The Truly Flexible Workplace

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Prior to the advent of the Industrial Revolution, employment centred around trades and artisan crafters. People lived and worked with their families in one place, trading locally what they produced by hand.

Then came mechanisation, accompanied by a thirst for profits. Earning a crust no longer required a lifetime perfecting the skills your parents taught you. Talented individuals congregated together in cities, were exploited and reduced to cogs in a giant machine.

Fast forward to the modern day and we’re still stuck in systems, though largely of a different kind. If we’re not answering emails, we’re answering the phone or trying to provide answers in meetings. We emphasise over and again how things are changing at an exponential rate, yet the way we do things changes little. Some individuals excel under such noisy, competitive environments, whereas others are feeling stifled, pressured and micro managed.

No wonder creativity and innovation – those forces which differentiate us from others, perhaps on which our survival depends, are so elusive. Instead of putting our energy into new ideas, we’re forced to focus on fitting in and adhering to the accepted norms.

Research consistently demonstrates that the best conditions for creativity are the complete opposite of the modern working environment, and yet this fact is knowingly ignored. That’s why homeworking is underused, and even being withdrawn, despite the evidence that it improves productivity. That’s why individuals are forced to work collectively in the name of being creative when research shows the best ideas come from working alone. That’s why social networks are being banned or regulated in many workplaces despite the stats showing it’s the only method trumping solo creativity.

Other than on the fringes, where some truly people-centric organisations are developing, most merely dabble in attempts to make their organisations more effective. We now have an amazing set of tools that will allow us to follow the research in order to build workplaces that actually work, but this will require a large scale change in mindsets similar in scale to that of the industrial revolution.

The workplaces of the future will concentrate on outcome rather than process. Workers will be encouraged to perform in ways which enable them to do their best. Workspaces will be flexible, allowing employees to pick the time and location of their working day.

At the moment we have to be content with small baby steps towards this goal. Changes such as the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees (not just those with children) in the UK. It’s a small win, but one that still emphasises two distinct entities of “home” and “work”. These boundaries are becoming more blurred year on year, almost comparable to pre-industrial times where work and home was more often than not the same place. But the example of the industrial revolution also demonstrates the poignancy of a tipping point, where resistance becomes the minority and thus is futile.

The workplace of the future is now looming, are you ready?

Image via Metropolis Mag

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2 thoughts on “The Truly Flexible Workplace

  1. Funny…I was just watching “Halt and Catch Fire”, a tv show set at a tech company in the early 80’s, and it occurred to me that, other than the hairstyles, the workplace they’re depicting doesn’t look much different from most offices today. And the hierarchical interactions haven’t changed much in 30 years either. Why haven’t management systems advanced in step with technology?

    Great post, Helen.

    1. Thanks Bernadine! I think your point about technology is a very interesting one – those technological advances were fuelled by the new ways of working championed by IT pioneers such as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, yet we focus much more on the outcomes of their work than how they achieved so much!

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