Future of work: What matters?

Future of work: What matters?

I’m working on a talk on the future of work at the moment, to be presented alongside my client Tarkett at Clerkenwell Design Week. The core of this talk is about the alignment of what is good for organisations and what is good for the people that work for them.

The UK has something of an adversarial history in this field, at least over the recent past. The rights of workers are often perceived as being at odds with the needs of the business. The result is constant combat with employers begrudgingly releasing greater flexibility, leave, pay and other benefits.

Of course, not every organisation operates like this. There are companies in the UK, and many more abroad, who take a more collaborative approach, recognising that the organisation can benefit when workers are happy and engaged. This is no panacea, as I’ve noted before: happy workers often risk complacency. But it’s increasingly clear that a more collaborative relationship will be the right approach for the future.

The reasons for this are manifold, but I will pick on two.

Human interactions in an hourglass economy

Firstly, there is the changing nature of job roles. The UK has exemplified the ‘hour glass’ shift away from middle-skilled jobs, into high and low skilled. Where other countries have seen much more of a shift into high skilled work, in the UK the split is roughly even.

What is important to note about both groups of jobs is that they involve interfacing with people as much or more than machines and will do so increasingly. Middle-skilled jobs often involved knowledge of specific machinery, whether it was a lathe or a typewriter. The growth in low-skilled jobs is more about knowing people: care, service, food and drink. At the high end, even roles like software development are increasingly collaborative rather than solo pursuits.

If you’re going to build a business that is driven by human interactions, then it pays, over the long term, to underpin those interactions with a genuine enthusiasm for the work.

Maximising productivity

The UK’s poor productivity is a much discussed subject. Why do we toil more hours here for less reward? If we are to tackle this, then more flexible work seems to be part of the solution. Consensus now is that far from limiting productivity, flexible working actually boosts it.

The conversation about flexible working is usually tied to issues of family, helping people to balance work with home life. But I think there is a real conversation to be had about allowing people to work when they are most productive. We’re all different and 9–5 is a very poor fit for some people’s body clock, me included.

7AM to 11AM I am generally at my best, creatively, working at a furious pace. But after that I need food and a nap before continuing. This might be acceptable in a Silicon Valley tech firm (though they probably expect most people to be there from 7AM to 7PM anyway), but it’s not exactly normal in a UK business. At least, not yet.

Too often we are focused on outputs, not outcomes, to borrow a favoured phrase from impact consultant, Monika Neall (whose husband I happen to be). We worry about people being present and completing assigned tasks, not what they actually do for the business.

Give people more responsibility for results and control of their hours, and they will both me more engaged in the business and deliver more.

This post forms part of my Future Human series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future Human page.

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Tom Cheesewright