Business offices have changed over the centuries as management theory, materials and technology have evolved. The pace of this change is increasing, and the nature of the change now includes where and how people work together. Of course, technology has had material changes on how we work; all we need to do is imagine the constant click clack of an office full of typewriters to feel the comforts of a quiet keyboard. But beyond the material changes, there has been a change of the fundamental concept of ‘work’ – what it is and what it requires from each of us.
In the past, work retained a concept borne from the industrial age. “Going to work” was about arriving at a specific location and working on a specific task either as an individual or with the same group of people. Work is specified and products are uniform, adhering to rigidly maintained standards. Managers worked from the philosophy of managing by seeing, and they valued employees as implementers of work, not as instigators of ideas. And though you think this is still the case, if we take a look at the drivers of transformation we’ll find that today’s workplace is unrecognisable from the antiquated industrial ideal.
DRIVING THE CHANGE
Technological advances have enabled organisations to connect teams/businesses across the globe and as a result, we are seeing an increasing number of distributed teams working cross-culturally. In our recent survey of 30 MNCs in Asia, 75% reported an increase in use of virtual teams over the last two years, while 69% reported an increase in having employees report to a leader outside of their own country. Ten years ago only senior leaders to report out of country, how times have changed! With these changes come both benefits and challenges.
On the positive side, working with diverse teams provides more powerful insight into issues/challenges as people gain new and different perspectives which would have been lost under the old model. The challenge is that maintaining effective links when working from a distance or with so many different, sometimes conflicting perspectives
Equipping leaders with the knowledge and skills of how to lead and manage diverse teams from a distance is important. In addition, leaders must shift their mind-set from “managing by seeing” to “managing by results” and look to workers as idea generators, rather than work producers.
Today, globalisation is an inescapable business reality, even going so far as to merge into the concept of the local business. For example, McDonalds’ Le McWrap Chèvre in France or Kiwiburger in New Zealand blurs the boundaries between the global and the local. If the industrial concept of uniformity of production remained – along with globalisation- the world would be a pretty samey place to live in. Fortunately the nature of work has moved with the times!
Technologies such as mobility, cloud computing, web conferencing and telepresence have driven connectivity across the globe. Employees can work in different locations or on the road and still collaborate, allowing for the connectivity required for a globally diverse perspective.
Obtaining and sharing knowledge 24/7 is becoming easier and faster and this is accelerating as mobile and Internet devices are becoming more accessible in emerging markets and from more remote locations. Allowing people to work remotely increases the opportunity to utilise people capability without requiring people to move.
Diversity is rapidly increasing, and who knows where an influx of new ideas will lead!
The notion of “going to work” is changing from going to a specific location to having more flexibility in choosing where and when to work. Studies show that, people generally prefer to have the freedom to define and tackle issues on their own. They value work/life balance more than other generations. Organisations need to consider this in how they design the workplace if they hope to attract, motivate and retain talent.
A body of research also suggests that having the opportunity to organise work demands around the natural body rhythm may produce positive results in tasks such as resolving conflicts and thinking creatively.
The notion of “going to work” is changing from going to a specific location to having more flexibility in choosing where and when to work. People can work from home and have the freedom to define and tackle issues on their own initiative whilst utilising the expertise of others from rapid communications technology. People are more creative, more productive and happier when able to work flexibly.
With this change come changes to the workplace. Organisations can optimise costs by reducing unneeded office space. They also often want to increase collaboration by including collaboration space, making work a more sociable space than the old labyrinth of isolated cubicles.
The office is becoming a collaboration hub where employees can meet face-to-face and spend time connecting with each other. Individual work is increasingly occurring in shared space, or outside the office altogether.
Workplace transformation has clear benefits. Research and practice show that a properly redesigned space enabled with the right change management can improve employee collaboration, attract talent, improve employee productivity and innovation, increase well-being and reduce CO2 emissions.
Workers have adapted to the new concept of work, changing their behaviours and mind-set to work effectively within a new environment. Whether we realise it or not, we expect more than the industrial concept of work and will be unhappy if our demands aren’t met. We need the flexibility, diversity, communications and freedom the modern workplace offers.
But who knows what the future holds, even change is changing and faster than ever before! The advent of new technology such as 3D printing, the Internet of Things and rapid transportation may seem make our contemporary ideas as outdated as turning up 16 hours a day, 6 days a week like our unfortunate ancestors. But one thing is certain, work is no longer what it was once and is unlikely to stay the same for very long.