Some game changing ideas we might see over the next ten years, from adapting holidays to the democratisation of work.
Whether you’re pessimistic or optimistic, it’s hard to look at the current state of our society – significant wealth inequality, rapid technological change, the backlash to globalisation, and the challenges of climate change – and not predict the world will look very different in 20 years.
But ‘very different’ would be a conservative prediction.
To illustrate, in the last 20 years we went from a world with no social media or smart phones to a world where we’re concerned about the effect of both on the development of children. Which is another way of saying that the challenges of today are sometimes just the beginning of tomorrow’s problems.
In that vein, here are some of the radical changes we might see to the way we work in the next decade.
No more summer holidays down under?
Professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania David Bowman made waves a few weeks ago by suggesting Australia move its main holiday period to March or April.
In his article for The Conversation, where he proposed the idea, Bowman writes that climate change is causing significant bushfires to recur in the same areas more quickly than in the past.
“There have been very large fires in the past but they weren’t followed up with yet more very large fires a mere 15 years later. Normally, you’d be expecting a gap of 50 or 100 years. So the ecology is telling us that we are seeing the intervals between the fires shrinking. That is a really big warning sign.”
As a way of adapting to a world of increased temperatures, he says the main holiday period should move so that:
- Firefighters don’t have to manage evacuations of holiday goers
- National Parks can actually be open during the holidays
- Organisations that rely on peak holiday periods can have more certainty that business won’t be interrupted
- Vacationers are far less likely to experience the stress and trauma of bushfires during their vacation
- Firefighters themselves don’t lose out on the vacation period
Bowman recognises that the idea will strike many as absurd, but says the circumstances will make many absurd things normal.
The scariest part of the article is Bowman’s suggestion that an autumn holiday would be just the first step. He writes, “The old idea was that we can head off the crisis by reducing our emissions through decarbonisation. We had an opportunity to do that and we didn’t take it. We still have to decarbonise but now we also have to adapt.”
There might be no more radical changes to workplaces than the ones required by a warming planet.
The four-day work week
Back in 2015, if you said a shorter work week would be gaining significant momentum by the new decade, many people would have thought you were a bit airheaded. But not only do polls show that it’s broadly popular across all income groups, some companies have already gone all in on it. Even tech giant Microsoft tested it to great success and fanfare.
It also got traction in the political sphere. Finland’s new Prime Minister Sanna Marin has shown support for it in the past, and the UK Labour party made an election pledge to achieve it within ten years. While Marin has not committed to it since securing the top job, and the UK Labour party lost a lot of seats in the 2019 election, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the radical idea was once a political non-starter – even mentioning it would get you laughed out of whatever position you were in.
In this country, it’s a serious enough proposition that Australian Industry Group chief executive, Innes Willox, went on the record about his concerns, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “Any reduction to the standard 38-hour work week in Australia without a commensurate increase in productivity or a matching reduction in weekly pay would be very damaging for jobs, investment and productivity.”
Anxiety over productivity is at the heart of any discussion about the four-day work week. It’s why proposals about it are so different. UK Labour was promising a 32-hour week, while the polls mentioned above asked about compressed work weeks – so same hours but fewer days.
While compression is popular, and likely more palatable to more organisations, it may not provide the productivity benefits of fewer hours overall. The argument for the latter is that the nature of work has changed. The eight hour day is predicated on routine, machine-like work and is no longer effective for a world of work that requires people to regularly use higher order cognitive functions such as critical thinking. Microsoft saw productivity increases of 40 per cent with its Japan test.
This is why automation is the other reason, besides growing popularity, that the 20s might be the decade of a shortened week.
More and more people are saying the nature of modern work is hamstrung by decrepit ways of thinking. It might not be true for every industry, but a tipping point is coming which means businesses that don’t transform how they think about the nature of human work will fall behind. That may mean something as simple as more flexible hours, structured more strategically, or it may mean something even more dramatic.
Abandoned in the 70s and now experiencing something of a revival, this is an idea that deserves its own article. Democratisation of work is a broad concept that can mean anything from giving workers more autonomy, to putting an employee representative on boards, to giving staff a vote on organisational decisions, to having a collectivised organisation of worker-owners.
In HR it’s often captured by the terms ‘employee voice’ or ‘employee empowerment’ and higher levels of it can have all sorts of positive effects, including increased performance, job satisfaction, organisational commitment and lower stress and desire to quit.
The idea that organisations might give staff more influence over their own work in order to achieve better results is not that radical. What’s radical is the thought of widespread democratisation caused by political changes.
It’s not surprising that the decline in union membership mirrors democratisation’s fall from favour. It’s fair to say the guiding philosophy of developed nations in the past fifty years has been away from collective representation and towards one where each worker is an autonomous agent – where the primary power of the worker is the ability to find another employer.
But there is a growing appetite for outright socialism in the developed world – driven by the young – that hasn’t been seen in decades.
US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has made ‘accountable capitalism’ a big part of her platform. It includes a plan to make US corporations have 40 per cent of their board of directors be elected by workers. Her progressive opponent Bernie Sanders’ plan is to drastically increase the power of unions.
Closer to home, Labour went to the 2019 election with a far more pro-union platform than it had gone with in the recent past – it included increased strike rights and a promise to consider industry-wide bargaining.
The argument against this is that progressive candidates – most recently the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn – get walloped at elections. But if young voters maintain their current disposition as they age and become an ever larger proportion of the electorate that could change.
Going outside the box
Time for a lightning round. Here is a list of some of the things that might happen to work in the next decade, on a scale of least nutty to nuttiest.
- Growing sophistication and penetration of HRM software
- Increasing levels of remote work and number of virtual teams
- More workers in portfolio careers and/or increase in gig economy type jobs
- VR and AR will become regular tools for the majority of workers
- The greater use of workplace performance enhancing drugs
- