Even before the pandemic, the future was all anyone wanted to talk about. From self-driving vehicles and lab-grown steaks to blockchain technology disrupting banking and financial services, “the future of _____” was a hot topic of discussion.
Post-COVID-19, our obsession with what lies ahead hasn’t waned. All that’s really changed is our focus. Cars, food and finances have given way to automation and the future of work.
Lockdown highlighted what many of us knew all along: the 9-5 work model is a thing of the past. We don’t need an office to do our job. In fact, not being restricted by time and place has made us more productive.
Mobility is just one of the megatrends shaping the way we work. Urbanisation, connectivity, a multi-generational workforce, individualisation, etc. are forging a more flexible labour market.
We’ll dive deeper into those megatrends in a moment. First, let’s look at why a flexible labour market is important and what exactly ‘flexible’ means in the workplace.
What flexibility in the workplace looks like
In the words of management guru Peter Drucker, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic.”
If we’ve gleaned anything from the past two plus years it’s that change happens and it happens fast. If we allow it, flexibility can be a liferaft in uncertain times. This is especially true of work.
The “flexibilisation” of labour affects governments, business and individuals alike. On a macro level, governments will need to adapt to new demands created by a changing economy through the support, enablement and implementation of appropriate programs and legal regulations.
One example of this could be accommodating for the increasing mobility of commuting workers by improving transportation infrastructures between regions.
On a micro level, there needs to be a focus on meeting the needs and interests of both the employer and the employee to adequately accommodate the unpredictability of business fluctuations.
You may have noticed that there is an increasing trend for companies to be leaner, more agile and more competitive—these are all responses to the increasing flexibilisation of labour.
The flexibilisation of labour also empowers workers to take control of their work environment, workload and personal scheduling. Depending on your life circumstances, flexible work may be a temporary or even a permanent solution to earn income, maintain personal freedom and secure financial independence.
Forms of flexibility
Flexible work can manifest in a variety of forms. An article published by Peter A. Reilly in the European Journal of Work and Organisation Psychology identifies five types of labour flexibility:
Numerical flexibility is adjusting the number of employees based on the needs of the employer. A good example of this is seasonal work and fixed-term contracts.
Numerical flexibility has a long-rooted history in the gastronomy, hospitality and construction sectors, but as megatrends like digitisation and connectivity continue to change the work landscape, we can expect to see increased numerical flexibility in other industries as well.
The rising prevalence of hiring on-demand as well as the outsourcing of online-related work are both forms of numerical flexibility.
Functional flexibility is the extent to which employees can be assigned to different roles. A traditional example of this is the job rotation model, where employees take on different tasks depending on their scheduled shift or the demands of the business.
More recently, companies focusing on optimising delivery and reducing overhead costs are driving a newer trend of hiring ‘full-stack employees’ who are skilled across a spectrum of functions as opposed to specialising in just one.
This is based on the principle that lower levels of specialisation have positive effects on the flexibility of an organisation, thus allowing companies to deliver faster.
From an employee standpoint, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions cites a direct relationship between functional flexibility and long-term skills retention, saying that, “Making optimal use of the employee’s capacity to perform different tasks is positively related to skills development and decision-making.”
Temporal flexibility is the variation of the number of hours worked and the scheduled time off work. Overtime, flexible working hours and part-time work are all examples of temporal flexibility. As more and more women join Switzerland’s workforce, the proportion of part-time employees has risen to such levels that the country now ranks second in Europe (behind the Netherlands) with the highest percentage of part-time employees. Perhaps not surprisingly, family is given as the most common reason for undertaking part-time work.
Other data from the Federal Statistical Office (FSO, 2020) reveal that 45.2% of employees in Switzerland enjoy some form of temporal flexibility. Interestingly, those with a tertiary-level education are more likely to work flexibly, indicating that the flexibilisation of work is prevalent across all industries and skill levels.
Locational flexibility refers to an employee working outside of the office. In the past, this would mainly relate to business trips. Nowadays, it more often than not means working from home. Another common occurrence is working on the commute.
Increased mobility among today’s population plays an active role in the decentralisation of work. It’s not unusual to hear of people working from a café, a co-working space or even next to the beach.
Financial flexibility is the adjustment of wages and benefits to reflect the supply and demand of labour. Sales commission and year-end bonuses are two of the most well-known examples of this.
Predicting the future of work through megatrends
Today’s megatrends can tell you a lot about what the future of work might look like. Coined in the 1980s by John Naisbitt, megatrends describe many of the large, society-wide changes occurring around the globe.
Among the current megatrends identified by the Zukunftsinstitut, the following will have the largest impact on the way we work.
