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