Work revolution is blurring boundaries

The nature of work continues to evolve, often driven by technological innovation, and is now an “anywhere, anytime” culture, writes Edwin Smith

It’s easy to be sceptical about the buzzwords and neologisms that pervade our professional lives. But at least one recent addition to the business lexicon is worth considering, even if at first it only serves to crystalise a phenomenon that many people will have been aware of for some time.

“Bleisure” – a portmanteau of “blur” and “leisure” – has been coined to describe the way that technology and culture have made work and our free time less distinct from one another. As smartphones, cloud-based collaboration tools and constant connectivity have crept into our professional and personal lives, the boundaries between each sphere have been broken down. For the type of employees that you might characterise as “knowledge workers”, the notion of a neatly compartmentalised nine-to-five work day is becoming increasingly outdated.

This is interesting in itself, but more revealing when considered in connection with the rise of a whole new attitude to work and business; one that influences and is influenced by the same technology and culture that lie behind the bleisure trend.

Of course, no single company or industry has exclusive rights to this idea and it is difficult to offer a precise definition of just what it entails, but there are paradigmatic examples. Take the true digital businesses that have had the luxury of being built from scratch at a time when this more modern attitude to work had already taken root.

Netflix, Airbnb, Uber and, of course, Google, all spring to mind. Not just because they are trendy, but because they have structures, processes and people that can encourage and take advantage of collaboration, a fluid understanding of work, lack of rigid hierarchy, quick decision-making, and the intelligent use of data, all with a view to engaging successfully with customers on a massive scale. The multi-billion-dollar valuations of these businesses and the short space of time in which they have been achieved are testament to that.

BENEFITS OF TRANSFORMATION

But this trend isn’t confined to Silicon Valley. Raconteur’s own research on the future of work found that 62 per cent of senior business people from a range of sectors agreed with the statement that “work is shifting more towards an experience than a place”, while 79 per cent said the rise in the “anytime, anywhere” work trend is inevitable and some 86 per cent believed the most successful companies are those willing to harness the benefits of transformation.

The notion of a neatly compartmentalised nine-to-five work day is becoming increasingly outdated

This kind of thinking has the potential to improve the way that any business functions. But in getting to grips with a new understanding of work, there are also risks. One of the most obvious is related to burnout. At least one company says that, for employees who take advantage of technology to work flexibly, bank holidays “are not enforced”. It’s easy to see how something good, namely being able to communicate, collaborate and work from anywhere, anytime, could be counter-productive, if not managed effectively.

Dr Christine Grant, associate head of the psychology and behavioural sciences department of Coventry University, says that embracing this culture and shunning the strictures of a more traditional way of working can increase productivity.  But, she adds, there are potential pitfalls. “There’s something going on that means we’re not getting any respite,” says Dr Grant. “Psychologically, we need that for resilience. It might be alright over the short term, but week in, week out, it will have an impact.”

CHANGING POWER DYNAMICS

In his book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Saval charts how offices have been shaped by the changing power dynamics within companies, from the mid-19th century right up to the present day. But he has some misgivings about the current trend for open-plan offices, which first surfaced in the US and UK in the 1960s, after being inspired by the German idea of “office landscape” or bürolandschaft. He says modern office settings that are supposed to encourage collaboration and serendipitous encounters are often, in reality, more about saving money.

“In other words,” Mr Saval says, “the history of the office is a history of supposedly visionary plans that rarely take into account the actual needs and desires of workers themselves.”

There are also dissenting voices that warn against the dangers of the flatter leadership structures that come with this new attitude to work; does the buck ever stop? And, of course, some businesses and sectors that are given to traditional thinking may resist transformation almost on principle, or believe the potential returns don’t justify the investment and effort required.

Different businesses will have to work within their own parameters, but the data shows that attitudes are changing, headline-grabbing success stories abound and there are myriad ways in which work is continuing to evolve. How it’s managed will decide whether that change is for the better.