The nature of work is changing far quicker than the economic world around us. Just glance around a modern workplace to see how far our working styles have evolved from just a few years ago. Ask an executive the seemingly simple question "what is a 'normal' job?" and the probability is that they'll struggle to answer.
This quantum leap in workplace evolution means that the old metrics of grandiose job titles, large offices and regimented working hours no longer fit with a dynamic, multi-skilled, itinerant workforce. Constraining employees with antiquated practices just doesn't deliver.
Trying to answer questions of the 'normality' of today's work exposes some crucial and fascinating areas recently explored by research, such as; making sense of why we've radically changed the way we choose to work, and are these changes any good – good for individuals and for overall productivity?
I want to explore four inter-related factors that dominate today's work landscape; talent availability, productivity, healthy and sustainable workplaces.
Firms know the ability to attract, recruit, and retain the best talent is vital to their innovative and economic survival. Yet managers still resist granting the spatial and temporal freedom their staff need to work effectively.
How often do we hear "If only managers could get out of our way, we could get more done" or "When I've got something important to do, I need to get out of the office to get the work done?"
Research has shown just how rare talent has become – a 25 per cent shortfall in the UK alone – and this has become a bargaining chip. People are picking and choosing employers who offer optimum working practices to suit their needs, whether it's the flashy corporate office or a convenient Starbucks.
Once hired, evidence shows that (at least in the short-term) employees will tolerate the perception of fewer training and promotion opportunities in return for being trusted to deliver effective, productive, timely work at the time of their choosing.
But these changes in workforce demographics are also resulting in 'talent ghettos' – the sharp uptake of new working practices are allowing in-demand talent to disperse to the more desirable locations where the quality of life, the ambience, and the environment are more conducive to family life.
That means a growing dearth of talent in the very areas where office conurbations exist – namely city centres. An outdated, poorly utilised, inappropriately located property portfolio that fails to cater to today's working styles is not only throwing money down the drain, it's exposing organisations to a progressive and potentially unstoppable decay in their competitiveness, innovation and productivity.
The signals are clear for employers to see. Ignoring the demands and expectations of today's workforce are a sure-fire way of inhibiting productivity and finding staff voting with their feet.
The shift to virtual working is also causing major headaches for managers. The vast majority grew up and acquired their skills in a physical office environment. Yet in a company where half the staff work virtually, the trappings and status traditionally associated with 'moving up the ladder' are long-gone. But without these clues how do you motivate the team you don't see?
This rift between managers and staff is leading to unacceptably poor productivity – costing £2.5 billion a year, or £1,600 of lost productivity per employee in the UK alone.
What's abundantly clear is that creating an integrated, committed and productive workforce demands the elimination of stumbling blocks and conventions that tied us to the central corporate hub.
Trust, recognition, status, career development and promotional opportunities all form the backbone of successful teams, irrespective of where they're based.
In this hothouse of change, managers are in desperate need of the support, mentoring, and coaching required to operate effectively.
A healthy workplace
No one goes to work for the good of their health. However, in the 21st century should we really be accepting that our work has demonstrably harmful effects on our wellbeing?
Far too many employers assume that stressful working conditions are a necessary evil if they are to remain productive and profitable. Yet there's now unanimous acknowledgement of the direct interaction between sustainable employee health and the construct of the workplace.
Burnout and excess stress are far more prevalent in organisations which ignore the demands of their workforce to work from locations of their own choosing.
If organisations are to avoid unsustainable, undesirable and uncompetitive business practices, they need to act – and act soon. Remember the raft of litigations over issues such as asbestos in the workplace? The ponder what employers might face in the future because of their failure to change workplace practices that cause stress and burnout??
Lastly, there's the environmental impact of our workplaces. This isn't something that can be dismissed as just the next big thing – it's THE big thing.
Given the proportion of carbon emissions caused by our offices - and the commuting involved in getting to them, it can only be a matter of time before the heavy hand of legislation falls on every company.
This articles draws on research carried out as part of the much larger "Effective Work in the 21st Century" research programme undertaken by Durham Business School and JBA. Outputs from this research is available in the Management-Issues membership section (free registration required).
What's abundantly clear is that responsible organisations can no longer derive commercial growth through the copious consumption of environmental resources. Employees and customers alike will, en masse, vote with their feet.
Creating an environmentally sustainable operation demands scrutiny of all aspects of an organisation – space utilisation, business processes, culture, rewards and incentives, technologies, and commute conventions.
Realising and sustaining the required level of change demands a robust financial basis – carbon footprint must be assessed, opportunities for emission reduction identified, commitment secured from the entire organisation, and a strategy for ongoing sustainability developed.
The question to pose is simply put; "which bunch of people do you want to be with?" Are you denying the facts or do you wish to be part of a positive, equitable, sustainable future? Of course, when challenged every one of us, without exception, will want to be part of a sustainable world.
The bottom line to workplace change is; "only when the mindset of previous generations becomes extinct will real progress have been made".