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What’s Happening to Work?

Thirty or more years ago I became involved in a couple of organisations that were trying to get a handle on the future. In particular I was interested in the future of work. Over the next ten or fifteen years I was invited to attend many national conferences and presented papers on the subject. At this time in my management career I was trying create productive workplaces that acknowledged the humanity of those that worked in them. Traditional workplaces tended to be hierarchical places which pigeonholed people into jobs that were rigidly prescribed by an archaic award system. In carrying out this work it was useful to know what opportunities might be opened up by changing technologies and work practices.

Some employment trends began to become obvious to me.

When I was a young engineer working in power stations, a large part of the workforce comprised tradesmen (yes they were invariably all men) and trades assistants. But as technologies progressed their numbers declined as a proportion of the workforce. There were many reasons for this but one of the major ones was the improvement in materials technology. Modern materials didn’t wear as fast or corrode as much. In those days mechanical tradesmen, in particular, were called upon to repair parts or manufacture replacement parts. Improvements in materials substantially reduced this aspect of their work. Technology changes impacted (perhaps not to the same extent) to the work of the other trades. Gradually we saw the role of the tradesperson reduce to be replaced by more qualified people with associate diplomas. In power stations technicians were in great demand as more of the processes were automated.

In those days we talked about the “knowledge economy” and “knowledge workers”. Much of the lesser skilled work in both white and blue collar domains was being automated. This move had two major impacts. The work that was being created was more challenging and intellectually demanding and therefore more interesting. Consequently the so-called “knowledge workers” were better motivated, empowered and self-reliant. They therefore were less attracted by unions, feeling confident in their abilities and being more generally aligned with the purpose of the enterprise.

But the downside of all of this was that job opportunities for unskilled people began to markedly reduce. In particular this has resulted in much higher unemployment rates for unskilled males.

One of the more stultifying influences on productivity in the workplace was the notion of “jobs”. In many industrial workplaces when you were employed what you were required to do in your employment was rigidly prescribed by an industrial award and further constrained by union demarcations. It was no doubt a good short term prescription for creating employment. I can remember my father, who was an avid unionist, promoting the ethos of “one man, one job”.

In the early eighties we began to promote the notion of multiskilling and we paid people more to acquire the skills to make them more useful. More importantly in the workplaces I ran we tried to create the ethos that people weren’t employed to do a particular “job” but to utilise their skills as productively as possible to the benefit of the enterprise. This approach tended to provide greater motivation because people were more engaged in their work, their work was broader and more varied and they had developmental opportunities.

When people were constrained by awards and unions in their narrow jobs, planning work was far more complex. Even a rather simple job would often require an electrician, a fitter, a rigger and perhaps a crane driver. Organising to get all those people synchronised to perform their little roles in the right place and the right time, was a planner’s nightmare.

So in time in the better workplaces, the only constraints about what people were able to do were their individual skills. Because workers had larger skill sets, they then became more involved in the scheduling and planning of work and required less supervision and thus gained more autonomy which was in itself motivating.

Perhaps I view the past with rose-coloured glasses but it seemed to me (and was confirmed by attitudinal surveys) that not only were our workplaces becoming more productive but people working there enjoyed greater job satisfaction.

But since those heady times (the 1980’s and 1990’s) when microeconomic and workplace reform flourished for a time, other factors have impacted the world of work.

One of the phenomenon we have had to contend with is the rise of Generation Y (people born since about 1982). Now I always feel uncomfortable type casting people and would be the first to admit however the characteristics of Generation Y are defined there will be myriads of exceptions. Moreover the characteristics that sociologists claim to be typical of Generation Y are not innate but are conditioned responses to the prevailing socioeconomic conditions.

Some of the literature is very critical of the Y Generation. A paper quoted by Psychology Today makes the following rather extreme assessment:

“(The members of Generation Y) are arguably the most reviled generation in recent history and armies of consultants are hustling to decipher them. Called the ‘Trophy Generation’, notorious for receiving prizes simply for turning up, they are thought to be entitled, narcissistic, self-promotional, coddled, opinionated, whiny and needy. They seek constant feedback and immediate gratification. They multi-task and can’t focus. They’re sensitive to criticism and unable to work alone. They refuse to pay their dues.”

