Predicting the future is not an exact science. However, in these days of rapidly changing technology, it has become more imperative than ever for companies to look ahead and try and predict how technological advances, globalisation, environmental concerns and people’s desire for more flexible working will affect the way business is carried out. And this future of work matters not only in the way we work but where we work, says Vanessa Townsend of Recruiter Magazine

Vanessa interviewed TomorrowToday co-founder, workplace futurist and international speaker Dean van Leeuwen for an article published on the 2nd November and titled Brave New World of Business. You can buy the magazine in any good bookstore or read the online version below or at Recruiter Magazine

How is technology, globalisation and the environment affecting the way we work?

By Vanessa Townsend

2 November 2011


Predicting the future is not an exact science. However, in these days of rapidly changing technology, it has become more imperative than ever for companies to look ahead and try and predict how technological advances, globalisation, environmental concerns and people’s desire for more flexible working will affect the way business is carried out. And this future of work matters not only in the way we work but where we work.

In fact, commentators predict that for firms, the next decade will be as revolutionary as the original Industrial Revolution nearly three centuries ago and this time it’s global. In McKinsey Quarterly, an online business journal, W Brian Arthur, in his essay ’The second economy’, argues that the internet and digitisation is the biggest change since the Industrial Revolution: “In fact, I think it may well be the biggest change ever in the economy… ’There’s no upper limit to this, no place where it has to end.” Professor Lynda Gratton in her book The Shift believes that due to technology, “the world is at the apex of an enormously creative and innovative shift that will result in profound changes to the everyday lives of people across the world”.

Matt Barrie, chief executive of online outsourcing marketplace, agrees that technology is changing rapidly and transforming the way we do business. “The internet is the next shift,” he told Recruiter. “There’s still 70% of the world’s 7bn population about to join the internet.” He gave the example of the Philippines where in 2009, 8m Filipinos were on the internet. “In 2010 that figure is around 30m,” he says. “Technology will massively change the way we do our jobs, and that’s an inevitable fact.”

The trend is expanding exponentially. Kjetil Olsen, vice-president, Europe, at online employment site Elance, says: “More and more individuals are choosing the freelance lifestyle that gives them freedom to work when they want, where they want and with whom they want. The freelancing model also provides the opportunity to specialise and work on projects they love. Using the UK as an example, the Professional Contractors Group (PCG) estimates there are 1.4m freelancers now working in the UK, with that number set to grow substantially over the next decade.”

According to a new book by senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School, Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson, Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive In The New World Of Work, employees are more productive if they have greater autonomy over where, when and how they work. The growth of ’future work’ will also see more work being done remotely and more “work hubs” specially designed workspaces equipped with the technology to support mobile workers, says Maitland. “Instead of being the location where employees gather at fixed times to do concentrated work, the office could become primarily a place for developing and maintaining connections between people,” she adds.

This rise in a more ’entrepreneurial’ way of working is happening globally, particularly with the cost of computers and more importantly mobile devices becoming ever more affordable, including for those in growing economies. Gratton told Recruiter at the launch of Phase 3 of the Future of Work Consortium in London last month that today in the UK, the US and Europe, it is the SMEs and not the big corporations that are creating the jobs. A recent report by Bibby Financial Services, ’2020 Vision: The Future of Business’, also predicts a 20% increase in the number of small businesses in the UK. Yet by the end of the decade, even though these businesses will be the main hirers, the way employees work and where they work could look very different compared to today’s workplace.

Much of this shift is as a result of the ability to work ’in the cloud’. Employees can today work from anywhere without restriction and this is forecast to increase exponentially. Managing director of cloud computing specialists virtualDCS, Richard May, believes there will be an increase in remote teams working in a collaborative fashion: “I think large businesses will still be around, but the necessity for them to all be working from the same place will greatly reduce. Online collaborative working is now mainstream, with services like Skype, Meetme, PowWowNow providing easy consumer access to services such as video conferencing and share desktops.”

