What’s the new concept of “work”?

Have you ever wondered why we work the way we work? Why do we treat an average 40-hour workweek as standard? Where do offices come from? Many people tend to say “Well, we’ve always done it this way” or “It must be good as it’s been like this forever”. Let’s try to reveal the concept of work, when it has become a job, and how it got reshaped throughout history. The first definition of work and its characteristics can be found in Max Weber’s description of “bureaucracy” as a highly organised, formalised, and impersonal institution. He believed that this concept was the most effective one to set up organisations. Is this still fully applicable nowadays?

Work during the industrial revolution

Industrialisation has vastly influenced urbanisation as people were drawn to cities by economic growth and job opportunities. Better living conditions and prosperity was connected to moving away from rural areas towards centralised workplaces, primarily factories. The manufacturing economy was thriving which resulted in ever-increasing employment.

This however didn’t come with any working standards. Many workers had to work in cramped areas, being exposed to toxic fumes from machinery which often led to trauma and health problems. Additionally, there were no working norms and most people worked up to 16 hours per day, 6 days a week without paid holidays. During that time, governments didn’t have any regulations that would protect workers.

As a result of all this, the “eight-hour day movement” started in the 19th century. It was Robert Owen who formulated the famous slogan “Eight hours labor, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest”. General protests all around the world kept advocating for a shorter working day and better conditions. Some countries such as Australia or New Zealand implemented changes quite early, but most people had to wait until the 20th century to introduce legislative changes in the widely industrialised world.

All in all, the 40-hour workweek is about 100 years old, and its origin comes from the need to protect the interests of people being objectified in the era of industrialism. Also, the process of urbanisation has sealed today’s perspective of connecting a better life with relocation to cities, where more employment opportunities can be found.

The rise of the service economy

The term „service economy” was first introduced by an American economist, Victor R. Fuchs because of a vast structural transformation of the global economy since the 1950s. The growth of the service sector was strictly connected to the increasing need to hire knowledge workers leading to a more skill-intensive output. The world has started shifting from a goods-dominant towards a service-dominant logic where value is co-created by employees and customers through a collaborative process.

Currently, the dominance of the service economy keeps increasing. We can justify this by looking at the list of Fortune 500 companies which contains fewer manufacturers than in previous decades. Moreover, the service industry increasingly contributes to GDP. Almost 25 years ago the value accounted for 69% for GDP in high-income countries and it reached 74% in 2015.

Since it’s no longer the manufacturing sector that takes the lead these days, doesn’t it seem about time to think about reshaping the concept of “work”? Only within the past few decades, we’ve observed companies operating in a distributed model due to the rise of shared service centres, HQ having satellite offices and workers getting connected with one another thanks to modern technology.

The digital era and remote work

It’s 2019 — almost a century after the first labor laws were introduced for factory workers. Urbanisation as a process is still connected with the willingness of people to lead a better life, work for great companies, and start building their careers. More and more office spaces are being built in crowded city centres, creating centralised workspaces for knowledge workers in the service industry. Daily commuting is a no-brainer for ambitious ones, willing to work for the best companies out there.

Open office spaces are full of employees using e-mail, phone, and video calls to get connected with co-workers and clients. People start raising questions about the possibility to work from home from time to time but those are mostly sabotaged by companies. According to statistics, only 5% of Americans work from home. What’s the real reason for the reluctance towards work outside of the office? Physical presence at work means “working”, just the way it was justified in the industrial era.

At the same time, the digital revolution is thriving. It started in the second half of the 20th century when mechanical technology started shifting towards digital electronics. The world becomes a global village — we can connect with anyone, anytime and anywhere. Doesn’t it seem justified and simply natural to embrace this change at work as well? If presence is no longer an obstacle in almost all areas of life, then why is the job market not following?

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hits in early 2020. What a shock to the world! Suddenly, restrictions, quarantines and lockdowns become the new reality. Business continuity can only be achieved by allowing to work outside of the workspace. There is no other option, no alternative solution for companies but to let employees work from home. Something that was considered a benefit for minorities now becomes a global reality. And it works… to this extent that productivity is visibly increasing.

Almost 2 years into a forced mindset shift, we can now clearly see that companies are starting to change their attitude towards flexibility in the workplace. The output becomes of much higher importance, rather than physical presence. According to PWC, the number of organisations claiming to introduce remote work is growing. Is this a result of the pandemic or a natural evolution? … Should it still be a benefit or just a standard on modern markets?

Make sure to check out the first episode of the iTech Media Work Your Way Podcast and listen to insights concerning the future of work. The first guest is Alan Cairns, iTech Media COO, sharing thoughts about workplace flexibility, attracting top talent in the digital era and building company culture in a hybrid work environment.

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