The workplace and workforce of the future

The concept of a fluid working environment is revolutionary. 

It’s seen the birth of new business models, where companies are designed around networks, teams or communities rather than reporting lines. 

The traditional hierarchy – and even flat management models – are giving way to “soft structures” that are agile. 

Going to work no longer means showing up at a specific location.

Janine Nel, Deloitte’s organisation transformation and talent leader, says they consider three deeply integrated dimensions when they talk about the future of work:

- The work – how it is changing to achieve new business goals and how to require different skills and capabilities to adapt to automation.

The workforce – the people who perform the work as it changes and how organisations can close skills gaps by tapping into alternative talent pools or upskilling.

- The workplace – which is characterised by the integration of global sites, virtual teams, flexible and adaptable organisations as well as complex and matrixed structures.

The driving forces

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has been driving the change in how we perceive work and, through its rapid technological advancements, how we perceive the workplace. 

Generation X has been driving the shift to a fluid workforce.

Ray de Villiers, consultant and specialist in the future world of work, says when Gen X entered the workplace, they started pushing back against the traditional work environment whereby the company paid them a salary to spend a certain amount of time at the office.

“Gen X started saying it was not about buying my time, it was about my ability to deliver. 

This started the (slow) move away from an input-oriented view of the workplace to an output-oriented approach,” says De Villiers.

In recent times, the shift has been accelerated by technological innovation, new social dynamics and changes in corporate culture.

The Deloitte Review Issue 13, The Open Talent Economy, states that companies hiring full-time employees to work eight- to nine-hour shifts has given way to a new approach, namely the open talent economy. 

The Review defines the open talent economy as “a collaborative, transparent, technology-enabled, rapid-cycle way of doing business through networks and ecosystems”.  

De Villiers says one of the most significant trends in recent times has been the move to holacracy – where companies are designed with no formal structure and away from hierarchies or even “flat management structures”.

In companies where the holacracy model has been adopted, the task of the manager is to identify the tasks or projects, the required resources to get it done, and the expected outcomes. 

“They just put the task out and the people in the business or in the team who believe they have some value to contribute will volunteer and self-organise around the task,” explains De Villiers.

They start creating “circles” around a particular task. 

The role of the manager is not to manage every step of the way or to manage a project plan. 

When the people are allowed to self-manage, they do the managing, says De Villiers.

Holacracy is the purist form of a fluid and social networked environment, says Nel. 

It is a business model similar to that of Google, Netflix and Spotify. 

The Dutch banking group ING adopted an “agile model” in 2015. 

Its former chief operating officer, Bart Schlatmann, said in a McKinsey Quarterly interview (January 2017) there was no particular financial imperative, since the company was performing well, and interest rates were still at a decent level. 

“Customer behaviour, however, was rapidly changing in response to new digital distribution channels, and customer expectations were being shaped by digital leaders in other industries, not just banking. 

We needed to stop thinking traditionally about product marketing and start understanding customer journeys in this new omni-channel environment,” said Schlatmann. 

He went on to say: “Agility is about flexibility and the ability of an organisation to rapidly adapt and steer itself in a new direction. 

It’s about minimising handovers and bureaucracy, and empowering people.” 

Being agile is not just about changing the IT department or any other function on its own, added Schlatmann. 

Some industries are by virtue of what they do more flexible. 

This includes the technology and media industry, says Nel. 

“They are some of the early adopters of this (fluid) workforce. 

They started the transition into more flexible workspaces, but we also see pockets of this in the technology departments of large corporates such as our leading financial services institutions,” she explains.  

A fluid future

The Deloitte Review states that “business leaders and customers expect agility, scale, and the right skills on demand”.

These new business and talent models look less like integrated factories and companies and more like highly orchestrated networks and ecosystems with a multitude of approaches to mobilising and engaging talent, skills, leaders, and ideas.

“What the open source model did for software development, the open talent economy is doing for work,” according to the Deloitte Review.   

De Villiers refers to the World Economic Forum’s model for the development of 21st century skills. 

It is not so much about the skills a person has, but more about the type of person they are. 

“In a world where things change as much as they do, and are as fluid as they are, locking ourselves into one particular skillset is essentially positioning ourselves for eventual redundancy.”

The “right” type of person in a world of change, turmoil and fluidity will continually make sure they have the skills and ability to deliver. This person is curious and is able to ask the right questions, connect the dots and can lead themselves in times of turmoil and transition.

The approach to a changing world will require intuition, social and cultural awareness – the ability to adjust your perspective of what is normal and what is comfortable to fit with other people who are different – and resilience. 

Nel says the advantages for companies having a fluid workforce and workplace are flexibility, reduced overhead costs and outcomes-based performance. 

De Villiers says the shadow to this new world of work is loneliness. “We have not really credited how much of our social life and our social connection and commitment to other people comes from the fact that we spend so much of our workdays with people,” he says.

De Villiers says it might be an artificial friendship environment, but the reality is that our closest friends are often the people we work with. 

People who are part of the fluid workforce have to find new ways of connecting. Social media and social networking will play an important part in the way we form and manage relationships in this new world of work.  

This article originally appeared in the 21 February edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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