By Dirk Olin
The global workplace is at an inflection point. We know this from the streets of Europe (especially Athens) and the highways of America (Slow—Wall Street Occupiers Crossing).
The transformation is no less profound than the shift from field to factory during the industrial revolution, according to Alison Maitland, co-author with Peter Thomas of Future Work. A former journalist with the Financial Times, Maitland directs The Conference Board’s Council for Diversity in Business, and she is a senior visiting fellow in faculty management at Cass Business School in London. Translation: She knows whereof she speaks.
Nor is she alone. Her views were echoed—and amplified in an even more epochal way—by Lynda Gratton during our recent HRO Today Europe Summit. (We convened in Barcelona, surrounded by yet another country rent with socio-economic upheaval, which an unemployment rate north of 20 percent will tend to cause). Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School, is most recently the author of The Shift: The Future of Work Is Already Here. Like Maitland, she sees enormous pressures—and potential—at play in behavioral economics during the coming years.
Although the two academics pull at separate empirical threads, they are in accord on a central reality. Whether one’s sympathies lie with the likes of the Tea Partiers, the Occupiers, or neither, we ignore them at our peril. Their vehemence, if not their prescriptions, must be heard. Their shared sensibility is borne of rapid, and accelerating, socioeconomic change. And, pace Einstein’s definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”), we would be out of our minds to maintain our old ways in the face of such demographic temblors. Think whistling and a graveyard.
The consensus of workplace managers worldwide from recent surveys is clear. Women are on rapid ascent in business. Fully six out of 10 college graduates are female in much of the world—and, yes, that includes the Persian Gulf region. They already constitute more than half the work force in many countries and companies. This carries many positive implications, but it undeniably will create pressures for a more flexible workplace.
Broader demographic developments are also at play. We are living longer, of course, which is good news if you’re interested in knowing your great-grandchildren. But that has huge implications for everything from employment rates to the sustainability of pension regimes. Gratton cites a “100-year-old McDonald’s worker” whom she recently heard about from that company’s HR director. While that’s surely unrepresentative, the reality of a four-generation workforce (boomers, x’s, y’s, millenials) is truly upon us.
Rather than fear mongering, Maitland sees huge potential upsides in all of this. Yes, surveys show increasing disengagement and stress among workers who feel alienated (calling Mr. Marx) but who express a preference for time over money. That offers enlightened managers the opportunity to reduce costs, increase service coverage through staggered shifts, minimize the risk of loss during workplace disruptions, cut absenteeism and turnover by heightening engagement, and generally improving morale by rewarding results over presenteeism.
Pie in the sky? Maitland cites Unilever, The Gap, BT, and others as among big employers who have recently enjoyed huge gains in productivity from telecommuting pilot projects. The paradigm is shifting, in essence, from employment to deployment.
A big challenge, of course, lies in differences between, say, knowledge workers and blue collar workers. You can’t very well assemble an automobile chassis in your living room. So broad principles must guide strategic plans, for which Maitland has coined the acronym TRUST (trusting your workers, rewarding output not hours, understanding the business case, starting at the top with that elusive c-suite buy-in, and treating individuals not a collective).
Change is scary. That is why so many are in the streets. The social contract is being redrawn, and it’s not even clear who owns the pen and paper. That said, one thing is clear. As social media combines with the realities of climate change and the commensurate re-pricing of carbon, fewer and fewer of our children will be driving long commutes to factories or office parks.
Which is why I count at least two blessings when I think of my own children. They’re both girls. And they won’t hit the job market for another eight or nine years.
By Dirk Olin