There is a buzz in the air that workplaces are in the process of changing. Co-working spaces are flourishing. A vast array of tools promise to make work easier, more enjoyable, more collaborative. But it is more than just the work environment that is transforming. Work itself takes on new forms.
Work is shaped by three forces: First, work is transformed by technology, secondly, work is transformed by a new generation, and third work is transformed by employees.
Technology has slowly made itself indispensable for work. Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures, describes the sudden lack of their servers after being hacked in late November 2014 as having “their house burned down“. A new communication system had to be created for day-to-day business to continue. Some companies describe themselves as ‘google-business’, running fully on google based products: Gmail, google office suit, google hangout etc. Also schools become increasingly reliant on technology, with Google’s success of Google for Education.
The rise of collaborative software allows employees to work at a distance, creating virtual and physical employees. This creates new challenges for successful team work, coordination of employees across time zones, and increasing need of all employees to be able to deal with different cultures. But it also offers people the opportunity to combine their favorite place to live with their dream career. Or, as in the case of a friend of mine, to allow for both partners to pursue their dream career.
But technologies have always changed our lives. We tend to associate technology with new computer based tools. But this is a biased mindset – as I learned myself during a conference session entitled “How technology and geography influence network dynamics”. Surprisingly, the session talked about how the invention of ships helped individuals span geographic distances and through this increase their power and influence in the region. I’m entrenched in educational settings, and one important lesson is that technology is not the solution, they are only a potential tool to solve problems. This is the same for settings that are not within the educational context. Challenges related to getting work done, does not need to be solved with tools.
Work transformed by a new generation
Millennials, the graduates flooding the labor market during the past years, are described as different. Millennials are those young people born between 1980 and 2000. They are described as valuing greater collaboration, flexibility, team work and global opportunities. Comparing this to the older generation it might not be that much different. We all like to create and collaborate. One aspect that might set this generation apart from its predecessor (at least in the US) is its mediocre performance on critical and essential skills such as literacy, math, and problem solving in technological rich environments. The next generation, while being described as tech savvy and digital natives, lack the crucial skills to function in the workplace: The ability to work independently, to design its own tasks, and to produce work without external rewards.
What strikes me is that on one side we are seeing a hype of articles on young millionaires and startups, creating the impression that millennials are well able to perform and create exciting new companies. But it seems that a large part of them passed through high school and colleges without acquiring the necessary skills. Could it be that education focuses too much on passing on knowledge, overseeing that knowledge is nowadays only one tap away? This new generation transforms the workplace by being, on average, demanding but not being able to produce. Companies need to find a way to hire the right millennial (there is no way around that) and giving him or her the necessary support to adapt to the workplace and be productive.
Work transformed by employees
In The Rise of the Creative Class Richard Florida describes how a new group of employees, those that work to create – artists, engineers, computer scientists and others in knowledge intensive jobs – create for a living. Work is not anymore work, but the vehicle to express one’s creativity. Think about Etsy or the newly regained popularity of hobbies such as knitting. We are moving away from consuming products, but seeking meaning in our lives by creating useful products and consuming experiences. This is mirrored by the discussion in HR about creating engaged employees, those that are passionate about their work. Or the wish of many employees to have a better work-life balance.
While some make work their passion, others prefer not or can not. Whatever the situation, people seek happiness in their live. They seek experiences they can enjoy, activities that gives you this buzzing feeling, the one you get when you don’t know where time went. I find it when I read and talk about research with colleagues and suddenly see a link. Two fields merge and I find myself in the intersection, the place where sparks ignite. This is what the authors of The Second Machine Age see as the essence of human work: We will be able to devote all our attention on creating, as robots and machines take care of the mundane tasks. While this may be great, what about the masses of people who were not prepared to be creative, those that do not have skills to create or those whose motivation to create has been killed by the education system? Derek Thompson writes about this in his article A world without work. However, his picture seems to be initially bleak: Being unemployed puts people nowadays in isolation. Today’s society is not ready for a world with fewer jobs, people calculate their self-esteem based on the value they bring to society. Maybe in a world without work, those of us whose job is to create for a living (i.e. to work) will become the isolates, not having the time to create simply for the love of creating something.
Technology allows us to work differently, from the comfort of our homes or the buzzing life of coffee shops. Technology also takes care of many routine tasks we do not find engaging. Unfortunately, it can also fully take care of some jobs, eliminating their need. Some jobs will disappear while new ones will appear. Preparing workers and the coming generations for these new jobs and possibly a world with less work and more free time is today’s challenge.