Panta rhei (everything flows)
According the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, our world is characterised by a constant state of change and the tension of opposites is necessary to harmony. But what has this got to do with the future of work? Almost everything.
The practice of separating our work and home lives is a relatively modern thing. Before the very concept of a market economy existed, primitive humans spent their waking hours labouring directly for and in their communities. Certainly, the life of ‘travelling to sit down’ is a particularly modern phenomena that has spawned all sorts of activities that our ancestors would no doubt find hilarious (“so, after you have finished working, you go to a room, lift heavy objects and run on a machine?”). In an era where productivity is the business equivalent of the Holy Grail and it’s entirely normal for employees and teams to work across different time zones, the lines are once again beginning to blur – but this time it’s not because we are dragging the spoils of the hunt to our homes, instead we are carrying our offices with us wherever we go.
Will anyone work 9-5 in the future? Theoretically, many people can already work anytime, anywhere, and the international roll out of 5G can only improve our already very effective global communications. Hiring across borders is likely to become more common as skills gaps drive a global recruiting marketplace. And the service economy will see a noticeable knock-on change in the way we shop, travel and socialise, as ‘normal’ hours become obsolete. The concept of flux, as defined by Heraclitus becomes at its truest here when the ease of being ‘always on’ means that organisations can reasonably expect its people to respond to a new flow of daily worldwide operations working to a 24-hour clock.
However, where the US has wholeheartedly embraced the ‘always on’ life (employees routinely work late, take little holiday and frequently participate in out of hours networking), the likes of Sweden and Norway have actively rejected it and are fighting to re-prioritise wellbeing through enforced shorter hours. A four-day week is often cited here as the silver bullet for what is viewed in some quarters as an unsustainable and unequal labour market.
It’s no coincidence that workplaces today have a more relaxed look to them. Open plan workspaces, breakout areas with couches, in-house coffee shops with hip young baristas and dress codes that have dropped all formality. After all, if you feel comfortable in a space, you’re more likely to work well in it. And for longer. Organisations in the US are taking this concept of comfort further by introducing ‘co-living spaces’, a kind of communal living and working space where employees don’t just feel a sense of ownership and belonging – they live in it and work within its culture – much like our ancestors did. Other, less drastic approaches build a homelier vibe into their office spaces and, while not explicitly designed to be lived in, certainly don’t discourage employees from sticking around. Google, for example, has installed sleep pods for the dedicated power napper, as well as an indoor gym, recreation areas with pool tables and office pets for cuddles and cuteness value. If you have everything you need in one place, leaving might be harder than staying.
And we return to wise old Heraclitus, for whom automation would most certainly constitute a necessary tension in the pursuit of a harmonious outcome. The technophiles among us will wax lyrical on the subject of innovation and the incredible potential of AI, robotics and other forms of smart automation, but there are many who still need convincing. Especially when the media is awash with headlines that, while intended to inform and inspire, can often give cause for grave concern. The numbers are high – with up to 30% of jobs potentially automatable by 2030. But what is rarely mentioned are facts that are erroneously assumed we already know – digital assistants, for example, are brilliantly helpful by design and will only get better. This means that they will become intelligent and collaborative, easy to use and can be plugged into office calendar and email systems. It’ll take some getting used to but remember ‘tension is necessary’ and worth bearing with for when your email can automatically suggest responses to tedious and repetitive questions, so you don’t have to. In short, excellent technology could be a necessary change for a more harmonious working life.