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
This rule was devised in the
1920s to allow free but private discussion within
the headquarters of the Royal Institute of International
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
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
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
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
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
© 2001 The Financial Times
Ltd. All rights reserved
as a pdf file