1 | Workplace structures
Forget the rigid corporate ladder – now the corporate lattice allows free-flowing ideas and career paths
Browse the business section of any bookshop and you’ll find dozens of titles promising to share the secret to climbing the corporate ladder. But the day is not far off when such books will seem as quaint and outmoded as a housekeeping manual from the 1950s.
One of the key workplace trends of the 21st century has been the collapse of the corporate ladder, whereby loyal employees climbed towards the higher echelons of management one promotion at a time. Cathy Benko, vice-chairman of Deloitte in San Francisco and co-author of The Corporate Lattice, says that the ladder model dates back to the industrial revolution, when successful businesses were built on economies of scale, standardisation and a strict hierarchy. “But we don’t live in an industrial age, we live in a digital age. And if you look at all the shifts taking place, one [of the biggest] is the composition of the workforce, which is far more diverse in every way,” she says.
This new diversity, combined with technological advances, has fed demand for a more collaborative and flexible working environment. Benko estimates that companies have “flattened out” by about 25% over the past 25 years, losing several layers of management in favour of a more grid-like structure, where ideas flow along horizontal, vertical and diagonal paths.
Individuals will have the freedom to pitch to the CEO without going through layers of management
Career paths are becoming similarly fluid, with many following a zigzag rather than a straight path. “I would argue that [the lattice model] provides more opportunity and more possibilities to be successful,” says Benko. “In the ladder model, you’re looking in one direction, which is up. In the lattice organisation you can find growth by doing different roles, so you have new experiences, you acquire new skills, you tap into new networks. The world is less predictable than it was in the industrial age, so you stay relevant by acquiring a portfolio of transferable skills.”
A recent report, The Future Workplace, commissioned by financial protection specialist Unum and authored by The Future Laboratory, reveals how the workplace is evolving and what employers need to do successfully to manage employee wellbeing over the next 15 years. One of the key findings of the survey was that in order to attract and retain high-calibre employees, companies need to foster a more collaborative environment. This might involve hot-desking, ideas workshops and regularly switching teams. Not only do employees respond well to this style of working, but corporations benefit too as it better equips them to compete with the startups that are disrupting their business.
“Large organisations have a huge challenge in attracting the millennial generation to come and work for them. Those people expect much more entrepreneurial environments – more freedom to operate, less control,” says Philippe De Ridder, co-founder of the Board of Innovation, a consultancy firm whose mission statement is to “help corporates innovate like start-ups”. One of the ways they do this is through a series of “intrapreneurship” programmes, which encourage employees to think and act like entrepreneurs within the confines of their company. What this means in practical terms is individuals having the freedom to take full ownership of particular domains or projects, with minimal supervision or bureaucracy, and to be able to pitch directly to the CEO without having to go through several layers of management.
The principles of intrapreneurship can apply at every level of an organisation, not just management or creative roles. De Ridder gives the example of online shoe shop Zappos.com, which abolished scripts from its call centre a year ago and gave customer service staff the freedom to deal with complaints however they saw fit. He says they are now outperforming most of their competitors in terms of customer satisfaction ratings.
“It’s a common assumption that this level of freedom only works for managers or people who work remotely,” says De Ridder. “But there are plenty of real-life examples that [show] people are more motivated if they themselves make a decision rather than having a decision forced on them.”J’OC
2 | Artificial intelligence
The robots are coming and if the forecasts are correct, they could sound the death knell for millions of jobs
In recent years, automation has become increasingly prevalent. We think nothing of paying for groceries at a scanner or transferring money on a screen without going into a bank. We’ve grown accustomed to the idea of self-driving cars and computers that can talk to us.
As marvellous as these innovations may seem, they can also be destructive, rendering entire professions obsolete even as they boost productivity and convenience. And now, if widespread predictions are correct, automation in the workplace is set to increase at an unprecedented rate.