Whilst the above is perhaps somewhat “over the top” there is no doubt some semblance of truth here. But despite their faults (including lack of verbal and written communication skills, lack of organisational loyalty etc.) they also are flexible, technology savvy and innovative. They are used to team working and are motivated by an opportunity to contribute rather than by money. Despite that they tend to be more materialistic, less engaged politically and more resentful of authority.

Now, whether you like them or not, you’d better get used to them because there are more than 6 million of them in Australia. Moreover because the best of them are clever, ambitious and driven, many of us will be working for them before too long!

However they are having a major impact on the world of work. Workplaces will need to become more open and flexible to engage these people. Because they have little respect for authority successful leaders will need to have far greater influencing skills to bring them “on board” and not expect them to accede to supervisor’s demands merely because of their position in the hierarchy.

And of course, Generation Y has brought their social technologies with them into the workplace.

It is an amazing transformation, is it not? In my younger days access to telephones was strictly monitored and permission had to be obtained to make STD calls outside the local area! Now in our modern workplaces people seemed to be permanently attached to their particular devices. They seem to be so pervasive as to almost be addicted. I was waiting for an airplane at the airport the other morning. In the departure lounge there were probably sixty people. Perhaps ten of us were not playing with our preferred electronic device!

But like them or loath them social technologies are here to stay. Social technologies distinguish themselves through the following three characteristics (Bugin et al, 2011)

  • They are enabled by information technologies
  • They provide distributed rights to create, add, and/or modify content and communication
  • They enable distributed access to consume content and communicate

Increasingly social technologies are embedding themselves in work practices. A comprehensive study a couple of years ago by Millward Brown of 2700 European professionals found:

  • 32% are using external social media such as Google, Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin for work related purposes each day
  • 23% are using in-house social tools (set up for use by people within the business) each day
  • Less than 25% never use social media in their day to day work

Many managers would be ambivalent about this. Well-used the technologies could no doubt be used to the benefit of the enterprise but many would be concerned that they are just a way for Generation Y to compensate for their short attention spans!

There is no doubt that more and more participants in today’s world of work are becoming more entrepreneurial with ambitions to work for themselves. Indeed the tradespeople that in the 60’s and 70’s were employed by large industrial organisations  and were the mainstay of the union movement, now seem more motivated to run their own small businesses.

In a recent article, Stefan Hajkowicz, the CSIRO principal scientist in strategic foresight said “technology and economic disruption were breaking down the original reason to form large firms”. He argues that this is influencing firms to outsource more and more work thus creating the opportunity for smaller organisations to provide more products and services to big organisations.

He maintained that “(under these circumstances) many more people made their own job through freelancing rather than working for a single (large) company.”

But of course it is going to be technology that will further modify the world of work. Automation and artificial intelligence are poised to make further major impacts on the work of the future. The principal concern is that whilst such technology will create better jobs it will also lead to fewer jobs. And again it will be those that can’t manage to build a relevant skills base that will suffer.

As well we are seeing some of the demographics collide. From the sixties more and more women entered the workforce which was to be commended. However this extra demand for jobs made it more and more difficult to maintain low levels of unemployment. In an economic landscape of reduced employment there is a tension between youth employment and the employment of aged people. Both demographics are underemployed. It is unfortunate that the efforts to increase the employment levels of our aged workforce will inevitably reduce opportunities for the young. Governments, oppositions and unions respond to unemployment by advocating more training. Without real jobs being created training just ensures that the unemployed are more skilled! What’s more the union movement has continually tried to increase the wages of apprentices and juniors which has reduced the employment prospects of young people.

But of course the major enabler of employment is economic growth. Without wanting to nag, (see my recent blog essay The Importance of Productivity) if you are concerned about our high rates of unemployment, you might do well to consider what I wrote about the need to improve productivity! Whatever the nature of work may be in the future, and it is sure to be different to today, there will be more of it in a growing economy.

It seems to me that we need to be flexible, innovative and proactive in creating the workplaces of the future. We need to anticipate the needs of future workplaces embracing both the technological changes and the emerging social dynamics. Some recent research suggests that many of the prizes of employment will go to those who can tolerate ambiguity. We face an uncertain future where the jobs of the past are very different to the work of the future. Position descriptions and prescriptive industrial arrangements have little relevance in such a world.

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  1. 1 Comment(s)

  2.   By Blake on Jul 5, 2015 | Reply

    Great article. Note about your point on entrepreneurs working for themselves in their own small businesses… is that this is often a necessity rather than a choice, because only Contract engagements are available (compared to full time jobs).

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