Flexible future or doomsday scenario?

Flexibility is one of the key tools employers should wield in preparing for tomorrow’s world of work – according to a forecasting report published last week. Heather Greig-Smith looks into its visions of the future.

8225397981_6a4d39aa95_oThe Future of Work: jobs and skills in 2030, is an attempt by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to gaze into its crystal ball and predict the way the workplace will change in the next 16 years. It does, at the same time, remind us that transformation can take us to unimagined places so all of this must be “modest and cautious”. That’s just as well because not many of the scenarios it suggests are particularly cheerful.

However, should any of the predicted scenarios come to pass, UKCES says there are common themes that savvy employers, individuals and policymakers can start to tackle now.

Employers are encouraged to prepare for increasing diversity in the workforce, both culturally and generationally. The report suggests that do this by “supporting a greater range of flexible working arrangements and adapting organisational values to create meaning and value to work”.

Inequality in flexibility

There are dangers. The report points to the possibility of a system of flexibility open only to the highly-skilled and valued sections of the workforce, while lower-skilled workers struggle with increased insecurity and transience. In UKCES’s ‘forced flexibility’ option, an ‘hourglass-shaped labour market” is envisaged, with good options and flexibility for the highly-skilled, a squeezed middle whose jobs disappear, and then fierce competition among low-skilled workers for jobs.

“The high-skilled minority will have strong bargaining power in the labour market, whilst the low-skilled will bear the brunt of the drive for flexibility and cost reduction, resulting in growing inequality,” it says.

It’s not difficult to imagine this happening – we effectively have this in many workforces at the moment. Senior managers are often the only ones who have grasped flexibility. Others further down the organisation may feel paper policies do not translate to their reality, at least not without significant detriment to career progression and pay.

The report suggests employers of the future could adapt to using slimmed-down pools of long-term staff, supplementing them on a project basis with international colleagues and outsourcing to external service providers. Portfolio careers could become the norm. But whether that is employer or employee-led is open to question and would largely dictate the satisfaction workers would feel.

Ageing workforce

Opening career options to younger workers will be crucial, says the report. With changing demographics meaning workers remain in the workplace for longer, there is a risk that younger people are trapped in low-level entry positions, unable to move on and up. This is one of the issues flexibility can and should tackle: as employees travel through different stages of their working lives, their needs and aspirations will not remain static.

There may be times of life when getting ahead is the focus and other stages where security and stability are more important. Phasing in and out of the workforce, scaling work up and down to suit personal and financial needs, is something good businesses should be getting to grips with. Instead of pitting the generations against each other, sensitivity to different needs and desires means they can complement and learn from each other.

The report considers various flexibility implications – from the extreme of employers dictating zero hours contracts for the majority, to employee-driven changes in culture. It touches on artificial intelligence, the impact of cyber crime, migration. It is hard to see just which factors will dominate. Will we all pursue portfolio careers or be forced into insecure working relationships and economic stagnation?

Skills and development

One important question that the report raises concerns personal development – something an employer would traditionally provide. If flexible workers work for many different organisations or on short-term contracts, they may need to take more of this responsibility on themselves.

The challenges for HR are clear. “If location-based and time-based work becomes eroded, organisations will need to develop new HR and contractual mechanisms to manage performance address issues of trusts and transparency and invest in keeping the skills of a largely virtual workforce up-to-date,” says the report. “In this context, the imperative on businesses to collaborate around skills development grows.”

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/69082108@N08/

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