in danger of being overtaken by events.

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