“There’s going to be a huge change, comparable to the industrial revolution,” says Jerry Kaplan, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who teaches a class in artificial intelligence at Stanford. Robots and intelligent computer systems, he says, “are going to have a far more dramatic impact on the workplace than the internet has”.
By absorbing the routine aspects of our jobs, optimists argue, machines are freeing us up for more creative activities
Kaplan isn’t alone in this belief. A 2013 study by the Oxford Martin School estimated that 47% of jobs in the US could be susceptible to computerisation over the next two decades. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute predicted that, by 2025, robots could jeopardise between 40m and 75m jobs worldwide.
“There have been two major developments over the past 10 years,” says Kaplan. “The first relates to advances in machine learning – the ability to organise large volumes of data so you can get actionable intelligence. The second is the availability of data of all kinds, coming from smartphones and other low-cost sensors out there in the environment. When you add those two things up – the availability of the data along with the ability to interpret it – it enables a whole lot of things that you couldn’t do before.”
Many areas of manual work are being affected. Robots in factories and warehouses are becoming more mobile, versatile and affordable. A US-designed robot called Baxter, which can handle a wide variety of tasks from loading to packaging, currently costs £19,000. “If you’re digging a ditch or painting a house, laying pipes or setting bricks – anything that involves basic hand-eye co-ordination – there will be low-cost, efficient mechanical devices that can do that work,” says Kaplan.
It’s not just manual labour that’s ripe for automation: white-collar jobs are also at risk as software becomes more sophisticated. One example is Quill, a program developed by US company Narrative Science that crunches data and generates reports in a journalistic style.
Data analysis work in areas such as advertising and finance is being outsourced to computers and even the authority of medical experts is being challenged: IBM’s Watson computer, which won the American TV quiz Jeopardy in 2011, is being used to diagnose cancer patients in the US.
Watson can sift through symptoms, medical histories and the latest research to deliver diagnoses and suggest potential treatments, but there are limits to its diagnostic abilities and, unlike a human doctor, it cannot treat patients with empathy and understanding.
By absorbing the most routine aspects of our jobs, optimists argue, machines are freeing us up to concentrate on more creative, thoughtful activities. This may be true for some, but, as the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author Martin Ford says: “The reality is that a very large fraction of our workforce is engaged in activities that are on some level routine, repetitive and predictable.” If this is the case, retraining a large portion of the workforce to engage in more creative activity beyond the reach of automation will pose an enormous challenge.
Not all jobs are at risk. “A lot of work involving personal interaction won’t be affected,” says Kaplan. “Nobody wants to go to a robotic undertaker who says ‘I’m sorry for your loss’; it’s just not meaningful. But it depends on the activity – the more transactional it is, the more likely it is to be automated. If you go to a fancy restaurant, you don’t want a robotic waiter. On the other hand if you go to McDonald’s, you won’t have a problem with punching buttons and having a burger come out of a chute somewhere.”
One issue that will loom ever larger as the incidence of automation increases, according to Kaplan, is inequality. “Automation is fundamentally the substitution of capital for labour. The problem is that the people who already have the capital are the ones who will benefit most, because they’re the ones who will invest in the new automation.”
In other words, the rich will get richer and the rest of us will suffer. KF
3 | The human cloud
Websites that match employers with freelancers are growing fast – and so is the potential for lower wages and inequality
In the past decade cloud computing has radically altered the way we work, but it’s the growth of the “human cloud” – a vast global pool of freelancers who are available to work on demand from remote locations on a mind-boggling array of digital tasks – which is really set to shake up the world of work.
The past five years have seen a proliferation of online platforms that match employers (known in cloud-speak as “requesters”) with freelancers (often referred to as “taskers”), inviting them to bid for each task. Two of the biggest sites are Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which lays claim to 500,000 “turkers” from 190 countries at any given time, and Upwork, which estimates that it has 10 million freelancers from 180 countries on its database. They compete for approximately 3m tasks or projects each year, which can range from tagging photos to writing code. The market is evolving so quickly that it’s hard to pin down exactly how many people are using these sites worldwide, but management consultants McKinsey estimate that by 2025 some 540 million workers will have used one of these platforms to find work.
