Will Our Future Of Work, Work?

Thirty-five years ago this month, Charles Handy envisioned the rise of the portfolio worker. This increasingly popular lifestyle choice favored by many, including myself, has given rise to a thriving creative class. Personified by treadmill-standing workstations, office-optional upstarts and a plethora of co-working spaces — flexibility has become the norm.

What might our workplace look like in 2020? Today and progressively into the future — work may be less about occupying a physical place, than it is concerned with a practice. The shift in our working behavior has taken on many forms: whether this be the trendy technique of working remotely with a strong WI-FI connection and even stronger coffee, a routine of being present through an annual retreat, or a method of employing an ever expanding array of powerful technologies to enable and foster collaboration.

This shift is not limited to digital or software companies — it affects all industries. A recent report by Raconteur claims that over 60 percent of senior professionals from across sectors believe that their work is shifting more towards an experience than a physical place. In this new world of — it’s not where you are, it’s what you’re doing — there can been a host of repercussions to both our professional and personal lives.

Here are 5 reflections that I believe help capture the spirit of our time:

Reinventing the Economy

Many large organizations with outdated operating systems and coinciding corporate work cultures are playing catch up — trying desperately to transform and stay relevant. In stark contrast, are the nimble networks characteristic of the entrepreneurial revolution that is now taking place.

In the UK alone there has been an explosion of micro businesses, from just 700,000 in 1980 to 5.1 million today. The limelight for the small business is finally here — according to the European Commission almost half of the UK economy can be attributed to small and medium sized businesses.

This new cohort of entrepreneurs, or Generation Flux, is defined not by their chronological age but by their willingness and ability to adapt. Being the maverick is no longer the name of the game — it’s belonging to a distinct group of people best poised to thrive in today’s world of high velocity change.

Reviving Spaces

WeWork offices NYC: image source

It is not an isolated phenomenon that WeWork is the fastest growing lessee of new space in America. Nearly 6,000 shared office operations dot the globe today — compared to 300 just five years ago. London alone is home to over 80 co-working spaces. Startup veteran Gary Mendell captures the current sentiment well:

“The old model of office space is dead.”

Where office spaces like WeWork cater to creative, tech and professionals alike, others are more pigeonholed and tailored to a given demographic. This covers the spectrum- musicians, artists, females and more. Others are premised around utility (virtual spaces, by the hour or through drop-ins).

Reclaiming Time

Zona Space, Russia: image source

It is evident that ever since the clock was introduced to coordinate labor, and in effect to store time — we have adopted the mindset that time is money. Our hours, days and workweeks are quantified in terms of profitability and hence related to value.

As we see our working practices develop into the future we face a decisive fork in the road concerning our domineering behaviour. On one path, we allow technology to dictate our working life and the complementary feeling that being busy is benevolent. On the other, our experience of the present precedes the clock, and the ability to always be connected. Here, we truly engage with and enjoy both work and play.

New and Better Ways

George Jetson’s office: image source

Shifting our established business practices to allow for more doubt and enquiry requires a shift in our policies and approaches. The old businesses that fuel them no longer lend themselves well to a market that favors speed and collaboration. I think what’s required for a future of healthy businesses and the working environments that spawn from them — is a challenge to the established culture of covering your ass.


A Word of Caution

With the rise of digital personal assistants, or Siri on steroids, and the popularity of outsourcing our work and personal affairs — for the attraction of increased productivity we risk losing part of our humanity. Being connected is different than feeling connected.

The psychological contract between employer and employee is under threat as loyalty based contracts and the security they provide are replaced by less formal arrangements and potentially less commitment to a given organization. For some, the uncertainty around income levels will be tantamount while the more transactional oriented like myself welcome the perks and flexible working terms that accompany the new paradigm.

However with more highly skilled — hyper specialized — portfolio workers sitting at the top of the employment pyramid, an unevenly distributed economy also may emerge. This translates into restricted opportunities for middle workers. They will move down to roles requiring less skills and which fail to utilize their full potential. As to the insurgence of artificial intelligence and a digital future powered by smart algorithms — in contrast to human choice — we may lose the need for some highly specialized jobs altogether.

What is certain are the 3 pillars in our working life that Generation X and now Generation Y continue to champion. According to authority on the subject, Daniel Pink, these are 1) Purpose; 2) Autonomy and; 3) Drive. As we aim to align these characteristics in the work that we do, we stand to also find work that holds enduring meaning.

This is an article first appeared in WeWork Magazine here.