Affairs: The Debate / Global
Is the way we work really changing?
The nature of work is constantly evolving and what labour will look like in the future is one of the biggest questions facing architects, employers and educators today. Here, our learned panel unpicks some of the issues that our workforce will face in the years to come.
Institutions and ideologies come and go but one thing has remained constant throughout history: work. If anything, it’s becoming more central to our sense of self. Children are implored to study subjects that might help them in their careers and nations are judged on their unemployment rate, productivity and GDP.
Debates about the future of work used to centre on how automation might affect the hours that we clock up, the initial prognosis being that these would fall. But while the average American is working fewer hours, the advent of the internet has resulted in a rise in extreme working hours (more than 70 a week) in some sectors. This increase in time spent working has not been matched by feelings of fulfilment. A major report published by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gallup and others in 2019 found that less than half of US workers were satisfied with their jobs. Nor have more hours led to greater productivity, with the UK suffering particularly in this regard.
As with so much else, coronavirus accelerated the trend. Many began to work from home; some liked it, while others didn’t. At the same time, millions reappraised their jobs and found them wanting. The consequences of the “Great Resignation” are wide-ranging but most immediately have been felt as mass labour shortages. So where does all of this leave us? Is automation to be feared or embraced? What about remote working? And how do we prepare for the future?
Born in Tel Aviv, Gur is an executive coach and organisational consultant whose work focuses on helping managers to develop the emotional skills that they need to become true leaders. Her programmes, designed for technology organisations and global teams, aim to foster leadership qualities that drive better results for businesses.
Dr Jamie Woodcock
A senior lecturer and researcher at The Open University, Woodcock is the author of several books on modern work including The Fight Against Platform Capitalism (2021), The Gig Economy (2019), Marx at the Arcade (2019) and Working the Phones (2017). He is on the editorial boards of Notes from Below magazine and Historical Materialism journal.
Architect and business owner
The founder and creative director of Alison Brooks Architects was born in Canada and moved to London in 1987. After starting her practice in 1996, she became the only UK-based architect to have received the profession’s four most prestigious awards: the Riba Stirling Prize, Riba House of the Year, the Manser Medal and the Stephen Lawrence Prize.
Let’s start with you, Maya. What has been the most significant change to the way that you work in the past few years?
maya gur: One of the most important experiences of the pandemic is that it proved that a complete revolution in the workplace is possible. Remote work definitely has the advantages of flexibility.
But many think that offices are still essential for work. Alison, you’ve designed plenty and run one of your own. Is their demise inevitable?
alison brooks: There are many intangible aspects to where and how we work. Most people work in teams and have colleagues they need to talk to and liaise with, especially in architecture. One of the great things about an office is that it gives you moments of difference in your daily experience of space and place: just the fact of leaving where you live, having chance encounters, seeing things that you might not otherwise see. You could look at it negatively and say that you have a terrible commute or say, “Every day when I ride my bike, all sorts of inputs feed into my consciousness and subconsciousness.” And when you’re at the office, serendipitous things happen. Conversations are overheard. There are unexpected events that are crucial for creative and social exchange. I don’t think that can be replaced by Zoom meetings.
mg: The most important thing to remember is that different tasks need different settings. It’s difficult to start a new role or join a new team remotely. The onboarding process is much harder because building trust takes longer.
What is the reason for the increase in remote working? Do people now feel that their jobs are less central to their identity?
jamie woodcock: For many younger people, work is less important to their identity. In part, that’s because they do not stay in the same workplace for a very long time. In most jobs people are earning much less than the previous generation. The treatment of many people during the pandemic has also shown that you can put in a huge number of hours but many employers are not prepared to reciprocate that commitment. Instead, they send you home, ask you to buy your own equipment and monitor you online or threaten to cut your wages if you don’t come in. So work is being shown to be a much worse bargain than it was. The problem is that there’s very little will from any of the major political parties in the US or UK to address this crisis. But what is inspiring is that there are plenty of young people who want to do things differently. That’s how we’ll see a future of work that is more optimistic and encouraging.
mg: Younger people are aware that they will have about eight careers in their lifetime – not just jobs but careers. That’s very different to my 73-year-old dad’s experience; he has had one career with several jobs. He’s terrified of the day that he retires because he was raised with the belief that his professional self is his most important identity. The younger generation is not aligned with this paradigm. They will have to adapt and change careers quickly. That’s why the most important thing for young people today is how much they’re learning. As long as they’re learning, they’ll stick with that job.
Discussions on the future of work used to centre on automation and whether it was a good or bad thing. Do you believe that greater automation is an issue?
ab: I am constantly surprised to hear about automation replacing manual labour in areas that you wouldn’t expect but there are limits to that. The production line is the place where automation originated and continues to grow. One could say that’s a good thing because it frees people from repetitive tasks that are often quite unhealthy or dangerous.
“Plenty of young people want to do things differently. That’s how we’ll see a future of work that is more optimistic”
mg: When we talk about optimisation it reminds me of the stages of grief and I think that we are at the acceptance stage. There is an Amazon Fresh supermarket near where I live; there was a lot of fear about it a few years ago. Now it’s just a reality. There have been shifts in terms of who feels intimidated by AI. My partner has tried this new programme that uses AI to draw; he asked it to make a picture of Darth Vader in the style of Keith Haring and it did a pretty good job. Something like that affects a lot of people who once felt that their professions were untouchable: those in the creative industries or doing things with emotional intelligence. In my field, there are apps and start-ups that are dealing with online coaching and therapy. Are they a better option? I don’t know but they’re definitely cheaper.
