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Future Work

A call to action for leaders and managers

Review of Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, by Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson

Future Work is a book about the world of work in transition, and the need to embrace the future in order to succeed. And it's a book that is at the same time both visionary and level-headed, with insights into the nature of work backed up by wide-raging case study evidence.

Written primarily for managers, its starting point is that flexible working, as usually conceived, is not enough to make a difference.  A more radical and a more business-focused approach is needed to take advantage of wider changes in technology and society.

What is needed, say the authors, is a bigger shift towards a more autonomous, trust-based, results-driven work culture. And if you don't do it, you'll be left behind:

"This book is a call to action for managers and leaders.  If you don't bring your work practices into the 21st century, your employees will react accordingly.  The best ones will leave, and the remaining ones will be disengaged.  Your productivity will drop and in a competitive world other organisations will replace you."

Entrepreneurial approach to employment

Future Work makes the link between leading thinking about 'smart' or 'agile' working and other leading edge thinking about the changing nature of organisations.  One key feature identified by the authors is the need to engage a workforce that values having greater control of their work.

This means on the one level allowing and enabling employees to have more responsibility and trusting them to do well.  But it also goes further, envisaging a world where employees either become entrepreneurs themselves, or become more like entrepreneurs in the way they control, manage and initiate work: "Work will become a tradable commodity rather than a job".

While the number of 'free agents' has been rising in the USA, in the UK the number of self-employed has remained stuck at about 12-14% of the workforce for some twenty years.  So there are probably regulatory as well as cultural obstacle to change.  But the authors see in the rise of new forms of online brokerages and crowd-sourcing innovation as signs that change is on its way.

The authors feel that with the increasing choice and attractiveness of alternative forms of work, employers keen to attract and retain the best talent will have to replicate many of the best features of self-employment, while continuing to provide the security of an employment contract.

There is a link here to smart working, as it's not about the hours put in but about results.  Smart or agile methods of working mean that for many tasks people can work not only any time and any place, but also with tools of their own choosing.  So the responsibility for providing the platform of work is no longer exclusively with the employer - it becomes more of a kind of joint venture.

Breaking free of the shackles of time

One key concept that is emphasised is that future work is all about results. If this is becoming a commonplace of modern management thinking, and smart working in particular, then here the authors push the idea out a bit further.

The usual HR and work-life balance approaches to flexible working are scolded for being too focused on time, as are traditional management approaches to productivity.

"Practices such as part-time work, compressed working weeks, job shares and term-time working do not challenge the prevailing and now outdated and unsuitable model of work...

"This model is based on time: If you give me your time and perform a job, I will reward you per hour.  If you are a 'part-time' person and work less than the normal hours, I will reward you pro rata. [...but] Paying people by the hour is the opposite of rewarding productivity.  If you work slowly to perform a task, you will get paid more than if you work quickly."

So the solution is to reward people for their ideas and output, rather than their time.  So if smart people get their work done quicker, their reward should be to have more leisure time.  Or they can take on more output-rewarded work, perhaps.  But it should not be imposed on them with no additional reward to fill time which their productivity has created.

This is taking a results-oriented work environment (ROWE) to its logical consequence.

A critique of this would be that going down this road all work becomes piece-work.  And we've had 150 years of struggle by unions and others to get a basic standard for 'a fair day's work for a fair day's pay'.  It's an approach that may work for creative professionals who have the resources to act like entrepreneurs, but is there a danger of setting Stakhanovite standards for results and for competition in winning work driving down the levels of reward available, especially for low paid workers?

So it's a view that may encounter some opposition, but it's an area where we need some healthy debate and some new thinking.

The need to change the culture

Clearly there is need to change the culture here, moving away from hierarchical structures and expectations towards a culture where all people are equal, people take responsibility and are enabled, empowered and trusted.

Future Work sets out a process for breaking free of the old models of work, equipping managers with the necessary skills and putting it all into practice. Leadership by example is essential:

"The worst examples of so-called flexible workspace have junior employees crammed together in poorly run hot-desking areas while senior managers maintain separate fiefdoms, luxuriating in their thick-carpeted personal offices.  The best examples have the CEO and directors sitting in open-plan areas, symbolising the abolition of traditional hierarchies".

Wide-ranging case studies

Throughout the book there are case studies from organisations that are on the journey to the future of work.  It includes the high tech big players such as Google and IBM, and the 'mavericks' like Semco. But it also includes case studies of retail organisations such as Gap and Sainsbury, financial services companies, public sector examples, small businesses, and there are examples from every continent.  There are also some personal stories about individual working patterns.  All this should help to dispel some of the myths about new ways of working being appropriate only to certain sectors or regional cultures.

So the challenge is there - the only question is how ready are all the other organisations to go the distance into this future of work.



January 2012


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Further Information

Here we take a look at Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, by Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson, published towards the end of 2012.

Alison Maitland is a long-serving Financial Times journalist and expert on leadership, gender and work. Peter Thomson is one of the original pioneers of new working practices and Visiting Fellow at Henley Business School, where he previously was Director of the Henley Future Work Forum.

Flexibility verdict

This is a radical, challenging and thought-provoking book.  It is written in a lively and interesting style that makes it as close to a 'page turner' as any management book can be.

It's also done it's homework, with up-to-date data and a wide-ranging selection of case studies from around the world.

Highly recommended!









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