The Future of Work — commentary on the findings of Raconteur and Google

And how the case for the #NewWayOfWork is gathering support from UK business leaders.

As I sit here in my ‘office’ in Bali, Indonesia finishing the Future of Work report published in September by Raconteur, it’s hard to recall the feeling of being a slave to Excel, email and pop-up reminders of my next meeting. Or put another way, work as it used to be known.

The most significant finding me and my business partner, Frank Ray, found from our internal innovation project at our bank this year was a far superior, new way of working. Unlike a lot of the copying behaviour that masquerades under the heading ‘innovation’ that is freely available to read about online, we are convinced our approach to doing business is genuinely novel, and badly needed.

Beneath the daily misuse/abuse of the word, innovation is a mindset not a piece of fancy tech, and working practices lie at its heart if Google (the report’s sponsor) is to be believed. From interviews with 247 UK business leaders, customer experience (55% agreed) and innovation (45% agreed) were comfortably the two leading needs identified for business transformation.

Most pertinent of all, the report also found that 62% of business leaders believe that “work is shifting more and more towards an experience rather than a place”. It is therefore not surprising that there is a blurring of an individual’s private and work expectations – technology is assisting that change all the time. The challenge is for businesses to keep up.

In this article I delve into some of the key findings in the Future of Work report, with a focus on those that highlight the need for what I have termed the #NewWayofWork. I also set out some of the practices that served me and Frank and, ultimately our company, well this year.

The number 1 reason for the #NewWayofWork — attracting talent

Let me start with a story. I have taken out a one-month deal (the days of longer contracts are gone) at Hubud (literally Hub-in-Ubud), a co-working space, and I got chatting to a Dutch lad that is working for a Dutch recruitment company.

It is important to establish that Peter has a regular job, with a regular company — he is not on a jolly. The company is based in Utrecht, the Netherlands and, as such, it faces the ongoing challenge luring in the best talent. As an ambitious company seeking to grow quickly, its philosophy is that one high-quality developer is far more valuable than a few less-skilled ones.

This year, Peter was faced with three choices: pay a premium on wages, offer a project that is out of the ordinary (and hard to find!) or provide a great experience at work. He chose the experience option (remember the 62% statistic in my introduction?) and moved to Bali. Immediately, the talent followed. He is now leading a small team of developers, based offshore working 100% digitally.

With a small change of mindset about the workplace, Peter has solved the talent problem. The same can be said of Alice Bentinck and Matt Clifford at Entrepreneur First, a London company that brings together the best young talent to build products and launch companies.

I met the Entrepreneur First crew in a co-working space off Bermondsey Street, where Frank and I were based earlier this year as a deliberate choice to be away from our company’s City office. I was astonished to learn that Entrepreneuer First is the second biggest employer of Cambridge University computer science graduates in the UK — it has just celebrated its third birthday and it’s attracting disillusioned young corporate workers too.

Alice and Matt offer a one-year programme where their joiners have the chance to build a product immediately upon graduation, through the experience of learning from a network proven business minds. It is all focused on developing something that the market actually wants, as Alice often reminds wantrepreneurs.

Smart, ambitious graduates are no longer making the traditional employment option at a blue-chip corporate their first choice. I doubt it’s often their second choice either.

Take the legal profession for example. No one is going to sign up for the so-called learning years which are often spent photocopying documents (and wasting talent) when there are far more meaningful work options available.

The number 2 reason for the #NewWayofWork – getting better results, faster

Peter’s company is accessing the new style of management thinking that Chris Ward, author of the book Out of Office, says is “based on the productivity of the individual rather than time in the office”. The Future of Work report elaborates on this theme, quoting Ward further:

Most people are involved in selling something somewhere along the line. Sitting in the same room as a lot of people trying to achieve the same goal isn’t necessarily inspiring, but in a coffee shop, you’re surrounded by your customers. If you’re surrounded by the people who you want to communicate with or who you think might buy what you are creating, that can help arrive at the right answer much faster.

If a millennial has grown up studying (and building businesses on the side) while sitting in coffee shops, why would any manager make him or her now go into an office, put on a uniform and sit in a line of desks? That sounds to me like a return to a classroom (or a first visit to prison?), not a place for young adults to express their creative flair and teach their elders a thing or two.

Yet companies actively choose to break their new employees’ best habits (such as collaborating virtually through the Google suite of products) by making them fit into standard processes and ineffective, outdated proprietary tools. They stupidly still maintain standard office hours too, which I’ll return to below.

A co-working space is not a coffee shop but the point is the same. One of Entrepreneur First’s start-ups is Use Slate, which aims to making spreadsheets easy to understand by displaying complex formulas in pictorial way. I’m crap when it comes to detailed formulas across different pages, so it’s a great tool for people like me.

As it happens, the product is aimed at people that work for banks, so you can imagine how chuffed Fraser Atkins, the co-founder, was to have a couple of bank employees sitting on the next-door beanbags!*. Now compare that to your typical sales process of getting on the tube, setting up your laptop at a potential client’s office where the cable is the wrong one, the client is running late, the pitch is compromised and then travelling back to the office, demoralised, to start making another 20 or 30 calls to get the next appointment.

And before anyone says ‘it’s different for start-ups’, Frank and I were working for a large corporate and our work environment had seismic (positive) effect on the quality and speed of our delivery. And to work in present our findings in a different way.

