The new world of work

Portfolio Magazine, autumn 2013. Original article here.


The new world of work

The way we work is in a state of flux, as a Big Bang of technology, globalisation and sociological changes is sending shock waves through every aspect of life. We are in the midst of the biggest transformation the world has ever seen, even bigger than the industrial revolution – this is how Lynda Gratton describes the information revolution.

So it is no wonder the world of work is transforming too, as we have never been more connected and the possibilities have never been greater. As Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, Gratton’s research on the future of work has made her a leading authority on how people operate in organisations, and what we can expect from a future with seemingly infinite information at our fingertips and the opportunity to collaborate with people anywhere on the planet.

“It is not even about the future anymore, as so many of these changes are happening right now,” says Gratton, pointing to how we are speaking on the phone from our respective homes, as both of us are writing today and that is easier when we are alone. “We will see even more advanced technology coming along, making it seem as if the person on the video link is sitting right in front of us. We will see much more sophisticated ways of handling knowledge in a firm, and we are going to see changes in management perspectives.”

As technology has finally become sophisticated enough for people to connect from a distance without a stuttering internet connection getting in the way, businesses must face the challenge: how do we manage this opportunity? The ability to securely access company files from afar means employers do not necessarily have to sit in the office to get things done. Parents can take a few hours out in the afternoon to see their kids before picking up work again later, while high-definition video conferencing is increasingly embraced by international corporations looking to cut down on travel. Are we headed for a future where being in the same room as your colleagues is only for special occasions?

“It is a complex issue, because it has to do with the character of the person, the character of the work, and the character of the organisation,” says Gratton. “It is also down to how complex the work is, and how much people rely on others for knowledge transfer.” Because having a job that can be done remotely does not necessarily mean the company wants you to. Yahoo!’s new boss Marissa Mayer caused a stir when she everyone to show their faces every day because the company had lost its culture. Gratton can understand why Yahoo! made this call, as her research through the ‘Future of Work’ consortium shows there are times when only face-to-face contact will do: “When work is very complex and has a lot of interdependency, it is difficult to really get knowledge transfer going when people are not in the same place.”

In addition to ‘Future of Work’, which draws on experience from over 60 companies, Gratton also leads the ‘Inclusion & Diversity’ consortium. The culmination of her research is presented in her book ‘The Shift’, which discusses how the world of work is fundamentally changing. A common feature among companies succeeding in this new reality is a solid grasp on how to facilitate good relationships between workers who are not in the same room, Gratton has found. This is not as easy as it may sound, as humans are social creatures who thrive on the rituals of tea rounds and weather chat. So is it really possible to foster team cohesion without these niceties?

“Running a virtual team is not the same as running a face-to-face team. You have to be a lot more thoughtful about how you introduce people, the way they understand who each other are, and how they prefer to work,” says Gratton. “You have to build processes that recreate what people do naturally. There are rapid developments in this field, both in terms of technology and practices.” For those used to working face-to-face, the thought of dealing with colleagues via chat rooms may sound horrifying. But it is already happening: collaboration specialist Yammer was acquired by Microsoft last year, as the technology giant is keen to incorporate nifty interaction features such as Twitter-style @-replies, hashtags for sorting discussion topics, and Facebook-esque ‘Likes’ to signal opinions.

This is second nature for the millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 1995, who often prefer instant messaging to the telephone. Raised on the internet, the millennials are also much less willing to forego the flexibility that technology now affords, looking to employers to provide flexi-time and personal development opportunities. This was the conclusion when PwC, aided by Gratton’s team at the London Business School, presented its large generational study into what millennials want from work. While younger workers may take more naturally to this shift, Gratton disagrees that a generational change may be needed before this trend can permeate the average company:

“I do not agree with that at all. I am a baby boomer myself, and when I run a World Economic Forum team I work with academics from all over the world, half of whom I have never met. … Obviously some people resent working virtually, but at any age there is going to be some people who think it is terrible. We are certainly getting used to it.” Most people will find themselves at a lower rung on the corporate ladder though, often dealing with managers measuring productivity by how many hours your coat is hung on the back of your chair. The issue of trust goes back to the attitude of the organisation, says Gratton, acknowledging there are certainly companies where ‘presenteeism’ is the golden standard. But as anyone who has had an office job knows, being present does not necessarily mean you are working. “What we have to do is change the way we measure performance,” says Gratton. “This is more complex than face-to-face management, meaning managers have to get better. It is a more difficult task.”

While ‘presenteeism’ is starting to lose its grip on UK workplaces, it is still a major issue in other markets such as Japan. Gratton thinks change is afoot also there, as the younger generation is bringing with them a desire for more flexibility, especially as child-rearing is increasingly a task for dad as well as mum. Still, Gratton is reluctant to call one way of management better than the other: “Take investment banks, where you have to work from 8am to 10pm. I do not know if that is the right deal, but anyone who joins knows that is the deal. The consequence is that they are not always going to be attracting the most interesting people,” says Gratton.

As the PwC study shows that younger people are increasingly skeptical of the merits of letting their work be their life, Yahoo! may well lose some of their employees over the decision to cut back on flexibility. But, concludes Gratton, but only time will tell if this ‘backlash’ was the right decision: “There are no rights or wrongs, just consequences. As a leader, you need to decide what sort of corporation you want to build.”

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Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.