Let’s be honest, the current workplace is not that great. So why are we so resistant to changing it? Rhonda Brighton-Hall makes a case for rethinking the way we work, learn and live that will benefit everyone.

Originally published for InsideRetail Australia.

Whenever we talk about the future of work, we talk about the demise of the current way of working with great sadness. The unspoken assumption is that work works brilliantly right now, and losing our current way of working would be a disaster.

The reality is a little different. It doesn’t take much reflection to know that our current way of working is deeply flawed and probably long overdue for an overhaul. Consider the gender pay gap, lack of diversity on boards and executive teams and rising rate of mental illness due to stress. As we look to the future of work, let’s shelve the dire predictions for a moment and instead use the opportunity to design a future of work that actually works for more of us.

It makes sense that the current way of working is out of date. After all, it was designed a really long time ago – In 1860 to be precise, at the Workingman’s Convention in Geneva. It was designed for an era when people left school as children, headed into factories and worked until they dropped, which was often not that many years later, given the average life expectancy was just 43 for women and only 40 for men.

Today, we spend significantly longer at school as we move towards lifelong learning. We work many more years, retraining and reskilling frequently. And we live considerably longer lives, as we head towards the long espoused 100-year life.

So against that frame, what is not working about work, that we could rethink?

Working Hours

Statistics show that we are already heading towards a four-day working week. The April 2018 Bankwest Curtin Economic Centre’s Future of Work report shows that many Gen Y and Millenials are already choosing a four-day week, with the top reason being simply “personal choice”.

In fact, trend lines suggest we're moving to a shorter working week faster than countries like Sweden and Denmark that are very clearly planning shorter working weeks, either through four-day working weeks or six-hour days.

This is supported by a report commissioned by Google. The Automation Advantage, which expects the productivity impact on the Australian economy to be $2.2 trillion by 2030, which surely could be shared across a shorter working week.

Workplace Injury 

We talk about robots that take the work of humans, but equally, there’s some great work on robots that work with humans. Already, physically demanding patient-lifting in hospitals, long the bane of the backs of many nurses, is being trialed by robots that literally do the heavy lifting.

Contracts 

Our contracts for work are leaving the most vulnerable workers without job security, as they’re thrown into the gig economy, often without much guidance. The alternative is to rethink our contracts, protecting vulnerable workers, while still allowing those with greater skills or different opportunities to have more freedom or agency over how they choose to work. Giant law firms, such as Herbert Smith Freehills, are already workshopping what those new contracts might look like.

Learning and Training 

Lifelong learning is a great idea; however, until recently, it has solely been for the benefit of the wealthy or already well-educated. The education revolution is enabling much more engaging learning, via gamification or virtual reality, at a fraction of the cost of old formal education, and it is becoming accessible in much more flexible ways. Being up-to-date and ready for workplace change is now so crucial that it should be designed into our working week.

Careers

The same can be said of careers. People used to get a job and stay in it until they retired, but those days have been gone since the 1980s. It’s time to start thinking about a career with multiple employers, different skill sets and opportunities to work with an organisation for a few years, take a sabbatical or work somewhere else to finetune skills, and then return. More flexible career designs will also work well with longer working lives and phased retirement.

Diversity and Inclusion 

For too long, we accepted that the workplace, and specifically leadership, was the domain of a very narrow group of people. It is much harder to attain leadership roles if you’re female, of non-Anglo cultural or linguistic diversity, are Indigenous, have a disability, or work flexibly. We could, and should, design a future of work where all opportunities are available for all of us. And that’s before we talk about the potential for virtual reality to have people currently restricted by disability or geography, to join the workplace virtually, either as members of the team or as clients or customers.

Flexibility 

As technology rolls in, we can rethink workplaces to be much more flexible than they’ve ever been. The seven-day week that has long been the domain of retail, healthcare, and hospitality has moved right across the economy. That means all jobs need to be designed flexibly and as an extension of that, all services as well. This could mean we are able to make “work” and “life” work together much more harmoniously, with more choice based on individual preferences and differences.

Anxiety and Stress 

There has been a lot of research about the way we currently work and its impact on mental wellbeing. Jeffery Pfeffer, of Stanford Graduate School, wrote about this in his book, Dying for a Paycheck. Released in March 2018, it gives the statistical impact of the high stress, ever-present, constantly-connected ways of working, describing the impact as worse than diabetes.

In designing work and rethinking leadership, we need to be as thoughtful about productivity and revenue as we are about belonging and inclusion. Maybe “sustainable” business could be much more than a catchcry.

Ready for the future? 

In summary, let’s leave space for two ideas in our thinking about the future of work. Firstly, that the way we work today is not great for most of us. Secondly, with some thought, we just might design a future of work that actually works for more of us.

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