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Is the nine-to-five office job nearing extinction?

Demolish your cubicles, overturn your desks, cancel the morning meeting: a workplace revolution is underway. The new wave of white-collar workers is more likely to be logging in to a Slack standup from the beach than huddled around the watercooler. The rise of startups such as Uber and Taskrabbit has helped created an entirely new on-demand workforce. And millennials are increasingly looking for jobs that are more flexible – and meaningful – as work starts to blend with everyday life.

“People want to feel as if work is more than just a pay cheque,” says Dr Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at job site Glassdoor. “[Millennials] are looking for ways to integrate their personal and family lives with work and for companies with leaders that focus on social purpose, rather than just revenue.”

No wonder freelance work is exploding: on-demand work grew 23% in 20171, driven by the rise of the smartphone and the growth of freelancing platforms including Upwork and Fiverr. “These startups have demonstrated there are new ways to break up and distribute work, which makes [freelancing] applicable to new sectors and jobs,” explains Sarah Kessler, author of Gigged: The End Of The Job And The Future Of Work (Penguin).

Co-working spaces are replacing rigidity with community, and cloud-based collaboration tools are allowing entire companies to operate virtually, with no physical headquarters at all. Is this the end of business as usual? Here, we look at the big trends – and what’s enabling them.

THE RISE OF PERMALANCING

Is freelance the new normal? The sector is growing three times faster than the rest of the workforce and could make up a majority of workers in the US by 2027, according to 2017 data from Upwork and the US’s Freelance Union2. In Italy, 22% of workers have made money from ‘crowd-work’ – driving for Uber, or via freelancing platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr, according to research by the University of Hertfordshire3. And a growing number of businesses are turning to ‘permalancers’ – employing freelancers on full-time contracts, but without the perks of full employment.

That’s good news – for some. “A lot of people really like [working in the gig economy],” says Kessler. “They say, ‘it allows me to go to school’, or ‘it allows me to work the hours I want’.” The growing freelance workforce has provided opportunities for new businesses – startups such as Wego, which offers insurance specifically for delivery drivers, or Perkbox, which enables small businesses to offer perks including gym memberships and discounts.

But flexibility also brings instability. Numerous lawsuits have been brought against gig-economy companies, arguing that their ‘contract workers’ deserve employee status – and with it the holiday and sick pay, and other fundamental rights. They’re winning: in June, Deliveroo settled a dispute with 50 former workers out of court, while California’s Supreme Court recently ruled to limit businesses from identifying workers such as delivery drivers as independent contractors. “It’s an extreme version of what’s been going on since the 1970s: companies outsourcing work, contract work, temp work,” says Kessler. “The reason they do that is there’s so much responsibility in being involved as a direct employer.”

THE END OF THE OFFICE

In July 2017, WeWork raised $760 million in funding – increasing its valuation to $20 billion and placing it among the most valuable tech startups in the world. The face of the co-working trend, it has 389 locations in 72 cities – seven of them in China – and is the largest private-sector office occupier in London.

When WeWork launched in 2010, co-working spaces were a niche phenomenon. But growth, driven by the rise in freelancing and startups, has been astonishing. Many established corporates are ditching fixed, high-cost offices for the vibrant, creative environment of shared space. “The office market had been steady for 100 years – now it’s booming,” says Hagay Albo, co-founder of co-working-space reviews site Spacing.com. “The number of spaces has increased by about 700% in three years – there will be 30,000 by 2020.”

From Berlin to Buenos Aires, co-working spaces are providing networking hubs, allowing small businesses to scale and – if necessary – shrink without vast penalties, while being surrounded by complementary businesses. New entrants are using gyms, restaurants, cultural events and childcare to stand out, blending work and leisure. WeWork is even launching ‘co-living’ spaces, which blur the lines between apartment building and office block. Increasingly, there’s a move towards more exclusive membership models – based on exclusivity (London’s 12 Hay Hill), market segment (EdSpace for education and Rise for fintech, also in London), or gender: New York-based women-only The Wing is about to launch its fifth space in San Francisco; the AllBright will open its second London club next year.

“It’s not just about work,” says Daniel Chen, co-founder of Tel Aviv-based Ayeka, a shared-workspace that operates on a membership basis. “Humans need interaction. That’s why you are going to see this type of club more and more.”

TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE

When colleagues Sam White and Will McDonald had children and wanted to work part-time to help their partners return to work, they had an idea. “I said, why don’t we share?” says White, now joint Group Public Policy and Sustainability Director at insurers Aviva in London. Job sharing is on the up: according to listings site Timewise – established by joint-CEOs Karen Mattison and Emma Stewart in 2012 – job-shares now account for more than 770,000 UK jobs, with high-profile exponents including Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, formerly co-leaders of the UK’s Green Party4.

“We pitched sharing as a six-month trial, because we’d never done it at director level before,” says White. Both he and McDonald work three days, sharing Wednesdays for a crucial handover. “The weekly handover note is our bible,” says White. “It’s not two part-time jobs – it’s one job. We need people to know that if they’ve said something to one of us, they’ve said it to both of us.”

While sharing can present challenges – including that of employees playing the two against each other – in White’s and McDonald’s case, feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive”. “I’m more engaged in that time, I have more energy, and from a company standpoint, you’re getting two heads instead of one,” says White.

WORK LESS, ACHIEVE MORE

The 9-to-5, 40-hour working week has deep roots – it had its origins in the Industrial Revolution. Today’s constant state of connectivity means that, according to the UK’s Trade Union Congress, we work an average of 7.7 unpaid overtime hours per week5. But those days are numbered. Increasingly, companies are following the data, which shows working fewer hours can be just as productive, if not more.

