Growing up in an Indian middle-class household, the grownup world had always been a fascination. Watching my father leave for office every morning, return the evening, and occasionally travel to other cities, was all I remember seeing of work life, which seemed to take up most of his time and energy. As I entered college, images from my occasional visits to his workplace came to mind: the workstation, surrounding cubicles, an elusive glass cage at the corner, rows and rows of typewriters (and later, computers), and a world far removed from personal and family life. I thus began to prepare myself for a similar scenario waiting outside the University gates. And I could not have been more wrong!
Technology, Globalisation, and the Workplace that is not a place
My first job while in university was as a content writer for an NGO. I created email and website marketing content for its partner organizations, and was paid per-page created. While I had been interviewed, selected, extended an offer, trained and put to work, I never actually met anyone in-person in the course of work. There wasn’t even as much as a piece of paper involved in this whole transaction.
Work is now no longer a place you go to; it's what you do. Mobile technology has changed the way we work, allowing for convenient, flexible workplaces. Yes, the workplace does still exist, but that’s not where all the work gets done. The average employee today puts in 46 minutes of work before they’ve even arrived at the office, and 75% of employers recognise this by giving employees the tools they need to work remotely. “Face time” is now optional. This change in the nature of work has enormous implications on how organizations perform.
Years later, I founded an organization, with a co-founder from halfway across the world, whom I had never met before. We were introduced to one another from a ‘Direct Message’ on twitter, and acknowledging that we had some similar passions and ideas but with different strengths and experiences, we gave shape to our enterprise, concocting a business plan over Google Docs. A few weeks in, our company was born, registered simultaneously in New Delhi and Boston. Our clients, partners and employees were all spread out across the globe as well, and the time differences often worked out in our advantage.
Being remotely located still meant we performed as well, if not better, than any conventional brick-and-mortar enterprise. The collaboration platform allowed us to monitor employee activity, keep teams synchronized to shared goals, and be more productive than ever. And without having to fight traffic, sit in cubicles, only to fight traffic again. In fact, workplaces of tomorrow may be entirely located online.
Decentralisation: The Elephant in the Back Room
Decentralization and simplification create small pools in which employees gain satisfaction from the fruits of their hard work, and nascent leaders can make mistakes. Corporations tend to produce too many products, hire employees they don't need, and expand into economic sectors that they should avoid. A company should thus be engaged only in front room activities that are core to the business, while back room activities should be handed over to other organisations.
Crowdsourcing, similarly, is a popular concept put into use today, sourcing work from a large number of people either employees or Internet users. In some cases, it allows them to contribute without necessarily getting paid, as is the case with organisations such as WikiMedia, home to the world’s largest free encyclopaedia and other knowledge repositories. Open-sourcing is similarly responsible for some of the most popular computer applications used today.
Employee as the Organization
As we’ve seen, today’s technology as well as the attitudes of the modern worker makes it necessary to reconsider the role of organizations. Given that knowledge skills are far more portable than manual ones, a society consisting of knowledge workers would be far less dependent on the firm. If knowledge workers and online markets can radically reduce transaction costs, over and above what a firm can achieve, is the firm even economically justifiable?
Over the years, I found myself working for several organizations, even as I managed my own. In fact, many employees and colleagues that I worked with were engaged with other employers as well. And it was all in good faith, as long as any potential for conflicts of interest were avoided. Tomorrow’s workers will be highly-skilled knowledge practitioners, whose services shall be on offer on a freelance basis (or via a small company), and they’ll be characterised by a natural ability to manage themselves.
Organizations will thus be expected to play a far-reduced role with a completely changed understanding of hierarchy. This can be seen in the growing prevalence of horizontally structured firms, and the corporate ladder is now sometimes more accurately described as a lattice.
Work, Life and Community
Work occupies at least 40-60 hours per week for the average worker, besides the shadow work and overheads, and is thus a defining aspect of our lives. Occupying more than half of all our waking hours, work is where we express our creativity, pursue friendships and relationships, and experience the routine crests and troughs of life. Work matters to us as individuals, to our families, friends, and to the society we live in.
As indicated earlier, today’s worker has a much more liberated outlook towards work, and is free to follow a much blended approach to the work-life balance. We start and end our working days well beyond the time spent in the office, while being free to carry out more personal tasks during the working day.
Today’s workers, especially the youth, are far more prone to following their passion when making career choices, with money not being the only or even the most significant motivator. My own career choices as well as my peers’ are testimony to that. As a practitioner in the impact sector, I have worked in education, poverty alleviation and energy spaces, with colleagues from all over the world, as young people realise their career ambitions while enjoying the experiences of meeting new cultures and serving the community.
It was Peter Drucker who reimagined the organization as a human community and the job of management as preparing people to perform and then getting out of their way. He also suggested that volunteering in the non-profit sector was the key to fostering a healthy society, and that all earlier pluralist societies destroyed themselves because no one took care of the common good.
An interesting development in this regard is the emergence of social businesses. As society moves towards responsible behaviour, so will business. This is evidenced particularly by the Grameen Bank, a microfinance organization and community development bank, becoming the first business corporation in the world to win a Nobel Peace Prize, in 2006.
The Future That Has Already Happened: Are we prepared?
It’s unfortunate that many organizations refuse to recognize the changing scenario of work and continue to operate as-is. For example, despite flexible work options, more than half of employees still believe their bosses will take issue if they aren’t at their desks on time. And even though mobile technologies are far superior than they were, just 11 percent of workers are able to access everything on the move that they can in the office, signifying an enormous room for growth. Managing for the future certainly means nurturing its seeds in the present.
Large organizations must learn to change their models and think in terms of relationships and ecosystems among both employees and companies. As Peter Drucker said, “The right size will increasingly be whatever handles most effectively the information needed for task and function. Where the traditional organization was held together by command and control, the ‘skeleton’ of the information-based organization will be the optimal information system.”
Managers thus need to be prepared to correctly describe jobs to their dispersed employee groups, build teams of optimal size and diversity, and find new modes of motivating and monitoring people, something that they haven’t had to do in the Sloan age.
Universities and business schools will similarly have to learn to walk the ropes of this new world. As technologies and knowledge evolve rapidly, universities must prepare themselves for administering continuing education of adults. The importance of experiential learning can no longer be undermined. Learning from books can only help measure how well someone learns, rather than how well they perform. Education has to show something beyond just promise.
Business Schools, similarly, may not even be recruiting the right kind of people to learn how to run tomorrow’s workplace. Peter Drucker said that “management will increasingly be the discipline and practice through which the humanities will again acquire recognition, impact and relevance.” It is not just mathematicians and economists, but also poets and historians the organisations of tomorrow need. Perhaps it is time we learnt something from history.
- Drucker, P.F. – Various Books, Essays, and Interviews by Peter F. Drucker
- Economist.com - "The next society" (November 2001)
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- London Business School BSR – Predicting the future of work -. [ONLINE] Available at: http://bsr.london.edu/lbs-article/581/index.html. [Accessed 13 July 2012].
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- TIME – The Last Days of Cubicle Life - The Future of Work - [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1898024_18980.... [Accessed 12 July 2012].
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