The world of work can be a complicated, unnerving, sometimes even scary place to knock around in. But that’s not to say it isn’t exciting, brimming with opportunity and ready to embrace the challenges thrown its way.
New tech, ideas, inspiration and innovation grows from the ground up every day, from all corners of the globe. And ways of working change almost overnight. Blink and you’ll find yourself behind the times – mocked by your peers, labelled a dinosaur on the cusp of extinction. The pace of change is relentless, and a job in itself to keep up with it all.
But fortunately, that’s where Leslie Willcocks comes in. As The Professor of Technology Work and Globalisation at London School of Economics, and a recipient of The PWC World Outsourcing Achievement Award, he’s made it his life’s work to explore the rapidly changing world of work. He shed some light on the future of work as he sees it.
To kick off, one of – if not – the biggest shifts in business, perhaps even modern society – is the sheer number of people now working for themselves. Trading in permanent employment for more freedom, risk and reward, millions of people around the world are working flexibly, on short-term projects, and as and when they’re needed, for companies of all sizes.
For the 4.5million freelancers, contractors and self-employed people in the UK, life isn’t bad. But looking at it from another perspective, to what extent has this tectonic-like shift in the way people now work had on the companies? And more specifically, how are they coping culturally?
“Well, to state the obvious, companies are complex entities, with a fair few conflicting strains going on inside them. And yes, organisations everywhere now contract projects out, taking advantage of the mobile workforce. Independent workers – in population and influence – have become bigger than ever before,” Leslie explained.
“Businesses are employing people in the traditional sense, less and less – which makes it tricky to develop a strong, positive culture quickly. People move around a lot, so in many cases, there’s a lack of loyalty and trust. Increasingly, companies rely on regulation, measurement, explicit rules and other control mechanisms, which breeds bureaucracy.
“Organisations – especially large ones – suffer from the massive weight of bureaucracy – a lot of which stems from corporate culture. It’s easy to see why leaving to do your own thing has become the new way of working.”
The ‘new way of working’. It’s got a nice ring to it, hasn’t it?
The conversation swiftly moves onto what in the past has been a big sticking point when it comes to hiring freelancers and contractors. The cost.
But, to quickly dispel those myths, businesses that hire freelancers typically run leaner, more efficient business models. By being able to engage with freelancers exactly when it suits, and without long-term commitments – not to mention the benefit of a flat fee – outsourcing projects simply makes sense. Freelancers and contractors help businesses scale up and down quickly, stay agile and prepare them for future growth – a point Leslie agrees with, and is quick to add to.
“The whole agenda, or very reason companies outsource is to ‘allow us to focus on core, mission critical activities’. So financially speaking, outsourcing plays a big part in efficiency.
“But the problem companies often overlook is the management of the outsourced work. For outsourcing to make sense financially, you need to have a really strong understanding of your market, your contractors, and how to drive the best results and leverage innovation from the people you outsource to. In large companies, you need an in-house team whose very job it is to make sure you get the most from it.
“If you don’t get that right outsourcing can become quite an inflexible tool, which we’ve seen time and again. Many companies have – in the past – only outsourced to get stable state, routine and run of the mill jobs done quickly and done well.”
Sure, outsourcing, or more accurately automating – the more menial labour intensive tasks makes perfect sense. After all, why pay an employee to do a job when an app or a bit of software can do it in half the time, at half the cost, and without error?
But what about outsourcing the game-changing, mission critical stuff? Are companies now brave and trusting enough to allow freelancers, contractors and consultants to produce when the stakes are high? Of course they are.
“For many companies, the better they become at outsourcing, the braver they are when it comes to letting go of things central to their plans. They start to let others do it. And in come the freelancers, contractors and consultants.
“It’s also worth bearing in mind that the ability of the freelance market has matured greatly. Very talented, competent people put themselves on the market, and they can be relied upon to do a very good job, often right where it matters inside a company.”
No surprises that the digital revolution was the next on the agenda. Has anything ever had more of an impact on the world of work? Probably not. Amongst many other things, new technologies have paved the way for better connectivity, collaboration and ways of working. And all of these innovative technologies, as Leslie explains, sit in The Cloud.
“In the early days, I think people mistook what The Cloud actually was. To a certain degree it was seen as just another fad. Here today, gone tomorrow. But it’s much bigger than that. The Cloud is the platform for many things – the fads, the innovations, it’s the thing that allows communication, innovation and fast-agile thinking on a global basis.
“It’s critical. The Cloud is where all businesses will be moving to, if they haven’t already that is. In a recent study, I predicted that by 2025, all businesses will be digital. They’ll have to be. Some of them are crawling there, some are already there, and some have a very long journey ahead of them.”
By the sounds of it, some journey it’ll be too. The digital era – although already revolutionary in business and life-changing in so many ways – looks like it’s yet to hit top gear. Terrifying isn’t it? No wonder so many of us have trouble keeping up with it all. At this rate, it won’t be too long before another chat with Leslie is needed…
Contributor for CoworkingLondon: Benedict Smith Head of Content at hubbul, the home of freelancing.