A 2015 study of Swedish care workers who switched to a 28-hour working week without reduced pay found they were less stressed, more productive, and took fewer sick days6. In Germany, the metal-workers trade union IG Metall negotiated a 28-hour week, which can be used for up to two years before returning full-time7. Amazon has started introducing optional 30-hour weeks for some technical teams, with full benefits but reduced pay8.

Working four days a week has made me better at my job… I have to trust my team and delegate 

Sara Tate
CEO, TBWA London

“Working four days has made me better at my job,” says Sara Tate, CEO of advertising agency TBWA London, who spends Fridays looking after her two children. “I work more productively. I plan better. It’s made me a better leader because I have to trust my team and delegate better.”

“I hope that the fact I’m doing it allows people to look up the ladder and think, ‘Oh, I could do [a CEO job] and have a family.’”

REMOTE WORK, REMOTE COMPANIES

Digital product design company InVision has 700 employees and no headquarters. “InVision has been a fully distributed company since day one,” says Ryan Burke, InVision’s Senior Vice President, International. Instead, its workers are split across 25 countries, from the US to the Nordics, and occasionally a Balinese beach. “The fact that we’re a distributed company is a huge competitive advantage. Instead of competing over the same talent pool as every other tech company, we can quite literally find the most talented people in the world. We’re able to hire a very diverse set of individuals from different countries and backgrounds.”

Remote companies are blossoming, enabled by the growth of cloud-based collaboration and HR tools such as Quip, Workplace and Zoom, which allow companies to manage everything from workflow to payroll online. And new technologies like 5G connectivity – which will provide mobile connections 10 to 100 times faster – will make it even easier. “Enabling employees to work from anywhere removes the thousands of reasons why people leave their jobs – a partner’s job opportunity, family circumstances, and so on,” says Justin Gallagher, head of product and design at project management company Trello, which has around 70% of its work force remote-working part- or full-time.

Remote employees mustn’t feel like second-class citizens… Make continuous efforts to build personal connections

Justin Gallagher
Head of Product & Design, Trello

There are risks, though. “It can be hard to advance in a company if you are 100% remote; showing your face makes a big difference in managing people,” says Glassdoor’s Chamberlain.

“The most important thing is that remote employees don’t feel like second-class citizens. Make conscious and continuous efforts to create opportunities for employees to build personal connections, such as in-person meet-ups, hobby groups, and virtual spaces for watercooler chat,” says Gallagher. “You’re never done creating an inclusive and supportive workplace.”

MAKE WAY FOR THE MULTI-HYPHENS

Emma Gannon doesn’t have one job title – she has several: broadcaster, lecturer, podcast host, and author of The Multi-Hyphen Method, about the growth of the portfolio career. “It means that you move between different projects, alongside strategic personal branding,” she explains. “You funnel, organise, monetise and schedule your work yourself.” Multi-hyphen workers, or ‘slashies’ – are a burgeoning group, particularly in creative industries.

“Multi-hyphenate working is on the rise for all sorts of individual reasons, including new parents wanting more career autonomy, online entrepreneurialism and social media accelerating the pace of global interconnectivity,” says Gannon. But don’t confuse it with multi-tasking. “I dedicate each day to one or two projects. I still work on them in a deep and focused way, I just don’t have one full-time job.” Gannon’s advice? “One mistake I made at the beginning is thinking I can (and should) do everything myself. I employ people for bigger projects, outsource tasks and a management company looks after my brand partnerships.”

“The rate of constant innovation is changing the way we work,” says Gannon. “We can no longer settle into old-school hierarchies or one way of doing things.”

COMING SOON: THE VR OFFICE

In the not too distant future, commuting may mean heading into virtual reality. “People will go to work in VR,” says Tom Sacchi, founding partner at digital-content studio Unit9, which specialises in new technologies. “Instead of a website, you’ll go to a virtual mall, where a real person will talk to you. It’ll be cheaper than a physical space, and you won’t be bound by things like the laws of physics. You could be flying between buildings. It creates amazing possibilities for new experiences.”

That might be some way off, but companies are already embracing AR and VR in design and in training, and new jobs developing virtual realities could replace many of those lost to automation and artificial intelligence. It’s not just manufacturing and warehouse jobs where AI is already making waves: it’s also transforming careers like law, medicine and accounting. “AI will automate a lot of the grunt work in many jobs,” says Nikola Mrksic, founder and CEO of London AI startup PolyAI. “I don’t believe they will be replacing jobs like lawyers entirely – but I think they will speed them up a lot.”

In the not too distant future, commuting may mean heading into virtual reality

That will improve productivity and performance. “Already, research shows that surgeons who train in AR/VR harm fewer patients,” adds Sacchi. And professionals will be freer to focus on creative work, and the kind of human, emotional interactions that AI can’t replace.

Existing jobs will change – according to McKinsey, up to 30% could be automated by 20309 – which means mid-life career changes will likely become the new normal. “One of the things we’re seeing today is the growing need for ongoing skills development and training. “People are like machines; we have to do maintenance to keep it at top performance,” says Glassdoor’s Chamberlain. One thing, though, is certain: “The days where you trained as a young person, and then just worked at one job for the rest of your life, are long gone.”

Sources: Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins, Code 2018; “Freelancing in America”, Upwork, 2017; “Working in the European Gig Economy”, University of Hertfordshire, 2017; “The Rise of Generation Job Share”, Timewise, 2017; “Workers in the UK put in £33.6 billion worth of unpaid overtime a year”, TUC, 2017; Svartedalens retirement home, Sweden, study, 2015; 7“German workers win right to 28-hour working week”, The Telegraph, 2018; “Why the 30-hour work week is almost here”, FT, 2018; “Jobs lost, jobs gained”, McKinsey Global Institute, 2017.

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