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Donkin on Work - Work Futures

October 2001 - Tomorrow’s workplace

Journalists hate secrets so it was with reluctance, at a round-table gathering in London this week to discuss ideas about workplace development, that I agreed to abide by the Chatham House rule.

This rule was devised in the 1920s to allow free but private discussion within the headquarters of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

The rule states that participants are free to use information received at the meeting but not to reveal the identity or affiliation of the speakers or that of any other participants.

It smacks of dead-letter drops and hushed conversations in St James's Park. In fact it was a wide-ranging discussion that hardly got off the starting-blocks. But it was not so much the discussion as the mix of contributors that I found fascinating.

I do not think I would be breaking the rule to say there was a scattering of people from professional organisations, mega-company executives, media types, design types, consultants and dotcommers.

The most striking revelation was the confession by one of the mega-companies that it was fearful of competition from "virtual competitors" - groups of specialists that could be assembled, using the internet and venture capital backing - to mount a serious challenge. The only thing these groups would not possess would be mega-companies' traditional customer relationship and reputation.

That, however, is no small advantage in an uncertain marketplace where potential clients may be unwilling to experiment by trusting important projects to groups of talented individuals whose performance as a team would be an unknown quantity. Could this advantage disappear in future?

One of the contributors was a networking specialist, drawing talented people together by word of mouth to its website, from where it assesses and offers out projects, constructing specialist teams for specific contracts.

It is run rather like a club where applicants can be weeded out as they try to enrol or thrown out later if they misbehave or turn in a poor performance. Suppose the site begins to attract a reputation for excellence in its own right? Mega-company's worst nightmare will become reality - unless, of course, it develops ways to partner or brand these freelance teams as if they were part of its worldwide corporate family.

Another feature of the discussion was a refreshing lack of navel-gazing or outlandish predictions over the death of the job. One of the problems with futurology, particularly when discussing new forms of working, is the persistence of so much work that does not seem to change very much. It sometimes seems as if we could present a convincing argument for the unchanging world of work.

Neither has drudgery disappeared, even in so-called knowledge work. Sitting in front of a computer screen for hour after hour can test anyone's sense of humour.

Some jobs have changed. The ticket inspector on the train now rubber-stamps my ticket instead of clipping it. The doctor's receptionist now thinks she is the doctor, trying to diagnose my illness before she consents to an appointment. The airline/ cinema/store receptionist, meanwhile, has become a machine that channels my call to a human being as a last resort.

Then there are jobs that have gone but which we still need. Groping in the dark for a cinema seat the other evening, I was ruing the day they got rid of the ushers. It is the same in car parks, where ticket machines and CCTV look after your car far less successfully than an attendant.

Perhaps this is the nature of change. It is designed to confuse us. In some cases employers are doing their bit, making a job look different when it has not changed much.

In a new book, Tomorrow's Workplace, Fulfilment or Stress? Michael Moynagh and Richard Worsley point to the way British Airways designed its Waterside Business Centre near Heathrow on the lines of a neighbourhood - with restaurants, bars, a bank, shops and a hairdresser. Employees are known as "residents".

If this is so, the announcement of BA's job-shedding last week may lead to some "evictions". However you dress up the job, you cannot disguise the pain associated with job loss. Nor, perhaps, can you pretend a job is something that it is not. The authors are impressed with showcase office designs such as Thomas Cook's call centre in Falkirk, where workers enter their converted warehouse through a "sensorama" tunnel. The idea is that, with the inclusion of relaxing music, seaside smells, murals and changes in lighting, employees will feel as if they are going on holiday.

To be fair to Tomorrow's Workplace, the authors do not seek to be definitive about the future of work . Instead they present several plausible scenarios based on a study programme involving the input of various UK employment experts.

One theme is that the way people work is changing owing to a number of factors. Improvements in word processing, for instance, have freed much secretarial work from the mundane. The demise of manufacturing has shifted many jobs to the service sector. In the UK "more people now work in Indian restaurants than in shipbuilding, steel, manufacturing and coalmining combined", the authors say.

In the US, they note, such shifts are even more discernible. Working from existing trends, the US Bureau of Labour has forecast in the 10 years from 1998 to 2008 some 4.4m new jobs in hotels, restaurants, retailing, amusement parks, car-cleaning, parking and many other personal face-to-face services. The other big growth areas are education, the voluntary sector and social services, where some 5.5m new US jobs are expected to be created in the same period.

But is this kind of shift creating new ways of working, or simply new jobs? The authors put their own spin on these developments suggesting that they describe a "relationship economy" instead of a "knowledge economy".

The book looks at the future from different viewpoints, such as those who are able to keep work and home life apart, those who can blend work and home life into a "seamless whole" and those who, they say, feel "battered" by the difficulties of juggling domestic responsibilities with the demands of their jobs.

In response to such angst, the authors believe, employers that offer worthwhile work and "embed attractive values" in their businesses will be the ones that attract and retain the best people. In future "the meaning of work could rise to the top of organisations' agendas". They add: "meaningful work will be of strategic importance. Could we be on the cusp of a very different world?"

Tomorrow's Workplace, Fulfilment or Stress? by Michael Moynagh and Richard Worsley is published by The Tomorrow Project, St John's College, Bramcote, Nottinghamshire, NG9 3DS. Price £16.

© 2001 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved

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