The benefits for companies using these sites are obvious: instant access to a pool of cheap, willing talent, without having to go through lengthy recruitment processes. And no need to pay overheads and holiday or sick pay. For the “taskers” the benefits are less clear cut. Champions of the crowdsourcing model claim that it’s a powerful force for the redistribution of wealth, bringing a fresh stream of income and flexible work into emerging economies such as India and the Philippines (two of the biggest markets for these platforms). But herein lies the problem, as far as critics are concerned. By inviting people to bid for work, sites such as Upwork inevitably trigger a “race to the bottom”, with workers in Mumbai or Manila able to undercut their peers in Geneva or London thanks to their lower living costs.
It’s not just unskilled labour being done online. It’s affecting the whole spectrum
“It’s a factor in driving down real wages and increasing inequality,” says Guy Standing, professor of economics at SOAS, University of London. He has written two books on the “precariat”, which he defines as an emerging global class with no financial security, job stability or prospect of career progression. He argues that falling wages in this sector, with workers often willing to complete tasks for as little as $1 an hour, will eventually have a knock-on effect on the wages of traditional employees and contribute to the growth of the precariat. “And it’s not just unskilled labour that’s being done online,” says Standing. “It goes all the way up: legal services, medical diagnosis, architectural services, accounting – it’s affecting the whole spectrum.”
Love it or loathe it, the human cloud is here to stay. “People don’t necessarily want to work from 9am to 5pm in an office any more. They want more flexible work, both in terms of the hours and the location,” says Vassili van der Mersch, founder of Sevendays, a new platform which specialises in matching established freelancers with startups and digital agencies. Unlike the auction model favoured by sites like Upwork, Sevendays invites a carefully selected number of jobseekers to apply for each job and does not take a cut of their earnings. Freelancers can also specify the minimum rate they are prepared to work for.
Van der Mersch argues that there are career development opportunities for cloud workers, with many startups using the site as a way of testing out freelancers to see if they’re a good cultural fit before offering them a permanent job – and vice versa. “Typically these remote freelancers are very entrepreneurial, which is one of the mindsets that startups are looking for,” he says. “They are self-starters and they don’t need someone looking over their shoulder.”
For now this sector of the labour market is largely unregulated but Standing says there is urgent need for an industry code of ethics and low-cost means of redress to protect vulnerable workers. “It’s going to become a very big, explosive issue. In some sectors the use of cloud labour is doubling each year and so far the policymakers haven’t addressed it.” JO’C
4 | Workplace monitoring
Bosses apparently worry about the health of their staff and are asking them to wear trackers. Nothing sinister about that...
It is becoming easier than ever for employers to keep an eye on their staff. With emerging technologies, companies can monitor where employees are and what they’re up to but also how they’re feeling – whether they’re stressed, tired or not getting enough exercise outside work.
Some workplace tracking technologies are already widely used. Low-cost GPS systems are used to record the progress of delivery drivers. Earpieces relay orders to warehouse employees and can also track their performance and downtime. At Amazon, workers are encouraged to report on each other’s performance via an online feedback tool.
Monitoring more intimate details about personal health and wellbeing is less commonplace, though that’s expected to change with the spread of wearable technology. Last year, sales of devices such as the Fitbit and Jawbone, which track exercise, food intake, sleep patterns and other health-related information, totalled 26.4m; that number is expected to rise to 72.1m by the end of this year. According to the technology research company Gartner, around 10,000 companies worldwide offered their staff fitness trackers in 2014 and the firm predicts that next year most companies with more than 500 employees will offer them.
