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Flexible working expert Andy Lake writes about how technology will affect the way we work.
What skills do we need to survive and thrive in the future of work? Especially if we’re looking for more flexibility and more choice around how work interfaces with the rest of life?
Let’s first look at some of the key changes in the world of work we’ll be seeing over the next couple of decades. Robotics and artificial intelligence are transforming work across sectors. The pressure for shorter working weeks, with 4-day or 3-day weeks as standard, is increasing. Similarly for shorter working days – for example a 6-hour day as normal.
The location of work activities is changing. As more work becomes digitised, so it becomes possible to work in many different locations rather than go to a designated workplace all the time. Much more immersive collaboration technologies allow us to collaborate more effectively over distance.
The automation of tasks and use of robotic and remote-controlled tools also means it will be less essential to work ‘hands-on’ with equipment on site. They can be supervised, maintained, upgraded and data from them analysed from multiple locations.
The ‘platform economy’ supports businesses that operate without traditional premises, whether it’s selling online or providing work on an as-needed basis to independent workers in the so-called gig economy.
So what we have here is a landscape of ever-increasing flexibility across three key dimensions: time, place and forms of employment. Being adaptable across these dimensions will help anyone who is looking for a more positive blend or balance between work and the rest of life.
What that means in practice is, for example, rather than looking for a traditional job with an employer there is scope for working for businesses that embrace flexibility. We’ve seen through the Working Mums Top Employers Awards that an increasing number of small and medium-sized businesses are looking for exactly that kind of flexibility. They may not have premises at all. Or are looking to grow but without increasing their real estate footprint.
There are also many large employers who have adopted ‘smart’ or ‘agile’ working. These aim to have ‘flexibility as normal’. So rather than formally applying for a change of job pattern for flexible working, you can pretty much work any time and anywhere so long as you get the work done. It’s often a question of mindset amongst employees and their managers to make the most of this flexibility. So you can be the pioneer – or get your line manager to do so!
In looking for a new role, look for this kind of employer, too. Increasingly, organisations going down this route are open to candidates proposing a flexible pattern of work.
However, if we want choice and autonomy, we need to be more prepared to take control of our working lives, rather than expecting to negotiate the parameters of our flexibility with an employer.
That means being more prepared to launch out as an independent agent, using the skills one has or wishes to develop further. The future world of work is likely to both require and support more independent working.
It is already the case that employers contract out many activities that they used to undertake in- house. All the signs are that this will increase. Highly automated enterprises will need specialist skills on an as-needed basis. To thrive in this context freelancers will need good entrepreneurial skills to gain multiple clients and ensure a good pipeline of work (and not be caught out by government rules on ‘disguised employment’).
One important feature of the new landscape of work is the growth of ‘coworking’ premises or ‘workhubs’. This is the fastest growing area of commercial property at the moment. A coworking centre provides a shared area for work that one can use on an as-needed basis, or rent some space while having access to shared facilities and services. This can give you a base to work without the overhead or long-term commitment of a dedicated office. The best also provide opportunities for networking, working collaboratively and learning new entrepreneurial skills.
While many will still continue to work long term for a single employer, the picture for the future of work in coming decades is going to include much more flexing in and out of work, working more intensively and less intensively at different stages of life, using some time out for retraining in new skills and flexing between employed roles (with various commitments in terms of hours), self-employment or running a small enterprise.
As more of the mind-numbing and routine work is automated, we will all have the chance to think about the kinds of meaningful work we really want to do. Then we should aim to create career paths for ourselves so that we have the skills and opportunities to carry this through.
As men are far more likely than women currently to be self-employed or run a small business, this is a route that might well appeal to many working dads. I suspect that it is one that will also appeal more and more to enterprising working mothers too.
*The issues here – and many more – are the subject of my next book, The Future of Work and Us: How Rethinking Work Changes Everything and What We Should Do About It.