Yet another report into the Future of Work that is really about the present

Future of WorkJust a few days ago, a survey from Morgan Lovell and the British Council for Offices highlighted the value British workers placed on having somewhere to work, regardless of its drawbacks, privations and distractions. Now a new report from consultants PwC seems to draw the opposite conclusion. Heralded by predictably tedious headlines declaring the office to be dead or dying, The Future of Work: A Journey to 2022 claims that a quarter of the 10,000 people surveyed believe the traditional job will disappear and around a fifth claim to have already had enough of the 9 to 5 in a fixed physical space and would prefer to work in a ‘virtual place’ – which seems to mean anywhere with WiFi.  As ever, any report addressing ‘The Future of Work’ is primarily and perhaps unwittingly about the present.

So when the report concludes that more and more people will work as freelancers with organisations using them as a loose-knit community of task based specialists, we are reminded that this is already happening on a massive scale and that a fifth of the UK workforce is already self-employed. That is not necessarily the case for workers in the other countries who took part in the survey (China, India, Germany and the US) and even if it is will be subject to a range of parochial cultural influences. It’s impossible to draw conclusions from a survey of people in countries as diverse as those. It might have been to some extent if it was solely about the culture of multi-nationals but the experience of freelancers in Stoke, Delhi, Shanghai, Münster and Gary, Indiana is likely to be marked out by significant differences.

There is some interest to be had in the categorisation of the three models presented in the report. Blue (large corporate), is presumably based on IBM’s Big Blue persona and depicted with the usual gallery of the ethnically if not generationally diverse, attractive denizens of the glass, brushed steel and concrete monoliths that corporates like to call home. Orange (fragmented small organisations and freelancers working for larger firms) evokes Charles Handy’s model of the Elephant and the Flea, depicted as young (obv) people peering at laptops in a cafe. The Green model (corporate social responsibility) conjures up a young, attractive (ho-hum) woman in a t-shirt, an obvious play on the stereotype that suggests Gen Y staff want to work for ethical businesses, as opposed to the older workers who are absent from the report’s monoculture.

Some of the report’s conclusions suggest it may have been lying in a drawer for the last twenty years. For example when a commentator from PwC, claims:  “It’s clear from our research that traditional nine to five office working could soon become resigned to history for many workers. People feel strongly that they no longer want to work within the constraints of the typical office environment and advances in technology mean that workers no longer have to be shackled to their desks. We predict that many organisations will embrace these changes in employee working preferences and use them to their own advantage. We could easily see the rise of organisations that have a core team that embodies the philosophy and values of the company, but the rest of the workforce is not fixed and come in and out on a project-by-project basis. These companies will make extensive use of technology to run their businesses, coordinate a largely external workforce and support their relationships with third parties.”

It’s not just PwC who seem to be out of touch with the modern workplace. The survey respondents themselves seem to have missed out on a dose of reality. The survey claims that a mere 53 percent of people believe that technology will significantly change the way they work over the next five to 10 years. Anything less than somewhere around the 100 percent mark should raise an eyebrow, so you have to wonder who exactly they asked. A question that is worth asking of the whole survey.