Good Day out of the Office Dear? | The Economist
* THIS ARTICLE BY WILL FIRST APPEARED IN ‘THE ECONOMIST’ *
“The traditional office environment, where a set number of salaried employees work 9-5
in fixed silos, is starting to feel increasingly at odds with the contemporary world,” says Will Higham. “External technological, economic and social trends have changed employees’
attitudes towards and expectations of the workplace. …
The office as we know it developed in the 19th century as the best way to harness emerging commercial behaviours and meet contemporary needs. Despite enormous external changes, its basic structure has changed little since. If a Victorian manager were transported into today’s office environment, although the technology might surprise him, the layout and practices probably would not.
“But this traditional environment, where a set number of salaried employees work 9-5 in fixed silos, is starting to feel increasingly at odds with the contemporary world. External technological, economic and social trends have changed employees’ attitudes towards and expectations of the workplace.
“This has implications for business owners. To make the best use of their employees moving forward, and avoid workplace frustrations, many companies will need to invest in major organisational change. However, these trends also offer opportunities to create more efficient ways of working.
“One of the biggest drivers of organisational change is worker adoption of new technologies. Thanks to the introduction of exciting and affordable personal technology products and services, workers today have become more knowledgeable about new technologies and increasingly enthusiastic about adopting them for work.
A more technologically adept workforce should be good news for business owners. Yet, in UK offices at least, it seems employees are not being encouraged to adopt the innovative behaviours they are practising outside work. A December 2011 survey by Dell, for instance, shows that just 37 per cent of UK workers feel free to download
the software they favour for work use, compared to 70 per cent of Brazilians.1
“To maximise efficiency among tech savvy workers, companies will need to adopt
new working practices. Restrictions on personal technology use will need to be reassessed.
“So too will the current practice of relying on traditional IT departments for
input on new technology resources, as knowledge is democratised across
departments by the experience of personal use.
“The need for new practices becomes even clearer when we look at two of the biggest
technological trends of recent years: communalisation and mobility.
1. Communalisation and online networking
“Communalisation is the increasing adoption of tools that better enable expansion of,
and communication with, communities. Thanks to services from email and Skype to
Facebook and Twitter, we now have easy access to huge networks of individuals;
and are increasingly comfortable communicating with them across a range of media.
Whether or not the number of our ‘real’ friends has increased, the number of ‘weak
ties’ certainly has. These are people we do not know well, but have connected with
via friends, colleagues or events. And, as the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter demonstrated in his influential 1973 paper, ‘The Strength Of Weak Ties’, these connections tend to be the most helpful in a work context.2
“The hundreds, or even thousands, of weak ties we have could act as enablers,
connectors, suppliers or administrators. Some progressive companies, especially
small and medium sized enterprises, have successfully exploited this trend. But in
many larger companies, not only is it rarely encouraged, it is often actively
discouraged. Social media sites are frequently seen as a distraction from work, or
threat to company security.
“A study I ran with researchers OnePoll in mid-2011 illustrates the disconnect. We
questioned 500 British senior and middle managers about social media use. When
asked about personal usage, 65 per cent said they use Facebook, 29 per cent
LinkedIn and 30 per cent Twitter. But when asked how many use these tools for
business, the figures dropped to 39, 20 and 23 per cent respectively.3
“The other major technology trend in recent years is a move towards mobility. As
scientific advances have enabled greater miniaturisation, so consumers have
consistently chosen hardware that helps them function more effectively ‘on the go’:
trading down from desktops to laptops, laptops to tablets and tablets to smart
phones. Increased mobile functionality is transforming the behaviour of millions, as
they take greater mobile control of their personal lives – from purchasing to viewing,
navigating to banking. This is driving the trend to a ‘frictionless’ lifestyle: everyone
can now perform tasks efficiently across platforms, unrestricted by the necessary
movements of a daily routine.
“Yet the efficiencies of mobile administration are not being reflected enough in the
workplace. Even those employees whose personal lives are almost entirely
administered via mobile devices, still typically lead working lives organised around a
single fixed desktop computer, with all the temporal inefficiencies that creates in
today’s 24-hour global business environment.
