Humans have always had to make a living by the sweat of their brow. Our current conception of ‘Work’ is part of a continually emerging historical process, molded by available technology, social movements, and evolving ideas in economics. Depending on local conditions, ancient hunter-gatherers might work in steadily but gently throughout the year, or in strenuous, dangerous bursts followed by periods of downtime. Agriculture started to standardize things, with a rising crescendo of activity through the warm months, culminating in a final push at harvest time before slackening through the winter. The industrial revolution took the work indoors and spread it over the course of the year, creating a higher degree of predictability and security while sacrificing the freedom and leisure time of earlier eras.
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution dawns, it is clear that the realities of work are already undergoing radical changes. It is equally clear that the legacy of earlier iterations of the industrial revolution still informs many of our assumptions about what productive work looks like. Business and society have further to go to integrate the enormous changes of recent decades into our work practices, and our lives more generally. This presents an opportunity for the creation of new paradigms in the economic, social, and environmental spheres. Making the most of this opportunity will require a level of flexibility and openness to change. Fortunately, there are promising experiments being initiated by some businesses and governments to make our relationship to work congruent with the new realities of the 21st Century.
For starters, there is the Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm paradigm. This ‘standard’ work schedule is a vestige of assembly line work, and increasingly irrelevant to not only the rhythms of modern knowledge work, but many other aspects of our changing social landscape. Last year, when a New Zealand company experimented with a 4-day work week, they found that not only did employees report positive changes in their work-life balance, but that their productivity actually increased compared to those working 5 days. The key was a culture shift emphasizing tasks to be performed, rather than hours spent in the office. As managers shift their expectations along those lines, people will creatively alter their practices in response. In this case, the company’s employees even developed signals for their colleagues to indicate when they needed distraction-free work time.
Smart companies recognize that, if the hiring process has done its job, their employees are capable and intrinsically motivated. They also realize that current technology allows for many of those workers to be productive pretty much anytime, anywhere. Taking advantage of this flexibility requires companies give up some control, but the resulting benefits in efficiency and employee satisfaction are more than worth it. As one tech executive from a company on the extreme end of flexible scheduling recently put it: “We believe the best talent in the world doesn’t want to be micromanaged…. we care far more about the results and impact you have on our business than how or where you work on a regular basis”. The manager of the future will more likely need to focus in the opposite direction – making sure your highly-motivated employees have sufficient downtime to avoid burnout.
The benefits of a more flexible, people-centered approach to work will radically reshape the business sphere, and ripple out beyond it. Less time in the physical office means smaller utility bills and less overhead generally. It also means less time lost to commuting, less wear and tear on transportation infrastructure, and less carbon in the air. Recognizing these economic and environmental benefits, Massachusetts’ governor recently proposed tax breaks to incentivize telecommuting. In the long run, adopting these new approaches could be a powerful weapon in our fight against climate change. They could also significantly alter the look and feel of our cities, reducing traffic gridlock and all of its negative impacts on quality of life.
Most importantly however, this emerging future brings the promise of happier and more fulfilled workers. For the past century or two, the trend has been towards tighter controls and more rigid management in the workplace. We are past the point of diminishing returns using this model, and it simply doesn’t make sense for most modern knowledge work. Employees who enjoy a high degree of autonomy and trust are more productive and engaged employees. Companies that recognize this and change their practices accordingly, will be the early adopters of the future of work