Foosball Tables are from Mars, Manufacturing Plants are from Venus

I think we have run out of trite things to say about millennials. The #generationblah onslaught is certainly slowing down in my timeline.

But I can see the emergence of a new trend; its possible replacement. In recent weeks I have seen more conversations, articles, soundbites, all about the future of work. There is some genuinely interesting material about the subject available. I recommend in particular the UKCES report on jobs and skills in 2030, if you haven’t already seen it.

Unfortunately though, like with many new and thought provoking concepts, the inane infographics are starting to take over the insights.

If what I read is true, there won’t be any hierarchy. We will all be working flexibly. In a Starbucks. Avatars attending meetings on our behalf. Fluid, funky, adaptive offices spaces designed for modern collaboration. Open communication through social methods.

Pick your future of work cliché.

We’ve been making a business of predicting the future of work for decades. Check out this article, on the office of the future originally posted in 1975. They thought that the paperless office was just around the corner. I guess we are still waiting for that one.

But here’s the thing. For every funky cool workplace that wants to build a slide in the middle of the office, there is a manufacturing plant or a call centre, still operating the principles scientific management.

For every company who thinks email is a legacy system, there is another where their employees still don’t have a work email address.

For every constantly connected independent practitioner, every knowledge worker, who can pitch up and work in a Coffice because all they need is a wifi connection, there is someone stood on a production line where physical presence is an absolute.

Judged by what you deliver and not the hours you work? Work is a thing you do not a place you go? Try telling that to the call centre worker who has their every toilet break monitored.

When it comes to work, everything changes and everything remains the same. The future isn’t easy to predict. Take the often foretold end of middle management. If it is indeed terminal, then it’s certainly a long drawn out death.

The speed of technological change, the driving force behind much of the change we are seeing today in our workplaces, is evolving at such a rate we can only really predict the immediate future with any real certainty.

Whatever the articles say, many organisations are much more about looking over their collective shoulders to the past than they are focusing on the future. Haunted by the ghosts of their histories. Thinking about what they did before, how things used to be around here. And here lies the challenge for HR. Not building the slide, but building the capability to adapt to what is coming, whatever is coming. Not installing the foosball table because the oh so achingly trendy cool kids have one, but doing what is right for your place, cutting through the clichés. Moving the focus from yesterday to tomorrow, but without jumping on a bandwagon.

When getting excited about this potential future, we also cannot forget one important fact. The future of work still includes the manufacturing plant, the office, the warehouse, the cleaner, the security guard, the lorry driver.

And whatever the future of work has in store, there are some things that I believe will stand the test of time. Good leadership. Developing people. Dealing with the hygiene stuff. Effective communication. Being a role model. Doing good people stuff. The methods might change but the principles don’t.

Maybe we need to get the present right, before we start on the future?

I am indebted to the mighty Neil Usher for inspiration for this post. His better one is over here.

4 thoughts on “Foosball Tables are from Mars, Manufacturing Plants are from Venus

  1. Reminds me of one if my favourite quotes I learned for my (Philosophy) degree: “The future is a mirror in which we can only see ourselves”.

    Arthur C. Danto, before you ask….

  2. The contexts are different but don’t be tempted to find a clear dividing line between the changing world for the Latte drinking Mac Book jockeys and that of the guys and girls on the shop floor. The technological changes affecting production and manufacturing are gathering pace at in incredbile rate. Check out BMW’s use of 3D printing to provide workers with augmented thumbs as one example (see link below) and imagine the ‘skills’ flexibility soon to be provided to workers through Google Glass type technologies which can superimpose instructions, hints and tips onto a real world manual process. Consider too the possibility that social media technologies offer to democratise work places and offer a channel for voice to be heard by employees who aren’t sat at computers. The issue was always lack of PC access, now everybody has one in their pocket.

    You are right that changes need to be about creating an environment which enables the performance, behaviours and feelings you are trying to promote. At a trendy start up that might be a foosball table, for BMW it may be a printed thumb.

    (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/04/bmw-3d-prints-new-thumbs-for-factory-workers)

  3. Great blog post!

    Having worked in manufacturing for most of my career, there are principles of ‘future work’ that simply don’t apply. In saying that, there are ways to design manufacturing work so that it is more human at the same time as increase productivity. Much of that comes down to the factors you’ve mentioned, e.g. Leadership.

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