Digitisation: In a 2018 report by McKinsey, it is estimated that 20-25% of all tasks in Switzerland may be automated by 2030, signalling a clear need for reskilling in the workforce.
Connectivity: Along with digitisation, connectivity is one of the most influential megatrends of our time. Social media, instant messaging and apps are setting a new standard for how to interact, connect and collaborate with others. One of the challenges facing this trend is implementing a new code of conduct in the workplace.
Urbanisation: As more people flock to urban centres, cities are becoming powerful players in the global economy. Concentrated areas like Silicon Valley have been responsible for single-handedly disrupting some of the world’s longest-standing business models. (Uber or Airbnb, anyone?) There is no doubt that in the future, urban areas will play a huge role in shaping the way we live, think and work.
The Silver Society: Around the world people are getting older and staying fit longer. A multigenerational workforce is the result of this demographic change. To be sustainable, companies need to embrace diversity. Age-mixed teams and management structures form a part of this.
Individualisation: With increased connectivity, mobility and longevity, the trend toward greater individualisation is becoming even more apparent. Younger generations especially are embracing their freedom of choice: where they live, what they consume, how they work, etc.
Work 4.0: what is it and why does it matter?
The influence of Industry 4.0 (the fourth industrial revolution) and widespread digitalisation has changed our work landscape for good. Work 4.0 is the happy result.
Brought about by the megatrends mentioned above, this new era of work heralds a more collaborative and cooperative way of working.
The increased use of digital technologies coupled with flexible work arrangements has already resulted in more productive (and happier) workforces.
But it doesn’t stop there. Work 4.0 has also brought about improved monitoring and training of workers, augmented workforce capabilities with new technologies and automated mundane tasks.
Let’s take a step (or four) back to see how we arrived at this juncture in time.
How did we get here?
We’ve come a long way since the start of the industrial revolution and the transition from hand to machine production in the 18th century.
With the introduction of new production systems using water and steam, the physical power of machines became evident. This newfound knowledge transformed many aspects of daily life, resulting in an unprecedented rise in population.
With the help of electrical energy, the second industrial revolution continued to contribute to the rise of mass production. Inventions like the conveyor belt facilitated new technologies, while the telegraph and railway networks encouraged a surge in movement among people.
The third revolution saw digital technology replacing mechanical and analogue devices. Sweeping changes brought about by the digital revolution include the widespread adoption and use of the computer, cellular phone and the internet.
Which brings us back to Work 4.0: the technological (fourth) revolution that stands to fundamentally alter every aspect of our lives, from the way we live and work to how we relate to one another.
Automation and the future of the workforce
What does workplace automation mean for both companies and their employees? Until recently, the use of machines has been limited to helping humans in a physical capacity. However, artificial intelligence is becoming ever more prevalent in our daily lives.
An obvious example of this is the self-driving car, but AI is far more ubiquitous than many of us realise. From disease mapping and conversational marketing bots to inter-team chat tools, it’s pretty much everywhere.
Handing off repeatable and predictable workflows to machines can improve overall efficiency and productivity for businesses. While freeing up humans to focus on cognitively challenging tasks can make for a happier and more fulfilled workforce.
With many still concerned about what this means for society as a whole, we’d be wise to take MIT scientist Andrew McAfee’s words to heart, “I would put more emphasis on the way technology leads to structural changes in the economy, and less on jobs, jobs, jobs. The central phenomenon is not net job loss. It’s the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available.”
Josh Kaufman reiterates the point in the Paradox of Automation, “The more efficient the automated system, the more crucial the human contribution of the operators. Humans are less involved, but their involvement becomes more critical.”
Ready for flexibility?
To fully appreciate how technology will change the future of work, you only have to look back on the last couple of years. Almost overnight we went from being a largely in-person culture to completely online. Something none of us could ever have imagined, much less predicted.
As megatrends engender a new workforce that is increasingly more mobile and flexible, it’s up to companies and policymakers to redesign the existing business models and policies to usher in this new era of work.
Nobody can argue that flexibility in the workplace isn’t advantageous for both employer and employee—the trick lies in ensuring both sides benefit simultaneously from the working relationship.
Whether you’re a company looking to grow your flexible workforce or an individual in search of work that suits your skillset and schedule, Coople is here to help.
Businesses can get started by creating a free account to calculate the cost of a job, before entering into a hiring commitment. Alternatively, you can request a call with us to talk through your requirements.
As we hurtle towards a new and exciting future we look forward to working together with you to create the most flexible arrangement for your needs.
About the author
Viktor Calabrò is Founder of Coople. He is also co-author of the book Flexible Workforce and was named Swiss Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young in 2014.