If you have athletes performing at a high level, they are supported by data and analytics insight
Why would your employer want to know how much you exercise or how well you’re sleeping at night? “Really, it’s a management diagnostic tool,” says Chris Brauer, director of innovations at Goldsmiths, University of London. “What impacts on your performance at work is not just what you do at work. In our early stage studies, we find strong, clear correlations between sleep patterns and concentration, between levels of anxiety and stress outside the workplace and performance inside the workplace.”
He draws an analogy with sports science: “If you have athletes performing at a high level on the pitch these days, they’re almost uniformly supported by data and analytics insight. Nobody would field a team in the Premier League and not use analytics.” At work, it’s also a question of competition, he says, and for companies with global ambitions “these kind of technologies are uniquely placed to provide significant competitive advantages”.
Some big companies are taking this idea seriously. BP gives out Fitbit fitness trackers to its North American staff as part of an incentive programme to reduce healthcare costs. If you can prove you’ve increased your fitness – by hitting a steps-per-day target, for example – you can reduce your health-insurance premium. In the UK and Ireland, Tesco distribution centre staff, wear smart armbands “as a working aid”.
Among various objections to such initiatives, perhaps the strongest has to do with invasion of privacy. Many employees object to being monitored. Even if the stated goal is to improve their health, the awareness of scrutiny and the pressure to meet targets at all times can cause anxiety, offsetting any increases in wellbeing.
Further opportunities for anxiety arise. Will your employer use your data against you? Will it share it with third parties? “You’re right to be very wary and demand higher levels of transparency, especially when it comes to wearables that are much more personal than other devices,” says Brauer. “If someone’s going to exploit your data for value, you need to be comfortable that the value you’re receiving back is a reasonable exchange. If you haven’t got that sense, then I don’t think many employers with that kind of strategy will survive very long.” KF
5 | The end of retirement
Forget quitting at 65 – everyone is going to have to stay on for longer, but we should exploit older people’s experience
As people live longer – life expectancy at birth has increased globally by six years since 1990, according to the World Health Organisation – they are expected to work longer. This pressure comes from governments, which struggle to afford pensions for a longer-living population, and also from individuals themselves, who find it harder to make their retirement savings stretch as the average life expectancy, which is currently above 81 in the UK, rises.
These trends have led to speculation that we are approaching the end of retirement or at least entering a period in which older workers will stop working gradually rather than abruptly upon reaching retirement age, which currently stands at 65 for men and 62 for women in the UK but will rise to 67 for both by 2028.
For many older workers, however, remaining in employment beyond 65 is an unsettling prospect. “A certain type of older worker with sought-after skills can manage transitions from one job to another easily enough,” says Matt Flynn, the director of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce at Newcastle University Business School. “For them, a cliff-edge approach to retirement is probably going to be a thing of the past.”
Britain’s GDP could increase by 12% by 2037 if the number of people over 65 in work continued to rise
“But,” he adds, “for a lot of people, not only those in low-skill, physically demanding jobs, but also those who don’t have that much experience making job transitions, they are going to feel a real sense of loss in job security and economic security if that cliff-edge approach is taken away. Even if it’s on a more phased retirement basis, having to work longer than you planned can be quite scary.”
Even for workers some way shy of retirement age, holding on to your job isn’t always easy. According to one UK survey, redundancy rates by age group in 2011 rose steeply from 5% for under-30s, to 26% for the 45-49 age group, to 37% for those over 50. Even though legislation such as the Equality Act in the UK aims to prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of age, the odds are often stacked against older people applying for jobs. “Sometimes, when an employer has a choice between two candidates, one with up-to-date skills and another with experience and a qualification from 40 years ago, there might be some logic for a risk-averse employer to choose the first candidate,” says Flynn. “But it might also be because employers assume that younger people are more adaptable, cheaper, more tech-savvy and are going to stay with the organisation longer.”
