For millions of people, the past 25 years have seen a major shift in working habits. The transformation has spanned much of the work experience, from where we work, to who we work for, our working hours and the way we communicate with colleagues and clients.
In 1994, a typical worker would commute into a central office each day, where they would sit in a regular desk and their main tool for communication with those beyond their own office environment was the telephone. That telephone would generally still be one that plugged into a landline.
Text messaging was in its infancy – Nokia’s 2010 mobile phone was introduced that year with one of the selling points being that it was the first to allow the easy use of written messages. The launch of the first iphone was still 13 years in the future.
Fast forward to 2019, and many of us work in a very different environment. Email has long surpassed telephone as the predominant means of communication, while instant messaging software has allowed people to communicate in real-time. Of course, many public sector workers are not office bound at all but in diverse locations from police on the beat, care workers in care homes or highways staff looking after the roads they are out in the community every day.
While meetings in 1994 would typically see everyone present in a room, meeting participants can now connect from wherever they are in the world provided the technology that connects them is working efficiently.
Despite our physical locations being more dispersed than was the case 25 years ago, many of the functions we carry out are now on a group or project basis. The workplace might still be an office, but it can also be our homes, cafes, trains, or in some cases shared workspaces or co-workspaces, as demonstrated by the emergence of WeWork and others across the country.
One of the drivers of the creation of these shared workspaces is that many more of us are now self-employed.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of self-employed people has increased from 3.3million people – or 12% of the UK labour market – in 2001, to 4.8 million people, represented more than 15% of UK workers.
Self-employment brings increased flexibility and in many cases the opportunity to work the hours that suit you. The downside is it also brings less job security, a lack of sick or holiday pay and other benefits a traditional employee may have received.
Technology has also enabled the increase in self-employment as demonstrated by the rise in the ‘gig economy’, a term that first came into regular use during the first decade of the 21st century as new digital platforms enabled people to earn money for tasks such as providing lifts in their cars or renting out spare rooms.
The UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has described the gig economy as the exchange of money via digital platforms “that actively facilitate matching between providers and customers, on a short-term and payment by task basis”.
A survey commissioned by BEIS found 4.4% of the British population – roughly 2.8 million people – had worked in the gig economy during the past 12 months.
Those who work in the gig economy are typically younger and city-based. Over half of those involved in the gig economy (56%) were aged 18 to 34, compared with 27% of the wider population. And almost one quarter of those involved in the gig economy were based in London, compared with just 13% of those surveyed.
Courier, transport and food delivery services were the most common services provide, driven by platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo.
The emergence of these platforms has further blurred what constitutes the workspace and allowed participants to earn money in additional to their traditional sources of income.
The negatives have included a lack of work-related benefits – in the case of Uber, there has been a long-running dispute as to whether workers are entitled to holiday pay, disputes that could yet have ramifications for the wider gig economy.
The shifting workspace of the past 25 years have seen our working hours transformed. We now work anytime, anyplace, anywhere, rather than nine to five in one office location.
The workplace of the future will inevitably be shaped by technological developments, and if many public sector workplaces have not as yet seen the same transformation that the private sector is witnessing, tech could be the big change factor. Artificial intelligence and robotics are as likely to play a more significant role in care homes, hospitals and on the roads as in the office environment although, the extent to which this will eliminate roles currently carried out by humans remains subject to debate.
The office meeting could move to the next stage of evolution, with holographic technology replacing conference calls and allowing people to appear present in the room even when on another side of the world.
And robotics could automate many of the time-consuming processes which currently drag on workplace productivity – a study by the Social Market Foundation has suggested a four-day week could become commonplace as technology enhances productivity and output.
As businesses include artificial intelligence and robotics into their operations, they will also create a new set of risks for the business which they will need to ensure are managed, with appropriate insurance coverage purchased where necessary.
The pace of change over the past 25 years illustrates just how difficult future technological advances are to predict. Its very likely that the changes to workplace habits over the next 25 years will be even more rapid than those we have seen since 1994.
Published date: 11th September 2019
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UK government report: The characteristics of those in the gig economy
Office for National Statistics: Trends in Self-Employment
Service Futures: How our working habits will change towards 2020
BBC: Uber appeals against drivers’ rights to pay and holiday
Social Market Foundation: 4IR in the Workplace