3 Ways Work Has Changed and What We Should Do About It

The world of work is changing on many fronts. There are new technologies, new forms of organization and new forms of commerce. We have much greater mobility, more places to work  and an increasing desire to have more control over our working lives.

In the face of such rapid change, it’s worth stopping for a moment to ask, “What will work be like in 10 years’ time?” Will it be radically different? Or will it be like yesterday, only slightly modified?

My team and I at Flexibility.co.uk recently explored these questions in our new report “It’s Work But Not As We Know It.” We looked at the range of dynamic changes that are transforming the way we work. And we saw that the impacts of these changes will ripple out way beyond the workplace.

Here are three ways in which the changing world of work affects us all.

1. Work is happening everywhere.

The office is no longer only a physical place. It also exists online. Increasingly, work can be everywhere. The boundaries between work activity and rest-of-life activities are blurring — especially when we use the same devices and same spaces for both.

But the multiple spaces we now use for work are not optimized for working. We work on trains, in cafes, at home and wherever we can — but often these environments are not entirely suited to the task.

So we need to rethink how we plan homes, public spaces and communities. Homes need to be designed with workspaces in mind.

Communities and main streets need to incorporate fit-for-purpose places where people can work on an as-needed basis. (Co-working centers, workhubs and multi-purpose spaces are good examples of this.)

2. New forms of collaboration are on the way.

The tools already exist for affordable and effective conferencing. And more immersive forms of online collaboration are on the way. “Holopresence” and 3D video communications are arriving, and prices will drop fast over the next five years as consumer-level applications come into the market.

In addition to connecting with each other virtually, we will increasingly interact with systems and objects that support our work or other aspects of our daily lives. We are looking at a situation where virtuality will become normal.

Instead of trying to replicate old-style formal meetings online, we need to challenge tradition and take advantage of new technology to work more effectively, wherever we are. This means a new culture of “officeless working.”

3. Working with AI and robots will grow.

Robots perform increasingly sophisticated tasks in factories, laboratories and hospitals. They’re also spreading to white-collar work, as administrative and clerical tasks are undertaken by intelligent systems.

This transition is leading to a “hollowing out” of the workforce. Higher-skilled and technically creative roles are in demand to develop new capabilities in this field. And skilled technicians are needed to monitor and maintain automated and intelligent systems. Most of these higher-skilled and technical roles can be done from anywhere.

In effect, robotics and AI recast much hands-on work as knowledge work, as well as generate new industries in themselves.

Ever-faster evolution

I’ve only skimmed over the surface of an ever-faster evolution of work. It all adds up to a world with new spatial relationships around work, home, education and leisure.

For business and the public sector, it marks the beginning of the end for “the office” as a physical place that defines our culture of working. And within the shrinking office, desks will give way to spaces designed for face-to-face collaborations that create additional value.

And what of those who do process work and will be hollowed out? We need a new approach to education and training that recognizes these changes. The focus needs to be on the technical areas within robotics and AI and what skills are needed for working alongside robots (e.g., in healthcare).

Beyond this, we need a new way to support and encourage enterprise. In the U.S., 62 percent of startups begin life at home. And 59 percent of all enterprises stay there (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 2012). Supporting home-based and local business is the way forward, rather than looking for increasingly rare large-scale inward investment.

What is needed most of all, though, is for us to move away from the mindset that flexible, home-based and virtual working are outside the norm. Then the role of “the workplace” in cities and rural communities can enter a new innovative, more imaginative, more enterprising and liberating phase.

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