Rework: Imagining the future of work
11 July 2012 - Impact Hub

As the great Dolly Parton says – “Working 9-5 – what a way to make a living, barely getting by, it’s all taking and no giving!”
Well for those of us lucky enough to work at (or for) the HUB, we’ve had a taste of a very different type of working. One in which we share our working day with a shifting and diverse community of independent professionals, in an entrepreneurial environment where sharing and collaboration rather than competition is encouraged, and where there are no eyebrows raised if you leave the office before nightfall.
But for much of the working population, going into the office means stepping into the kind of set-up which wouldn’t have been hugely out of place in the nineteenth century: compartmentalised, hierarchical and following a structured and heavily prescribed working day.
Increasingly, the modern workplace is looking out-of-touch and incompatible with our lifestyle expectations. It is time for a complete re-imagining of work, and this is where the HUB stepped in.
On 5th July, we invited a diverse panel of speakers and a room full of people keen to join the conversation: “ReWork: Imagining the Future of Work.”
 

Times are changing…

William Higham, Islington Hubber and trend forecaster spoke first, introducing us to five trends shaping our working lives:
–      Advances in technology: tech savvy staff with more ‘weak ties’ (Linked In contacts, Facebook friends etc)
–      Mobility: more people working from home, accustomed to being able to do a multitude of tasks on mobile phones
–      Work/Life balance: shifting priorities, importance of family/community and a sense of belonging, values-driven
–      Entrepreneur: increasing self-employed people and small business owners, used to flexibility, autonomy and project working
–      Millenials: the latest generation to join the workforce – used to self sufficiency and a less restrictive timetable, less linear way of working and learning, and a flatter hierarchy than previous generations. Keen to work towards a greater good.
Many of these themes came up repeatedly during the course of the evening, with the consensus seeming to be that response to these changing trends had been slow and inadequate, both from employers/business leaders and from those who design our homes, workplaces and cities.
 

Behind the times

Alongside William, the panel included Tim Butcher of RMIT Melbourne, Frances Holliss of London Metropolitan University, Sinead MacManus of Eightfold and Jemma Blaylock of Heinz Explore.
Some of the issues highlighted by the panel included:
–      Employers not allowing staff to download software and use social networking sites that are vital to their business
–      Architects designing houses that are solely focused on eating/sleeping/watching TV and don’t make allowances for those who run their business from their homes
–      Urban centres still following the principles of the ‘garden city’ – with segregated living and working zones – creating social isolation and a loss of occupational identity for home-workers, who have been increasing in number (doubling between the last two census)
–      People having to leave their values behind when they come to the office (which the Millenials generation is increasingly unwilling to do)
Sinead told the story of an acquaintance who worked for Goldman Sachs who decided to quit after seeing her boss come into work the following day after suffering his third heart attack by the age of 32! Clearly, this is an extreme example (apparently other similar investment banks have a “Goldman Sachs recovery programme” for emotionally damaged staff who’ve jumped ship!) but all of the points above need addressing if we are to create a happy and productive workforce that is able to compete on the global market.
 
What IS working?
Following the principles of ‘appreciative enquiry’, there was a focus throughout the evening, both by our panel speakers and the ensuing world café discussion on what is working and on the positive developments that can help shape our vision of an ideal working life in the future.
Frances Hollis brought up the idea of the “Workhome” – a combined working/living space that was the norm before the 20th century and the idea of the segregated “garden city”. She introduced us to innovative, beautiful and highly functional architecture from both 19th century England and modern day Japan that combine living and work space.
Storyteller and lecturer Tim Butcher told us about his experiences at Hub Melbourne and the importance of a hosted co-working community that feels more like a family than a collection of colleagues, and where he can think creatively away from the pressures and bubble-like environment of academia.
Sinead’s antidote to the terrifying Goldman Sachs story was her recent encounter with the founder of WordPress. He has built a global company of largely autonomous employees where there are hardly any meetings or offices, where instead staff have a travel budget, able to choose where they hold their meetings (a Hawaiian beach perhaps?) and are trusted to complete their objectives in their own way.
Jemma from Heinz also had a positive story to share, of working for a forward-thinking organisation that had allowed its CEO to spend eight weeks studying at Harvard, resulting in the creation of an innovation team that ended up being based at HUB Kings Cross. Her account was of a company keen to foster ‘intrapreneurialism’ and encourage connectivity with the outside world, a company aware of own limitations and willing to close the capability gaps through collaboration and “the power of conversation”.

The future of working?

The most common theme to emerge from the panel and discussions when imagining the future of working was that of flexibility: in working hours, job roles, environment and location.
It was agreed that developments in mobile technology and social networking platforms should be used to full advantage in order to allow people to choose their workplace depending on their needs and lifestyles, and to bring cohesion to teams working together remotely.
As well as communications, it was highlighted that it was important to foster community amongst this mobile, dispersed workforce. At the HUB, this is achieved through the role of the host or ‘connections catalyst’ who is responsible for bringing people together, promoting links within the network and creating a welcoming and positive working environment.
Workspace design was also seen to be important to creating a supportive and collaborative environment. Dedicated areas for team hot-desking, with quiet zones and attractive social spaces were seen to be important to allow flexibility for different work styles and rhythms, while ensuring that workers still feel a sense of belonging. When creating a new workspace, it was felt that those who would be using it should always be consulted and involved in the design process, and that the developers should be open to anything and not bound by traditional ideas of what an office or place of work should look like.
Home-life and work-life were seen to be more interconnected in an ideal world, with multi–generational social groups encompassing both work and family/social. With success measured on results rather than the number of hours worked, people would have more of a work-life balance and the flexibility to work their work commitments around those of their family and also voluntary work.
Key to all these ideas is the idea of autonomy – handing power back to the workforce in terms of managing their time and daily rhythms, meeting goals, and juggling work and family/social life.
Autonomy is one of the key motivators highlighted by Daniel Pink in his 2011 book ‘Drive’, along with mastery and a sense of purpose, as the real reason people ‘get up in the morning’. In the book, Pink challenges the idea that people are motivated by carrot and stick, arguing that employers have got it all wrong and that the management world has consistently ignored the scientific evidence on how to get the best out of people.
With this complete re-working of management theory, the rise in entrepreneurialism and home-working, and innovative co-working spaces like the HUB appearing all over our cities, it really feels like a paradigm shift is on the horizon.
We don’t know what the future of working will bring, but the discourse at least seems to be moving in the right direction. Lets hope the management establishment finally catches up with the rest of us and Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 becomes a thing of the past!