The future of work is being reshaped by three emerging trends.
The first trend is stretching the working day into a new shape, the second changing the architecture and culture of the office, while the third raises questions about the future of employment contracts and arrangements.
Research by AVG Business reveals how working habits have evolved over the last century. And it identifies millennials – children of the 1980s who graduated from high school around the year 2000 – as key drivers of these emerging employment trends.
Chasing the sun
Was working 9 to 5 a myth? The latest evidence suggests that working habits are changing in that hours are being stretched or split by a new generation of workers who want to work more flexibly than their older siblings, parents or grandparents did. That might mean putting in fewer hours during daylight and picking up work in the evening or early hours of the morning.
Or it might mean the kind of experiments in Sweden with six-hour working days rather than the traditional seven or eight hours. Does compressing the working day into fewer hours improve employee health and overall productivity? Early evidence suggests it might.
Some companies with offices, employees or customers in different time zones are following the example of IT support companies and ‘following’ or ‘chasing’ the sun. In other words, they organise activity around time zones to ensure that there’s cover whenever customers are awake.
For example, if your business is based on the US eastern seaboard, for example, why clock off at 5pm when folks on the west coast are just finishing lunch? Or if your business is based in the UK and you export to the US, why gear down when they’re just waking up?
What’s clear is that office hours aren’t what they once were. Businesses large and small across the globe are experimenting with different models of the working day to deliver better customer service, improve productivity and employee wellbeing.
The reinvention of office space
Turn back the clock to the 1850s and you’ll find the British government advising Victorian employers that ‘separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted’.
Fast-forward 100 years and open plan offices were starting to become fashionable in both the US and Europe. Skip ahead to the 1980s and ‘hot-desking’ was the new trend: doing away with the notion that employees need a fixed space of their own in the workplace.
Today, hot-desking is evolving. A new office opened by UBS bank in London in 2016 is designed around the principle that workers shouldn’t carry their own laptops nor have a fixed desk. Staff simply plug in at any available desk, use the machine in front of them and start work. There’s no phone, just headsets for internet (VOIP) calls. The company says it will help cut costs and allows for a more efficient use of office space.
So, is the workplace of the future a place where multi-disciplinary teams can assemble quickly? Is departmental thinking – sitting with colleagues with the same skill-set – a thing of the past?
The rise of the gig economy
The third trend raises questions about whether or not ‘offices’ will be needed. It’s the rise of the so-called ‘gig economy’. This trend on both sides of the Atlantic has seen growing numbers of people embark on self-employment. Not all are budding entrepreneurs. Some are simply working with digital businesses like Uber, where traditional employment contracts – and traditional employment benefits – are being replaced with contractor-style arrangements.
Unlike zero-hour contracts, where workers are still granted some employment rights like holiday pay, self-employed gig workers gain no benefits from their clients… other than being paid.
By one estimate, one in three American workers are now freelancers or self-employed contractors. Similarly, about five million UK workers are now self-employed out of a workforce of about 32 million.
The gig model is being used by some businesses to assemble ‘virtual teams’ of talent across the globe. Rather than build an in-house team, businesses are drawing in freelancers and contractors as required to complete particular projects or tasks. So, is a more fluid approach to finding, hiring and using talent the way of the future?
Tony Anscombe, senior security evangelist at AVG Business says, ‘The attitudes, aspirations and work-ethic of the millennial generation of employees are helping to change the way companies work. There’s a drive for more flexible working; a recognition that the old 9 to 5 doesn’t work for everyone in terms of productivity, servicing clients and customers or their own lifestyle.
‘But there are practical problems that align with these emerging trends. For example, does working with more contractors – or allowing more staff to work at home – mean that managing data and network security will become more difficult to control? Business owners and managers need to think hard about what these kinds of changes might mean for their organisation in practice.’
The impact on SMEs
In some ways, these trends may also affect small and medium businesses more than larger multinationals, because their resources are more limited.
This is critical to consider because SMBs make up a huge proportion of businesses in both the US and UK economies and account for billions in revenue (99.7 per cent of all US employers are SMBs and 99.3 per cent of all UK employers are SMBS, responsible for 54 per cent of all US sales and 47 per cent of all turnover in the UK).
If these trends change the way in which SMEs work, a huge number of businesses and people will be affected; the effects may also, in certain circumstances, be more dramatic.
For instance, switching to a six-hour day in a company of ten people may simply not allow enough output to be created and product sold to keep the company afloat. Allowing employees to work split shifts may not allow a service to be delivered when a customer needs it. Employing people on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ basis may allow a business to keep overheads low, but what if the business can’t find the skills and expertise at the very moment a new customer comes calling? A sale may be lost because of a lack of resource.
So how does your workplace look compared to these emerging trends? Maybe your business is the trend! And what will your business look like in five years’ time?
These are the kinds of questions every business needs to answer if they are to adapt, grow and succeed in the next few years and longer term.
Understanding how people want to work, how technology can enable them to work, how customers want to engage and how the business needs to function is a key part of management strategy at any point in a business’ life. But these trends are especially important to understand given the recent and rapid shifts in the political landscape, and the forthcoming changes in the economic landscape that are sure to follow.
There’s no fool proof way of knowing how these trends will evolve but being aware of them, and thinking about how they apply to your business is key.