Changing nature of work

Work is changing and the rate of change accelerating. Predicated by always-on connectivity and new realities where work can be done anytime and anywhere, we are all working at a pace that would surprise us even, if we rolled back the clock ten years.

Take the commute. European society has been built on the movement of people to work. Our trains, roads and air infrastructure all shape the look and feel of our cities, suburbs and towns. But commuting is a victim of its own success as our tubes and railways built for tens of thousands handle tens of millions, while sheer volumes of traffic create gridlock and delay. The personal cost hardly needs articulating – no one in their right mind would expound the virtues of their daily commute. It is simply a necessary evil to be borne until better times prevail. At Cognizant, we believe the Future of Work represents better times.

The need to travel to work diminishes with the industrialisation of the internet. Work is moving to where you are. Supplementing and replacing the physical infrastructure of work is the virtual infrastructure of work. Logging on to the company network can offer more sophisticated and affordable functionality – e-mail, messaging, high-definition videoconferencing, collaboration tools and so on – to support how we work, making the online experience as good as, and arguably at times better than, the in-person experience.

The new technologies of the digital era, what Cognizant calls the SMAC Stack (social, mobile, analytics and cloud), interactive surfaces, wearables and a host of other gadgets continue to shape new cultural norms. These norms make more sense to workers brought up on and accustomed to working in very different ways. Needing to be seen in the office to “show” you are working feels like a cultural norm belonging to a different age. In 20 years’ time, and probably sooner, the renaissance of the pre-commuting model will prevail. Scale once required people to be co-located together; soon the management of scale virtually, will simply be a management discipline. Of course, some work will remain location specific; however, physical tasks such as farming, waitressing or policing will increasingly benefit from virtual technologies – weather data for crop yields, “surface-based” menu displays, “pre-crime” analytics downloaded on to a policeman’s device. But the majority of knowledge work is already executable anywhere and more knowledge workers already work where it makes sense for them.

We are in the midst of generational, secular changes predicated on the inescapable reality that our always-on environment now dominates our work in the West

New technologies also change the nature of when we work. The nine-to-five workday means different things for different types of work and styles of working if you’re a creative, technician, process worker or technocrat. Now the nine to five could mean 5am to 9pm at your desk or, for others, 9pm to 5am. In a world of work processes distributed across locations and time zones, where workmates are only a screen away, and where people are managed by the measurement of outputs and not just the input of time, then the old nine-to-five model feels anachronistic. However, in our new 24/7 world, making the new nine-to-five model work for employee and employer alike lacks a good deal of insight and wisdom.

For many, the ability to work anytime anywhere, at first a tremendous blessing, is now a curse. Craving the endorphin rush of receiving an e-mail or text or anxiously beavering away at 3am on the umpteenth draft of the morning’s presentation creates addictive tendencies that can only end in tears. Most traditional “nine-to-fivers” were able to put their work down when the whistle blew or they punched the clock, and they were then free to concentrate on the non-working part of their day. The modern “five-to-niner” has trouble turning off his mind, let alone his device. The nature of modern work is such that the tools which promised us new freedoms have perhaps simply ended up giving us new, designed-in-California shackles.

Cognizant believes these forces swirling around the future of work represent a profound recalibration between work and the individual. How we perceive work as part of our personal lives is changing, nine to five; where we want to work is changing too; how we collaborate together to get work done; how we gain value from it; get rewarded for it, incentivised, motivated to do it and so on, are all changing. And the city as an organising principle for work and life must adapt to support its inhabitants. Governments that want to attract investment and support businesses need policy decisions to encourage new ways of working. We are in the midst of generational, secular changes predicated on the inescapable reality that our always-on environment now dominates our work in the West. We all need to master a tempo that shows no sign of slowing.