“Economic trends too are contributing to a greater demand for new, more flexible
working practices. These may not have as immediate an effect on the workplace as
technology trends, but could become important in the long term.
3. Entrepreneurialism and contract work
“Entrepreneurialism has been seen to rise during economic downturns. As
redundancy rates grow, it is harder for the new unemployed to find regularly waged
jobs, forcing many into freelance work. In the US the number of start-ups in 2010 was
at a 15 year high. And, according to surveys by the Global Entrepreneurship
Monitor, necessity was a factor for 24.7 per cent of all new US start-ups in 2009, up
from just 16.3 per cent in 2007. These ‘necessity entrepreneurs’ are typically selfemployed
or running very small businesses, and often return to waged employment
as the economy improves.
“This is likely to impact tomorrow’s workplace. Those that do return can use the
experience of running a small company to enhance the business of their new
employer, but will expect more autonomy in return. Those that don’t return will
provide a greater bank of outsourcing opportunities.
“An increase in entrepreneurialism will also add to a general trend towards nontraditional
waged workers, especially as it dovetails with a growth in part time and
contract work. In the long term this could contribute to a reassessment of what
constitutes a ‘normal’ worker, and therefore a ‘normal’ working environment.
4. Work life balance
“For some, economic downturns can actually encourage re-prioritisation of their work
life balance. Research carried out across Europe by global advertising agency
Omnicom Group in 2009, for instance, found that over half of those polled had
prioritised their family more since the start of the recession. Such individuals are
likely to seek out working roles that offer them greater temporal and spatial flexibility.
They will increasingly want to control when and where they work.
“The final trend stimulating demand for organisational change is generational. Today’s
youngest employees, the Millennials, grew up in a digital rather than an analogue
world and, unlike Baby Boomers, they are ‘natives’ when it comes to today’s new
technology world. On the simplest level, this means that the impact of the technology
trends described above is even stronger for them than for their elders. But the environment they grew up in affects their attitude to work in other ways too.
The ubiquity of computers and the internet has stimulated a less linear approach to
activities such as creation and administration: less A to B to C, and more A to Z to C.
The advent of home computers, mobile phones and social networking encouraged
greater merging of work and leisure. A trend for more equal parent child relationships
has, for some, created an expectation of flatter power structures elsewhere.
“In the long term, Millennial influence is good news. Digital revenues are increasingly
important across industries, and digital natives are best placed to exploit them.
However, as many employers are discovering, Millennials can struggle in today’s
office environment, with its emphasis on traditional structures, hierarchies, regular
hours and required attendance. To drive efficiencies among them, employers should
explore more Millennial-friendly practices: for instance, a new approach to incentives
and rewards, and less reliance on regular hours.
“The business community has an opportunity to learn from the new behavioural and
attitudinal trends of its workforce. According to a survey last month from the
McKinsey Global Institute, many businesses believe that “if organizational barriers to
the use of social technologies diminish, they could form the core of entirely new
business processes that may radically improve performance”.
“But there still appears to be a reluctance to integrate into the workplace behaviours that are becoming
second nature outside of it. That needs to change if businesses are to take full
advantage of contemporary technologies, create more efficient working methods and
compete on the global stage.
“To avoid future workplace frustrations, especially among the young and those
prioritising non-work relationships, businesses should consider greater temporal and
spatial flexibility, and results-based rewards. As technology enables more selfsufficiency,
they should also investigate dissolving hierarchical structures to give
more project responsibility to individuals. The practice of outsourcing to small consultancies could be extended into new disciplines such as marketing and new
product development. Employers should focus more on the opportunities social
networking offers, for identifying new business opportunities and locating more
efficient suppliers, than on its detrimental effects. And they should explore the
advantages inherent in mobile technology. For instance, the efficiencies offered by
home working, or temporarily re-locating project teams to non-headquarters based
locations such as co-working spaces.
“Of course, the adoption of new practices won’t be easy. It will require trial and error,
and may create some friction in the short term. But observing how well their
employees have adapted to accelerated levels of change outside of the office should
encourage business leaders to make important changes themselves.”