Insights: What is the future of work?
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Insights: What is the future of work?

Insights: What is the future of work?

This is the time to more proactively design how we work, live and relax, say our experts

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The future of work

As employees are lured back to work from offices that are much maligned or much beloved, even as a veritable industry of sorts on “future of work” is emerging with experts, consultants and advisors writing about everything from yoga to juggling to attire, GCC enterprises are missing a grand opportunity to think beyond the office as we know it in the face of genuine uncertainty.

While the so-called experts debate the merits and demerits of work-from-home versus work-from-office, the folks who have to do the work have expressed their preferences: they don’t prefer the morning traffic, crammed office buildings, or cubicles with no elbow space. Some people spend as much as four hours daily commuting back and forth office.

An inflection point is here, and there will be winners and losers. Central business district (CBD) real estate owners, businesses that depend on the office workers, and the ecosystem of retailers, other service providers will be the losers if offices move to remote locations. Imagine Sheikh Zayed road without the morning and evening rush. 

When the first wave of Covid-19 hit the world, the workers commuting to the CBD almost completely stayed back at homes. The resultant loss to businesses that depend on office-goers is well documented. Most employees are getting used to the comfort of not having to get up early, get ready to fight the traffic to the office and plan for lunch etc., and are reluctant to go back to that old ritual. 

Urban life theorist Richard Florida has a different take on who and how cities will be revived, beginning with younger people. Trends already well underway were only accelerated by the pandemic. Many employers have delayed hiring young talent until the crisis is over  to deliver in-person training, team building, and mentoring.

Young folks in many professions – doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, consultants, emergency responders and the like – are often in situations which require taking effective actions and avoid serious consequences. They are deliberately put through a learning crucible with a manufactured period of intensive testing and skilling. Young consultants and investment bankers are pushed to move quickly up the learning curve with all-nighters and intensive 80-hour workweeks. 

This knowledge ziggurat conundrum makes two assumptions about the structuring of professional work. First, the skills are best developed through an on-the-job learning, in which young talent is intensively mentored and networked with more experienced people. This often has a strong time and place component in which everyone is together, often at a client site or working on a client problem. The second is that careers progress through a form of ‘tournament’ in which people compete with each other to land the next promotion with an “up or out” kind of structure. The pandemic has led many organisations to re-think the way that first assumption works, while new forms of networked structures suggest the second may no longer serve the purpose it once did.

The CBD, or for that matter the various sub-cities in Dubai, which was a set of office buildings where people commuted to and worked to process information  – they were stacked and packed like a factory for office and professional work – is going away. There’s going to be a 20 per cent reduction in the demand for central office space and maybe a 9 per cent hit to CBD economies.  

Now is the time to more proactively design how we work, live and relax. If you think about it, commuting is one of the biggest hassles of getting to a CBD. Putting people in affordable suburban homes and cramming employment into crowded CBDs were perhaps not the greatest of ideas. So here’s our chance to rethink and go beyond narrowly considering life in the office. Eliminate the commute, add more green space, deliberately create a “programming” to entice tourists and young people, and the meaning of office life can be redefined.

There is even a movement that has grown up around this idea. Called “15 minute cities”, a term coined by Paris’ Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who suggests that Parisians should be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. This should give countries around the world something to think about.

Rita McGrath is a professor at Columbia Business School and founder of Valize, and Dr M Muneer is the co-founder and chief evangelist at the non-profit Medici Institute

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