Workplace and people

A friend penned a post on millennial workforce and currently prevalent business culture asking a number of questions at each section. I thought about it and felt need to chip in. As I do.

First things first. I think the behaviours Nicolas describes in his post do not only apply to the Generation Y and Z, they are seen to take root across the business landscape. Not everyone is directly contributing to digital economy yet many are affected by the changes it has brought about. Take any traditional trade. A brief look at its state today shows how much has changed within past 15 years. Supply chain has become global, primary distribution channel is online, delivery often by gig-economy workers who get paid per delivery and are not seen taking pride in their work as the quality suffers. Many early retirees have returned after realising the type of lifestyle their pension actually supports. Many are freelancing – not out of choice but necessity. Often they have no option but to as the organisations they work with (not for!) have their business models dependent on reduced staff overheads. Add what we sued to call “cost of doing the business” and you have no business. In some areas its global trade, in others high business rates. We have moved from stable, permanent positions to short term contracts. Many of us who have spent around 20 years working have changed their jobs three times at least, some even more. Even those of us on permanent positions don’t tend to stay with the organisations for more than three years on average. Careers built merely on longevity are out, sharp minds and clear objectives in. Or at least should be so. We are likely to see inequality in workplace for some time until the Big Reset comes. And it will come, either in form of Universal Income or nationalisation of (by then still traditional) industries.

I personally favour UI route. When set at 70% minimum wage it will enable people to just get by (on council property – hey, different topic!) and top up their earnings by freelancing and working with the organisations of their choosing. Some argue that it should be minimum wage, though latter camp will have hard time standardising this even in EU context (€1400 as minimum in France is above average in Estonia). Money will be digitised and all income over certain threshold is taxed as now, hopefully reducing incentive and options for fraud. Getting rid of physical money will also reduce the asset ownership cost to central bank and thus should again leave more to fund UI. Quartz @ Work has a very timely piece on full employment and fulfillment. Full employment is felt as cornerstone for Western society and people find usually hard explaining the gaps in their careers. Instead being out of work should choice when people feel they need a break followed by successful return to work provided people have necessary skills and attitude to perform as expected.

The themes Nicolas writes about are well covered by many – empowerment, ownership, flexibility, purpose, opportunities and new types of work. Let’s look at each once more then.

Many, not just younger expect to be empowered to make and have ownership about their decision making and outcomes. They expect to be treated as equals. Not equally capable and experienced but to get equal opportunities. Many have argued, especially about apprenticeships schemes that it’s all about them and not us, the employers. But this statement is untrue. The young, when motivated and allowed to make small mistakes, learn from them and not be punished will pay back with energy they have and willingness to throw all they have to complete the project on time. They are willing to shed that shy self in order to achieve the deadlines. Many more seasoned colleagues would try to delegate the task to someone else and stay in mediocristan. Working with apprentices 18 years ago in my own small IT business and recently with fast -streamers has shown me time and again how much value these young people can deliver with right level of coaching, delegation and independence. But wait, this applies equally to more seasoned employees as well. To ensure they don’t actively avoid decision making and taking ownership however, the organisation need to have reached necessary level of maturity. Not quite teal level, but micro-management must be out and trust in.

Flexibility in workplace is nothing new. Also not new is the notion of flexibility when it comes to choosing the place of work. I have a few friends who have been working from home study since mid-nineties. Fine, their jobs enabled this (editor, consultant, marketer, software programmer) but were never seen as revolutionary, rather as their choice. What is new is not just where but when we choose to work. Dan Pink spoke in recent RSA event about timing. I can attest to his conclusion of timing the work. There are generally three stages – peak, through and recovery. In my case its a bit like this:

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I’m usually switched on in the mornings and can stay focused for long periods of time until noon. Sometimes longer. This is the time to work on analysis and produce written content. Then comes the slump where I’n not the sharpest pencil in the box. That’s the good time for admin. Neither of the periods is suitable for meetings. When we are in focus mode, we find hard to accept others’ ideas. During the through we are simply unable to absorb any information. This is worst time for any meetings or workshops. Hence I try to schedule all my meetings (virtual or in person) either right before lunch or after 15:00. When the recovery kicks in, we are all more agreeable. This is flexibility we should grant to all our colleagues. We should deploy tools that allow people to submit the best time they are ready to collaborate in, and avoid any meetings outside this space.

You could say that people fall into two categories. First is static, second dynamic. The second crowd are after opportunities to prove how good they are. Get some testosterone going, tick that thing off the list and get dopamine kick. Feels good, right? It tends to be the younger crowd who are looking for ways to either gain some new knowledge or participate in that new venture. Perhaps it pays off. And if it didn’t, no biggie. Next time they’ll try again. What we need to encourage is looking for opportunities in the organisation. These may be incremental improvements to the process or product that drive our businessesuu forward. It’s very rare when a groundbreaking change is introduced and effectively managed to production. Th rest of the time everything is in beta. And changing. We need to create culture where risk is seen as both threat and opportunity, not just first.

Take all of these and… nothing works when people don’t have purpose in their working lives. Purpose and meaning is much coveted topic for the jobs over the threshold where increase in pay will have no effect on quality of output.

The types of work that existed in the fringe have become mainstream in Western economies and those previously taken for granted have disappeared. Manufacturing is a good example. Working for Saint-Gobain in late 90’s and first part of 21st century I saw automation and streamlining of supply chains in order to reduce the cost of product. Robotics found its way into assembly previously required highly skilled workforce performing tasks demanding precision. Need to reduce waste and not optimise but maximise output at highest level of quality will see new plants employing a handful of highly skilled operators work of many machines.

We used to cook at home and only occasionally order takeaway food. Especially in urban environment this has become mainstream – people value their time and are willing to pay for food and delivery. The delivery has often been outsourced to likes of Deliveroo and fulfilled by men on bikes searching their way through maze. They are often as lost as Über drivers. Everyone as taxi driver on their spare time? That’s not really valuing ones time, it may be seen as the only option to earn enough to live in a modern metropolis. Are these jobs going to be here in 10 years? Probably not, technology will develop along with legal framework to automate these jobs.

What will the future of work look like for us in the knowledge work? We’ll have many jobs over our working lives, quite possibly will be looking for work every few years and working for and with many different organisations. This raises need to be adaptable to the change. I thought learning enough but not mastering a single skill was not sufficient. Shallow generalist over highly skilled specialist? A recent Medium post by Michael Simmons nicely builds the case for polymath as probably best placed to survive in the unknown future. It’s not just transferable skills we need. We need to be able to synthesise useful elements from different disciplines to meet the future challenges.

 

I hope this sparks some debate.

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