Flynn believes it’s unfair to assume that older workers are less adaptable. “One of the big reasons why people aren’t able to make very effective transitions from one job to another is that their skills aren’t up to date and a major contributor to that is not having the opportunity to train.” Individuals have to take ownership of their careers, he says, but there is also an onus on the government and employers to provide work programmes and apprenticeships to maintain a skilled older workforce.
He gives the example of the Silver Human Resource Centre in Japan, which provides part-time, paid employment for people over 60; government investment in older workers that has yielded positive results. “This idea could easily be applied to a UK or US context and given a modest investment by government, making better use of skills and knowledge of older workers, could benefit the entire economy.”
His assertion is backed up by a 2014 report from the International Longevity Centre-UK thinktank, which estimated that, assuming continued high migration, Britain’s GDP could increase by 12% by 2037 if the number of people over 65 in work continued to rise. Perhaps it’s time we started taking the senior members of our workforce more seriously, whatever their qualifications. KF
One O level student argues that a guiding principle for Singapore, “anticipate change and stay relevant”, is an important guiding principle for Singapore, because it “helps Singapore to prepare for the future”, as seen from the Newater initiative. He also argues for the importance of this principle due to the government’s investment in tourism, as seen from building ” two Integrated Resorts at the Marina Bay and Sentosa”.
Credit should be given for the validity of the examples. The Newater initiative necessarily helps Singapore prepare for the future, since the water contracts with Malaysia will expire eventually, and Singapore will lack portable water that it currently enjoys. Furthermore, the two “Integrated Resorts at the Marina Bay and Sentosa” also proves the government’s interest in tourism – it is a multi-million dollar industry and a heavy investment – the money could have easily been spent on other matters such as education and healthcare, but the government chose tourism above them.
However, helping “Singapore prepare for the future” does not necessarily imply the existence of the principle of anticipating change and staying relevant. The latter connotes having a foresight into the world of a future, in ” anticipating change”, as well as acting in a way so as to remain competitive in the world, in “staying relevant”. Newater helps Singapore prepare for a future where water shortage is imminent – it will necessarily happen due to the water contracts, and does not require much prediction or foresight, hence negating the element of “anticipation”. Furthermore, preparing for the future in Newater is a local issue, where Singapore only solves its local problems. It keeps the standard of living that Singapore currently possess, but does not give Singapore an edge over the global competition; the author also has not shown how Newater is “relevant” to the global arena. Hence, Singapore’s preparation for the future is an invalid point.
The government’s investment in tourism might give Singapore an economic edge, but the author is not justified in claiming that it a sign of anticipating change and staying relevant. In fact, there is no “change” anticipated: the government assumes that people around the world will continue to enjoy theme parks and casinos as provided by the integrated resorts, and caters to their needs. With the assumption that things would stay the same, the author is not justified in claiming that investment in tourism is a means of “anticipating change”. By the principle of charity, it is fair to assume that the author interprets “staying relevant”, as keeping up with the competition, in which case it is logical to claim that because the IRs will “help keep Singapore up with the competition”, Singapore utilises such a principle. However, there is no substantial evidence provided that Singapore is indeed comparable to Macau and Genting, which leaves the claim to be unjustified. Therefore, the soundness of the argument that Singapore is anticipating change and staying relevant on the basis of the government’s investment in tourism is dubious.
Finally, the author has only shown with examples how Singapore is “anticipating change and staying relevant”, but does not show how such a guiding principle is “important”, which is the underlying claim. While acting with this principle has given Singapore certain benefits, the importance of a principle is not solely dependent on the benefits from the derived policies – there are other factors like the ability to present a good image of a country through the principle. Furthermore, the policies that bring benefits might also be derived by other principles, hence negating the importance of this particular principle. Due to the lack of information, the caseline remains unsupported and unjustified.
In conclusion, the author has presented some pertinent points about how some of Singapore’s policies. However, he has failed to explain how “anticipate change and stay relevant” has logically guided the policies pursued, and how such a principle is “important” to Singapore.
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