Futurist at TomorrowToday, Dean van Leeuwen, predicts that the daily routine tasks of people will be managed and monitored more and more by artificial intelligent computer programmes. “Advanced learning algorithms could, within the next decade or two, actually monitor and manage progress against set tasks and agreed output,” he toldRecruiter. “Leaders would be freed up to motivate, engage with and strategise, rather than clock watch people, freeing up time for what humans are best at finding creative solutions.”

This would undoubtedly mean a whole new approach in employee structure of a business, he explains: “Companies could be managed with a core set of senior managers, mainly financial analysts and strategists, with tasks from marketing to HR being outsourced to freelancers who would bid for work. These flexible teams would come together to form temporary units that complete a task or project and then abandon, perhaps to reform on another project ’set’. The best talent would be bid for and those that constantly deliver will command the highest wages.”

Maitland adds that employers will increasingly be looking to recruit people with the management skills needed for future work: “As for new recruits to the workforce, employers will be looking for self-starters who are happy to be measured and rewarded by results, not hours put in, and who are adaptable to working in much more flexible ways. This is what many of the digital generation want anyway, and the greatest adjustment is likely to have to come from established, older managers than from the younger generation.”

For smaller businesses, the cost of hiring premises, particularly in major cities, is prohibitive and will be increasingly so. Graham Ventham is director of Conrad Consulting, specialist recruiters for civil and structural engineers. The firm has a virtual office address in the City of London. “We’re based out in Suffolk and we just find it more professional to have a London address,” he told Recruiter. “Even with services in the cloud, there is still a need for a London address. We use the meeting rooms on an ad hoc basis either for interviewing candidates or for our clients to carry out interviews. We’re really pleased with the service it provides.”

Conrad Consulting has been a virtual customer of serviced and virtual offices provider Executive Offices Group for about two years. Chief executive John Drover has seen a 30% increase in virtual office use in the last 12 months. In the next five years or so, he believes many smaller organisations will specialise in certain sectors and partner with other small firms to add value to their proposition. “This will challenge the medium-sized firms with their rigid structure and fixed overheads,” he told Recruiter. “People will work remotely for some of the time but ultimately humans like to cross the motivational divide and work collaboratively on a face-to-face basis.”

However, David Howell, owner and MD of financial executive search firm EM Group, says that for his sector there needs to be a physical central London presence. But he adds that with cloud computing, headhunters can work independently. “There are lots of caveats around that,” he told Recruiter. “You need maturity, trust and regular appraisals to allow consultants to work flexibly. We’ve found a way that works.” He explains that this model of working evolved, which was made easier by the technology and the high levels of support from their cloud specialist partner, virtualDCS. “Now the concept has been established, we are clear it only works when there is a mature, trust-based culture, backed up with regular face-to-face accountability sessions,” he says. “So going forward, we will only hire those with whom we can be comfortable on this point.”

Earlier this year a joint report from virtual office provider Regus and work and technology specialist Unwired, ’VWork: Winning Strategies at Work’, raised the future spectre of the death of the office and emphasised the growing role of the ’third space’ not working from home or even a virtual office but at the local coffee shop, shopping centre or the library, anywhere where there was access to the virtual world.

And Gratton was recently interviewed by an Indian magazine, which features people in their offices. “We had to do four different pictures,” she says. “I work at home, I have an office at London Business School, the Future of Work offices are in Somerset House [on the Strand in London] and I write books at my place in Spain. The idea of one office with a desk is becoming quite antiquated.”

This fundamental change in the way we will be working, as well as raising the possibility of using different criteria for interviewing the new employee of the future, may also give rise to how business and recruiters go about hiring. Olsen believes that more and more businesses in the future will use online employment platforms to hire employees, making working online not only easier, but also necessary to do business effectively.

He says that sites such as Elance and will be an integral part of hiring practices at SMEs as more businesses adopt an online work model. “It should not just be considered outsourcing, it is actually online employment,” he explains, “a smart, cost-effective way to hire and manage distributed teams to get work done in a cost-effective way. Just as e-commerce brought shopping for goods and services into the living room, [online] platforms can give any company, small or large, access to the top talent they need.”

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