The number 3 reason for the #NewWayofWork – allowing employees to be in control of how they spend their time will improve employee health and happiness

In our video that we published in August, Frank says “our working day is the whole of the day” and there’s good reason for that statement. As the Future of Work states, the ‘always on’ culture that technology has enabled also has the power to re-balance the crazy office/commuting hours that have created a sheep mentality (note: being from New Zealand, how sheep act is well known to me!).

This brings another story to mind. Last month I met a young lady called Lucy who had quit her job with the New Zealand equivalent of a Magic Circle** law firm six months into her professional career. Sick of photocopying and being told she was being ‘too efficient’ and not putting in enough ‘face time’, she wisely and courageously binned them off.

Her employer was effectively saying ‘the culture here is to be seen to be working long hours’ and we want you to be a sheep. Lucy has since taken up a legal research role where she can work when and where she wants. Refreshingly, the one core requirement is to get the work done.

Frank and I got to know each other working on a corporate online banking project where we were using agile development for the first time, with a team of people that had not worked together before. It was an intense environment, with little flexibility, where stress was a daily factor.

This year, when we were offsite and in control of our own choices, we not only delivered faster, we had real scope (read: time/environment) to re-think our whole approach to business. This made us happy, healthy employees.

Unlike Lucy in that ghastly law firm environment, Frank and I were able to experiment with simple, yet vital factors such as the optimal period of concentration, when to break for exercise and for how long, the best form of meeting (we settled on the walk and talk format advocated at TED by Nilofer Merchant) and, super importantly, how best to work with customers to assess their needs.

Unlike many City employers, we agree with the observation of Ron Friedman in the Harvard Business Review that “our mental firepower is directly linked to our physical regimen”***. It is not good enough to offer staff a discount gym membership and then dictate when they can use it. I can think of a friend who feels she does not have enough time during the lunch hour to exercise properly and not be rushed — so, she chooses not to.

Not only is the ‘lunch hour’ outdated, the concept of the work day is now redundant too. Why make your employees be in one place of sameness all day for 47 weeks of the year when we have every conceivable tool available to do the exact opposite?

And why make them sit down all day (9.3 hours on average as at November 2013) and suffer what Nilofer calls ‘the new smoking’ when low-cost, movable standing desks like those produced by Fraser Callaway and Oliver Ward, are now available? Why not let employees decide what way of work is best for them?

The number 4 reason for the #NewWayofWork – the future business model is the current model already

As mentioned above, there is already a requirement for a new business model – one that supports the primary business foci of customer experience and innovation. It is important to state this point as strongly as possible: the Raconteur/Google report found these factors to be the biggest ones today — they are already here.

The underlying reason for this is the broader shift from businesses based on analogue processes to fully digitised ones. The Future of Work found these digitally-enabled businesses:

· “Have the ability to engage at scale
· Engender a collective intelligence that prevents information from being held in silos
· Are highly collaborative and encourage quick, efficient execution of ideas and processes
· Put data at the core of everything they do”

When the fact that individuals (remember this includes both staff and customers) spend an average of 12 hours a day looking at a screen or device is also considered, it’s surprising any analogue processes are used. By while that legacy will drag on, as mentioned above the best working talent won’t tolerate it when the digital case is so compelling, and the norm to them.

One profession that has a bigger opportunity than most to adopt digital working processes is banking. On one side it is has customers that need fully digital daily banking (as distinct from specialised services such as complex loans). On the other side is a group of dissatisfied employees, where only 23% are optimising their career (as a survey by the Bank Workers Charity found in March 2013).

Source: Bank Workers Charity, 2013

The most startling aspect of the survey is that even the Career Optimisers are still only operating at 85% productivity. Two of the groups, Untapped Potential and the Captives, average a worrying low 70–71% productivity.

Yet companies continue with the same employment practices despite it being lose-lose-lose — for the employee, for the company and for the customer. No one benefits from the capacity wastage that is not used more creatively.

It is important to highlight these numbers, because numbers are one thing that executives are sure to understand. The Future of Work survey found that the biggest barrier to forming a robust transformation strategy was ‘not enough funding’. No surprises there, which is good news for the #NewWayOfWork because it is a cost-reduction strategy.

If there is one part of the report that sums up our feelings on this subject, it’s the words of Monica Parker, Director of Workplace at Morgan Lovell, talking about how businesses should react:

“Most importantly, [they should create] a culture where people feel they can be authentic in their whole selves, but also where they feel they don’t have to be present, banishing that sense of presenteeism in an office. And that doesn't have to cost anything”

The problem though after the lack-of-money excuse, is that the second main factor the Future of Work found to be preventing business transformation was ‘cultural aversion to change’. This year me and Frank were fortunate have a boss, Jamie Reichman, who had the moral courage to break this stupidity.

Jamie told me and Frank to go out and explore, base ourselves offsite, use whatever communication tools we wanted and only come into the office to see him on Fridays. The rest was up to us.

That is how I worked out that breaking for a couple of hours around 2pm for a swim worked best for me and, ultimately, my company. Similarly, we found that Skype calls worked perfectly to speak to customers — there was no need to make half-day round trips to their offices.

The result of all of this was that as bank workers were streaming out the door of their City offices at 5.01pm (we used to call them ‘Levis’) having wasted 30% of the day, me and Frank were hitting our peak point of productivity.


*That is actually untrue, as Matt at Entrepreneur First more or less had a mortgage on the beanbags in our Bermondsey Street work space.

**If anyone has good idea for a new name please let me know. ‘Non-Stop Work Hotel’ is my favourite so far for the seven-days a week routine where staff can release their handcuffs and have a sleep in one of the on-site beds .

*** See the article titled: Regular Exercise Is Part of Your Job

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