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Why the way we work has to change

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Authors of Future Work, Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson discuss with me how businesses can adapt and thrive in the new world of work. Research undertaken for the book has found that two thirds of the companies surveyed predict a revolution within a decade.

Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson

AG: What prompted you to write the book?

We had both written before and follow how the working environment is developing, we found that there is a serious gap in knowledge within managers on how to incorporate the changes we were seeing. There should be a Management and Leadership 2.0 or ’How to’ for employers to incorporate work changes.

AG: What’s causing work to change?

The main forces driving workplace change are:

  • Demographics, which have changed significantly over the last decade, with more women in the workplace and people working for longer.
  • Social attitudes have changed with men in particular wanting greater autonomy and better work/life balances.
  • Economic unrest has become a driving force, many firms have had to do more with less and employee attitude has changed.

Employees are shifting priorities, with lifestyle overtaking money as a motivating factor. This contrasts with much of the 20th century where money was a dominant motivating force, acting as a symbol of success.

The happiness index found that in the last 5 years that despite receiving higher collective salaries, the workforce isn’t any happier.

People need to be better treated by managers. Enabled and empowered employees are much more productive and motivated, making them happier and less prone to absence through illness.

People want to feel empowered. Front line employees for instance are rarely asked how things could be better despite often having the best solutions.

Most jobs are inherently flexible, with limited parts that need to happen at a certain time and place, for example, police need to be on the beat at particular times but form filling could be more flexible. Greater autonomy is possible, for example Sainsbury’s empowered their bakers by allowing them to organise their own shifts, so they were more efficient and motivated.

AG: A lot of the knowledge underpinning this supposed shift has been known for years but we are still very traditional in our ways of working. What will change in the next decade to shift us away from Taylorist working practices?

Future work will see time as more valuable and workers will feel more empowered.  As a result they are more reliable, productivity increases and absenteeism declines.  Managers need to fully understand the benefits of flexible and remote working and in some cases have a willingness to challenge the status quo of the organisational culture.

Managers must learn to trust and empower their employees, assume that they can take responsibility, give them the tools, equipment and training and let them know what is expected of them. Productivity will be the benchmark rather than hours worked. Use this freedom to give them a chance to show you what they can do, don’t micromanage.

AG: If flexible working takes off, how do you see it impacting on our ability to work in teams? Do we need face to face contact? Could flexible working blur the work/life balance?

Yes, flexible working can blur lines between work and social life. Good management is the key. There is no longer a one size fits all approach. Managers will need to tender to the individual’s needs for the best results.

With flexible working individuals have more control over where and when they work, with the technology supporting them. It’s up to them to manage their work/life balance. Managers shouldn’t manage this.  There is often resistance from managers because they want to know that their employees are working, they want to see them sitting at their desk in front of the screen but this isn’t the best way to be productive.

For employees it is important to get the balance right so that they aren’t overworking. We studied IBM during our research for the book and through enhanced work practices they found that they gained 19 hours per week of productive time from each employee.

AG: While flexibility is good and may suit many how do you ensure that these employees don’t get forgotten, especially with regards to future career moves, information etc?

Future work isn’t about never having meetings. The way to get noticed isn’t always face to face. Rather than having a chance meeting by the water cooler, or meetings being taken over by office politics, meetings are structured and more planned, making better use of time and social media.

We mention in the book a case study on Microsoft where they work the change and status isn’t given by hierarchy. There will be no more corner office to aspire to as, instead the business becomes flatter and status comes from the ability to inspire and reward, to become servant-leaders from afar.

AG: There is often a distinct gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it. This is evident with things like flexible working. How do you see managers overcoming it?

There will always be a role for managers but that role will change through using more mobile technology. This won’t necessarily gel with all managers and some may find it hard going. Middle managers are essential as they are key to how an organisation works.

Future work is currently set by the top but it is how the work is interpreted, how the values are instilled in the work. A new skill set will need to be developed including:

  • Good communication skills, making every member of the team feel valued.
  • Efficient use of time/emails
  • Delegation of work and trust
  • Strong leadership skills, including people leadership, team building; rewarding and energising staff, emotional intelligence and knowledge of the wider world.

AG: Will managing by output see the dominance of performance related pay?

The way we are paid will have to change as a blurring between self-employed and employed status is inevitable. Organisations will start to slim down the number of full time, 9 to 5 contracts and staff will instead act like contactors, being self-employed to a certain extent and getting paid by results.

Alison Maitland is a writer, speaker and former Financial Times journalist who specialises in leadership and the changing world of work. She is Director of The Conference Board’s European Council for Diversity in Business, a Senior Visiting Fellow at London’s Cass Business School, and co-author of the prize-winning book, Why Women Mean Business.

Peter Thomson is a leading consultant, speaker and researcher in the field of new working practices. He is a director of Wisework Ltd, specialist advisors on flexible working and was Director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Business School for 16 years. Prior to this he was HR Director for Digital Equipment for Northern Europe.

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