Podcast Humanizing Work As Offices Get Virtual

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How can we ensure workforce has the right skills for the future, why diversity and inclusion have become a matter of competitive advantage and how will people and machines cooperate in the future?
February 6, 2020

Can workplaces be healthy?

Workplaces around us aren’t as healthy or happy as they should be. So says Julia Hobsbawm, Professor of Workplace Social Health, Cass Business School.

The figures are startling. In the US, for example, the cost of all this sickness and stress is estimated at $300bn annually.

This means that health and function are critical factors to consider when looking at the future of work. But what does function mean in the context? Hobsbawm explains:

“We absolutely must think more and more about work in the context of health or function…as opposed to dysfunction. Poor health and stress and low productivity are the bane of the entire working world.”

Death of the office

Hobsbawm identifies two central shifts in the world of work. The impact of technology – AI and robotics in particular – gets a lot of attention. But she believes that the human aspects may be even more profound as the workplace changes dramatically.

In as little as five years, the world of work we know today will be unrecognisable, she says. Does this mean governments are too focused on preparing their workforce for the digital realm and AI? Should they turn their attention instead to the soft skills that work will demand in future – such as creative problem solving, collaboration and empathy?

By 2030 it is estimated that half the world’s service workers will be freelance. “That really means the end of the office,” she suggests.

Virtual, or temporary, offices are destined to be the new norm. That has a profound effect on how workers interact socially and how they go about building their careers.

Investing in soft skills

This new environment suggests that lifelong learning is the order of the day, but will it be prohibitively expensive?

Some corporations, she says, regard skills as meaning “how to keep pace with the technology, rather than invest in (cheaper) soft skills.”

This presents a challenge for recruiters, in the sense that it’s cheaper to upskill workers rather than constantly hire new ones. But it’s also a societal challenge.

“In the end it’s the old stuff that matters – which is management, value, making people feel there is a point to what they’re doing,” she notes.

Short termism

Hobsbawm also highlights the tendency of Western governments and corporations to focus on short term goals – complete with quarterly results and 5 year cycles for CEOs. This is stark contrast to some Asian countries, which take a much longer view.

“Some of the great powerhouses of the electronics and digital technologies [in Asia] have been built on values that are generation-to-generation, rather than short-termism,” she says.

And at present, there is huge variability from governments as to whether they are preparing citizens for near-term or for longer-range goals.

Stay tuned for next episodes of the podcast series The Way To Work.