By Will Grahame-Clarke
he future of work feels closer than ever before. Technology, longer lives and individual expectations are tearing at the seams of conventional office life. The revolution is happening before our eyes.
The rise of self-employment, portfolio careers, the home office, the shared office all respond to the uncertainty of contemporary employment and answer a mood of self-determination in society as a whole; to be your own boss and chase your dreams. It is work not just as remuneration but as a component of identity and a path to self-fulfilment.
Office of the future
London Business School (LBS) alumnus Jack Huang is at the forefront of the change. In 2012 he founded Truly Experiences and quickly began hiring globally but without the usual expectation that people transplant their lives to be near the office.
“The whole idea of hiring people who can get to your office is outdated,” he says. “There are so many online collaboration tools – someone’s location is mattering less and less.”
However, even top talent gets ‘out of sync’, says Huang, who has come up with a solution to help teams who don’t chat at the water cooler. Remote teams can easily slip into batting solutions back and forth, he’s found, with no one selecting an option to solve a problem or seize an opportunity.
For Huang the answer is to set out a clear decision-making process. Decide how they are going to decide in advance.
“The whole idea of hiring people who can get to your office is outdated.”
“This process avoids the opinion-shouting back-and-forth that’s all too common in company meeting rooms,” says Huang. “When it’s not kept in check, it can get out of hand in video calls or chat tools.
“For instance, a recent meeting about customer workflow could have resulted in a long debate about which of the possible six ways to go. But because everyone quickly agreed that saving customers’ time was the most important factor, the solution was clear.”
Manager of the future
Navigating the complex expectations of employees and getting the best from them can seem like an overwhelming task. Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Deputy Dean at LBS, argues that good managers understand themselves as much as they have insight into others.
“A good boss doesn’t just understand their employees better: they also understand themselves better,” he says. “We’ve got to be smart enough to say, ‘Look, I know what I’m meant to be doing and I know that I often slide into this less-good aspect of management, so I’ve got to create techniques and tips to pull myself back to doing the job better.’ A good manager understands their own strengths and weaknesses.
“Another element that will affect how well you manage is what sort of organisation you find yourself in. We can identify three idealised types of organisation in the world. If your company is a bureaucracy, your position on the organisational chart matters a great deal. In a meritocracy, the person who ultimately calls the shots is the one who has the most relevant expertise on a particular issue; knowledge has privilege over position. In an adhocracy, taking action is what counts and you default towards trying things out differently.
“Adhocracy is a desirable model in today’s fast-changing business world because it enables experimentation and front-line commitment. But it’s incredibly fragile. Whenever any organisation goes through any sort of crisis, whenever there’s a downturn, people gravitate back to the model of working they are comfortable with. We need to find ways of protecting adhocracy – by putting those activities in separate units or by making sure we put leaders in charge of those activities who are a little more proactive or maverick in the way that they work.”
Job roles of the future
Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, says the idea of fulfilling fixed roles, like PA or HR Manager, is an idea that dates back to the industrial revolution. The modern office and employee needs a more flexible approach.
“During the industrial revolution, we stopped working in our fields and small shops and we invented large organisations,” explains Professor Cable. “These organisations allowed for scale by creating standardised, well-defined jobs, where people were told how to act when they held that job title. They were rewarded for acting in the way they were told, and punished for not acting the way they were told.
“Ever since then, jobs could be seen fixed shells (or cells) that employees had to fit themselves into. Job titles and descriptions were very stable across time, and what they ‘described’ were the behaviours and activities needed to be competent in the job. The job was the consistent part of the equation, and the employee was the one who had to fit into the job.
“Due to the increasing speed of change, organisations don’t work very well when employees just do what they are told. Nowadays organisations need innovation and agility from employees. As organisations strive to remain relevant and adaptive to the external environment, the classic idea of a job title as a stable shell is shifting. Leaders want quick reactions to production and service problems. This opens the door for employees to use their personal skills to adapt the job, and the job title, around their strengths.”
“As the environment changes faster, job titles and descriptions will become less standardised and more personalised. The ‘best’ way to describe and perform the tasks of a job will be based more on employees’ idiosyncratic strengths and passions, and less on ‘what used to work’. This is because the way that one employee or team best interacts with customers and produces a final product or report may be very different from another employee or team.”
The retirement of retirement
Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at LBS, has written extensively on the implications of longer lives for businesses and individuals. Her bestseller The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity co-authored with Andrew Scott, Professor of Economics at LBS, set out the idea that the old model of a three-stage life, consisting of a first stage full-time education, moving into full-time work, followed by retirement at 60, is swiftly becoming redundant.
“As the environment changes faster, job titles and descriptions will become less standardised and more personalised.”
“When working life elongates into our 70s and 80s clearly that three-stage life is going to break down,” she says.
“How could you possibly be educated only once in your life? How could you possibly work full-time, right from 20 to 70 – surely you need to take breaks? Why retire at 60 when you could live until you are 100?”
Scott says: “What we are suggesting is that the multi-stage life will replace it, by which we mean you will do many things at many different times… I’m not saying everyone can do this but the majority of people can do this and the majority must.
“Please don’t think the world will solve this problem for you,” he adds. “You must be self-determining and say you are going to solve this problem, learn a new skill, find a company, which wants over-50s and over-60s. The multi-stage life requires each of us to be as active as possible.”