Will anyone stick up for the vision of the future propounded by the technology industry – that of a utopia in which people no longer need to work and can focus on leisure?
jw: This is a dream that’s been sold to us many times. Quite famously, John Maynard Keynes argued this in the 1930s; he said that increases in productivity would mean that we would all be working less. But since he wrote that, people have been working more. We often talk about technology and automation in the abstract. What we actually mean is digital technology. And when we talk about automation, we think about manufacturing and robotisation. But what’s more important are the social relations that are creating different kinds of technology and automation. People often frame automation as a binary – something is either automated or it isn’t. So much of my working life is automated: I don’t have to write letters and I don’t have to take them to the post office. That is not often thought of as automation but it frees me from a lot of difficult tasks. The problem is that workers don’t always benefit from these forms of automation and technology. Instead, we’re expected to work harder and harder. So the question is, “How do we change the ways in which we relate to technology and use it at work?” And there is still a utopian possibility. But we shouldn’t start with the idea that technology will work it out; we should start with the economic and social relations that shape our world and then create the technology to improve them.
“I believe that children should be educated across a broad spectrum of subjects”
I want to talk about education. There’s a debate at the moment about which subjects are best suited to the workplace. How do we prepare children for jobs that don’t exist yet?
ab: Children should be educated across a broad spectrum of subjects: science, humanities and the arts. Specialisation at too young an age is a bad thing. There’s a strange disconnect in how society perceives design, for example – this idea that design is an art. People don’t realise that those who work in technology, industry, maths and science are designers as well, as they are writing code and algorithms. They’re designing how we operate in the world. The syllabus that young people are taught is stuck in the past. In primary schools, children should learn coding but they could also learn about urban design, art and poetry, and how to see everything as a potential future in which they could find their place and make a contribution.
“Workers don’t always benefit from automation and technology. Instead, we’re expected to work harder and harder”
mg: My son is learning to write and he’s really challenged by the “anticlockwise letters”, as they’re apparently now known. I was practising writing the letter S with him and I thought, “Do we need to do this?” This child is five years old. Is he going to write by hand? When I talk to people in the workplace, 90 per cent of the time their solution to career challenges is, “I’ll go back to school.” People feel that they need that certificate because it gives them confidence. But by the time they finish studying computer science, everything has changed and what they’ve learnt is far less relevant. There’s a professor at New York University, Scott Galloway, who said he believes that in the future, there is a possibility of people only applying to colleges and universities in order to receive a certificate and not actually following the programme. Because, at this point, the most useful thing that universities give you is that certificate.
What do you think, Jamie? Should children still be taught to write with a pen?
jw: As a lecturer I think that a well-rounded critical education is incredibly important. Many students I teach today mostly worry about the amount of debt that they’ve got into and what kind of job they will be able to find when they finish. This is becoming increasingly the case at school too – an anxiety about the future, a sense that we have to be training people so that they can secure a job. But the kinds of skills that really equip people are much more holistic and critical, things that don’t immediately have an economic value. I would prefer that people had the pressure taken off them so that they can spend time learning and thinking these things through. Those are the skills that will equip people to build a more utopian future, rather than skills that just teach people a particular coding language that might not even be useful by the time they graduate. You allow people to explore the theoretical ideas behind things. The problem is that this costs money and requires investment. As a society we need to think about why spending money on higher education isn’t a priority but things like weapons are. Education isn’t a commodity – or it shouldn’t be – because it has wider social benefits.
I want to ask you all the same question: in 10 years’ time, what changes would you like to see in the way that we work?
mg: Over the past year or so there has been a lot of talk about how cool the Great Resignation is, that there was this small percentage of people who decided to go surfing instead of going into the office. But the truth is that most of it was what is now being called the “she-cession”: Generation X women have been pushed out of work by caring commitments to both their children and their parents. As more knowledge workers go freelance and take on different projects for different organisations, this will allow more flexibility and ultimately an option to create more space between our personal identities and our professional ones. I believe that as younger generations begin to take more senior positions, we will see more acceptance of multifaceted identities, so that it’s not only the professional one that determines your value but who you are too.
“Production is where automation originated and continues to grow. It frees people from repetitive tasks that are often unhealthy or dangerous”
jw: I would like to see an increase in unions and workers’ rights translating into real, substantive gains. The future of work is determined by a series of changes and decisions made in the here and now. Too often workers do not get or are denied a say in how they work. If they had more control, the future could be directed away from the current dystopian visions we face now.
“We will see an acceptance of multifaceted identities so that it’s not only the professional one that determines your value – but who you are too”
ab: Everybody wishes that they could have work that has a clear purpose – not just working to earn money but doing something that has value, that helps you feel valued and valuable as a person, and that you’re making the world a better place. We need more ethical investment and social enterprise. These are growing sectors that are tapping into a different way of thinking about how to create value and how to address the many problems that we face. And this is a macro and micro economic question. It will take a lot of effort to ensure that a huge shift happens in the way that we think about work. It’s about tapping into a spirit of optimism and directing your labour towards the common good, while at the same time having a reasonably good quality of life.
Reports of the end of work as we know it have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, technology has left people working longer hours. Many are less satisfied too. The demise of the office hasn’t quite come to pass either. Now is the time for companies to woo talent with desirable spaces and staff perks. Rather than twiddling with the levers, governments need to invest in education and innovation so that the workforce of tomorrow is adaptable and optimistic.