Photo: Eleanor Shakespeare 

WORK SMARTER

Is modern working all it’s cracked up to be?

In our quest for convenient working, have we ended up cohabiting with our jobs? Marisa Bates wants to know

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By Marisa Bate on

Any number of business books or Forbes articles will tell you that the future of the workplace has arrived.

Today, we sit on soft furnishings, not the hard chairs of the past. Today, we exist in large, open white spaces, where everyone is equal and the only place to make a phonecall is in the corridor by the loos over the sound of the hand dryer. Today, companies provide free chai lattes and allow us to work three days a week – just as long as we check our email at midnight.

The future has arrived.

Yet, as this working revolution is unfolding (I write this from the standing desk in my kitchen; all I need now is to affix it to a treadmill ordered by my AI assistant), evidently there are a few hiccups with our workplace utopia.

For starters, new research published last week by social business and flexibility experts Timewise suggests that those who are working part-time feel isolated, excluded and cut off from colleagues – to the point where they feel it affects their career development. Out of 1,700 surveyed, 59 per cent miss out on networking opportunities and 61 per cent feel less up to date with what’s happening with their team. Timewise’s founder, Karen Mattison, calls it a case of “flexism” or discrimination against flexible workers: “The workforce has changed, but the workplace has not caught up.”

So, if companies are now more open to part-time and flexible working – often an essential way to retain talent, not to mention allowing parents to stay in the game – they also have to ensure that those workers aren’t left out or forgotten. If businesses are beginning to grant us permission to work the way we want, we now need a culture of making that actually work. And there are ways – take the Hoxby Collective, a company that provides agency and consultancy services; their network of freelancers around the world have Slack channels, video calls and regular in-person meet-ups and dinners. A flexible future doesn’t have to be lonely, but it does need to have systems and structures in place.

Future-facing companies offer all sorts of perks. They might not give you your own desk any more, but they'll give you a whole lifestyle with their morning yoga, encouraged veganism and egg-freezing

Another hole in our current modern-working utopia, I believe, is the pesky open-plan office. It’s democracy in action, they said, as they vetoed private offices. It’s ideal for creative magic to be made, they said, as teams spend days moving around each other. But some clever person invented walls and doors for a reason. Like… having quiet to work, or privacy for tricky conversations, or meeting rooms for, well, meetings. And while I don’t like to come over all dictatorial, we need internal hierarchy, too. We need to know who's in charge and there's nothing like a closed office door to suggest an aloof power that keeps everyone focused on the task at hand.

It’s well known that future-facing companies offer all sorts of perks. They might not give you your own desk any more, but they'll give you a whole lifestyle with their morning yoga, encouraged veganism, egg-freezing and a quiet room to think about things (which may or may not have walls). A report from earlier in the year by The Future Laboratory and renowned architects MoreySmith dubbed this way of working as the “Hospitality Workplace… part hotel, part gym and part café… a place where work, play and rest are combined under one roof".

But isn’t that… your entire life? There’s already the small issue of us being permanently “on”, thanks to our smart(arse) phones. But at least we’re still spending *some* time in our own homes – for now. In California, Facebook is still trying to push through Willow Campus – a mixed-use 60 acres with an employee count of around 35,000 people, which would basically be a small town with houses, grocery stores and a hotel. You would live not at work, but in your employee’s world. Tell me, where’s the work/life balance there? MoreySmith’s recent project for an office company in Paris is a co-working space including a cafe, a barbershop, phone booths, artist studios and health and beauty suites. In our quest for convenient working, have we ended up cohabiting with our jobs?

All of this, however, doesn’t mean the future is cancelled. I love my standing desk. And I’m sure a lot of us would really appreciate a good manicurist or boxing gym at the office. But something does seem to have gone wrong here. We've been promised a better lifestyle, but we clearly didn’t read the smallprint that said to enjoy a healthier work/life balance, we need to spend all our time at work. We seemed to have missed the bit, too, that says companies will embrace part-time working, much like a mother pushing a small bird out of a nest and hoping to God it learns how to fly, watching silently, without so much as a hint of how to flap your wings.

A few weeks ago, the head of the country’s biggest union called for four-day weeks. Change is coming. But let’s make sure this new world of work actually works for us.

@marisajbate

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Photo: Eleanor Shakespeare 
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