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6 radical changes coming to the world of work

7 Sep 2018

The changes currently shaping the workplace from within can potentially impact society at large.

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What do you define as ‘radical’? Is it radical for workers to demand better work-life balance? Is equal pay for equal work a wild concept? Would enabling people to find work that works for them be too much to ask for?

Much of the focus on the topic of ‘future of work’ is on technological changes and their impact. These tools are reshaping the workplace from within, but so are the people. New tools but also new demands from the workforce require new structures and practices to address them.

1. The end of the standard working week

This year, a trust company in New Zealand famously trialled a four-day working week for its 240 staff. To ensure productivity wouldn’t drop, employees found ways to make more of their shorter week through automation and increased focus on the work at hand. Following the trial, the ‘life satisfaction’ of staff at Perpetual Guardian had increased while stress had decreased.

Despite these positive results, Perpetual Guardian has not itself implemented a permanent four-day working week, and the truth is there are practical roadblocks to just how much we can shave off an average working week. Nonetheless, flexibility is an increasing demand from the workforce and the advances of time-saving automation technology coupled with the ability to work remotely and adapt to time-shifted collaboration make it feasible.

Of course, these proposed changes would largely affect the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday Dolly Parton version of an office worker, but for a truly radical shift we need to restructure working calendars in a way that respects work-life balance in all roles.

‘Organisations need to trust that people can and will get their work done from anywhere’

“The demand for shorter working weeks and increased flexibility is coming from people,” said Tara Levins, who leads Future Workforce at Accenture Ireland. “Millennials are demanding better work-life balance and more flexibility in the way they work. There are more and more families with both parents working who need flexibility to care for their children.”

Levins pointed to recent research published by the Workforce Institute, which found that 45pc of workers surveyed believe that they can do their job in less than five hours a day.

“To enable this flexibility, organisations need to look at their culture. Trust and transparency is key. Organisations need to trust that people can and will get their work done from anywhere,” she added.

2. Universal basic income

Next, we turn to Finland for another ‘future of work’ experiment, as the Finnish government recently piloted a project where 2,000 unemployed people were given a set basic income of €560 per month for two years. The official findings from researchers studying this project are expected next year, though the Finnish government has already moved on to new plans.

Futurist Martin Ford addressed a common criticism of universal basic income (UBI) – that too many people would be “riding in the economic cart” and not enough pulling it – in his 2017 TED talk. “In the future, machines are increasingly going to be capable of pulling that cart for us. That should give us more options for the way we structure our society and our economy,” he said.

This restructuring, Ford continued, is “imperative” whether it be through UBI or other means. “Because jobs are that mechanism that gets purchasing power to consumers so they can then drive the economy. If, in fact, that mechanism begins to erode in the future, then we’re going to need to replace it with something else or we’re going to face the risk that our whole system simply may not be sustainable,” he explained.

3. A permanent state of overwork

You may not yet be familiar with karōshi, the Japanese term for death by overwork, but it’s an unfortunate reality that is helped into being by an always-on, non-stop working culture.

The very technologies we’ve introduced to allow for flexibility in the workplace have also blurred the lines between working lives and personal lives, making it harder to strike a balance between the two. In many cases, the dogged attitude of those who sacrifice social bonds and basic needs such as a satisfying lunch break now and then has become a boastful celebration when it should be critiqued.

Disentangling yourself from ‘work mode’ when you are technically always a few clicks away is difficult, and being perennially ‘on call’ can leave your body in a state of persistent, heightened stress.

The issue of overworking is particularly pernicious when we consider the projected rise of precarious work. Zero-hour contracts, if-and-when work offers and the gig economy are not necessarily new concepts, but they have had a 21st-century revision. Piecemeal work is out there if you can get it, and you might have to undercut your competitors and stretch your working hours to do so.

4. Honesty and transparency

Call it #TimesUp, call it the #MeToo movement, call it cop on – a radical shift is happening across society when it comes to the call for equality.

Governments such as the UK now demand that companies of a certain size report their gender pay gap data so that this insidious problem can be held up to the light and examined. Some companies are even coming clean of their own will.

In lieu of good faith and state intervention, this shift can surge from the ground up. In the case of the BBC women’s pay dispute, secure spreadsheets shared among colleagues allowed them to divulge and compare their own salaries, collating the data that backed up their calls for reform.

Aside from the diversity and inclusion reforms that require honesty and transparency in their foundation, there are workforce demands for an employer of integrity. More than ever, major companies are being interrogated by the public and by regulators on their environmental and social impacts. The choice is to own up and make positive commitments, or be found out and suffer the consequences.

5. Biohacking for productivity

In a PwC report exploring work-life scenarios in 2030, one projection sees the trend of chemically enhanced productivity already seen in Silicon Valley becoming a global workplace norm. In fact, among thousands surveyed, 70pc would consider using treatments to enhance their brain and body if this improved employment prospects in the future.

Workers at the vanguard of this trend – you might call them early adopters – are taking nootropics, implanting RFID chips in their bodies and microdosing with psychedelics such as LSD on the promise of improved focus and creativity.

Science might turn this last trend around, though, as there’s no body of evidence to support the idea that microdosing LSD impacts your productivity, and a study investigating the effects is currently underway.

6. Learning for life

Notably, what we have not yet discussed for this prospective future is the idea of a human-machine collaborative workforce. At this point, that future seems inevitable, but the discussion has now centred on the imminent backlash the implementation of automation and AI will bring from those displaced by it.

“With change there is fear – this is human nature. So, there will inevitably be some backlash about machines ‘taking our jobs’,” said Levins. However, citing Accenture’s recent Reworking the Revolution research, Levins sees “a very optimistic picture” based on continuous learning and development.

“Of the 14,000 employees we surveyed around the world, 67pc of workers consider it important to develop their own skills to be able to work with intelligent machines in the next three to five years. Millennials strongly support this view (75pc) but even 56pc of baby boomers do as well.”

For Levins, this research shows that workers are willing to embrace AI and automation, but leaders need to grasp the opportunity.

“To achieve this, they need to invest in reskilling their workers and give them the opportunities to engage with the new technology. However, our findings indicate that only 3pc of the 1,200 executives surveyed say they intend to significantly increase investment in training and reskilling programmes in the next three years. This is a big disconnect – while people are eager to learn, organisations are underestimating the investment required in their people.”

Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke was editor of Silicon Republic until 2023, and is now the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. Elaine joined Silicon Republic in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She later served as managing editor before stepping up as editor in 2019. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

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