Goodbye middle management, hello collaboration: How we will be working in five years

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By Andrew Pope, Partner, innovation and collaboration consultant at Innosis. As well  as speaker at the upcoming Boye 18 conference in November.  

The workplace of tomorrow is long overdue. It sounds like an anomaly, but think about it. Today's workplace runs still largely according to Victorian values. We come to a workplace where we are managed in hierarchical structures, kept in one place for set hours every day, then go home to our 'other' lives.

Most of us have decent education and skills as well as possessing a life full of unique experiences, and crucially, ideas. So we might ask why we're still so often shoe-horned into these Victorian work practices? Practices that are largely one-way: top down.

Things are changing, of course. Large firms are reducing desk provision (and reaping financial gains from reduced leasing costs). Many promote working from home or remotely. This is a start, reflecting that we are mature enough to work without direct, all-day supervision.

But where is all this taking us? Some have argued it’s not working out at all, with studies showing that open plan offices may actually be hindering collaboration. I've been looking at current workplace trends and projecting how they are likely to pan out over the coming years.

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Offices are only for meetings and conversations

Tomorrow's offices are likely to consist of more spaces and fewer individual desks. The notion of coming in to work, sitting at a desk all day even when you aren't actually talking to or collaborating with anyone, then commuting back home, will fall away. Many large organisations, such as RBS, are actively reducing workspace provision to encourage more remote working.

The rising costs of living in some locations is also pushing people away from major commercial centres, creating more geographically spread workforces. As certain skills become more in demand, workers are getting more say as to where they live - whether it’s affordability or quality of life.

The winners out of all of this (in addition to us flexible workers) are the co-working spaces. These will continue to grow and spread - not just in city centres but through the suburbs and even to smaller rural communities as these become the de-facto offices. Instead of being based with colleagues, we’re based with workers of other companies with whom we share a geography. When companies such as IBM are leasing co-working spaces, we can see that the traditional office is in retreat.

But whilst we can work from anywhere - and absolutely should when we don't need to be anywhere specific - the need for face-to-face interactions will not go away. Being with someone in the flesh builds trust and develops relationships. It gets teams working for each other. This is what the office space should be used for. But we must be smart as to how we use it. Don't waste time meeting for the sake of it - a regular team meeting that only pushes out people's updates rather than engages in detailed conversations and knowledge sharing is largely pointless. But if meetings do focus on proper interactions, where we genuinely need to talk to someone or get together to solve a problem or create something, then that's what the meeting spaces are there for.

Working for more than one company

There will be a trend in future workforces for self-employed individuals and even entire 'teams for hire' that move from business to business delivering very specific component services. And whilst teams of contractors are most likely to work for one organisation at a time, individuals may well spend their weeks working for two or more 'clients'. Doing what they do best for those who need it at that specific time. In this thought-provoking piece, The Economist creates a world where companies have no employees, where we pitch for work or get assigned projects. Whether the Uber way becomes the norm in all employment sectors is up for debate, but we’re certainly seeing traditional models disrupted.

Why do I predict this? We all have our expertise. We all also find ourselves doing other jobs. Or sometimes, we find ourselves trying to look busy because we don't actually have enough to do. It's a curious truth that in many workplaces we don't actually spend that much time doing our core role. We do 'stuff' to keep ourselves busy. After all, we're paid to be there for 37.5 hours a week, therefore we need to be there regardless of how busy we are. And whilst this does give us opportunities to try something new, to learn a new skill, it's not what we're actually there for. Organisations that understand this will keep us focused on doing what we're good at, leaning towards 'teams for hire' to fill the gaps.

PERHAPS: Elaborate on the shortfalls/problems here - how about those new to work? Those with fewer skills? Sounds like less job security to me and also sounds like we continue on the journey towards more inequality...

No place for middle management

Looking ahead there will be a clearer line drawn between management and leadership. We'll still have a lead - there will always be project leads and business heads. But when we're offering our skills rather than our souls, we won't be so directly managed. Goals will be clear, and as we won't be filling up time with 'stuff', we won't need to be micro-managed to make sure that this stuff goes on our timesheet. What this means in practical terms is a more level workforce with fewer hierarchies (this doesn’t mean there won’t be hierarchies - they just will be less rigid). The first casualty of all of this will be the middle manager. There simply won't be enough employees to manage. With fewer reporting lines, more of us will be accountable to a project, task or specific need rather than reporting to a person.

Our self-employed, skill-based teams for hire will be brought in to deliver towards clear and specific objectives. This too doesn't require management. It requires coordination and leadership. The need for middle managers who assign daily or weekly tasks will rapidly fall away as fluid and collaborative working becomes the norm.

Social networks stick everything together

With a future of fluid working, more self-employed workers and no specific location to be based at, we need something to bind us: the glue that connects us to opportunities, to resources, to answers and to knowledge. To deliver a single, seamless outcome for end customers.

Enterprise social networks will find their true calling as inter-company networks: connecting solo-workers, teams and organisations together. Projects will be run in groups, people can be found no matter where they are or whom they are working with.

External networks like LinkedIn will largely remain as a shop window: the place for our brand. Enterprise networks such as Yammer, Teams and Workplace will be where we hold conversations specifically on work tasks - with designated groups allowing access to individuals both within and outside the organisation. Here we can tap into a pool of support, connect to our other virtual colleagues and actually have a conversation, rather than email-based communications. As these networks now offer video calling as well as posting threads and sharing content, they are likely to become the de-facto centre of work.

Traditional intranets will fall back to become document repositories and communication organs for senior management.

Regardless of the impact of automation, in the next few years we’re certain to see more online collaboration, less management, more co-working space and more digital communities. It’s all about flexibility, responsiveness and unpredictability. Are you ready for the workplace of tomorrow?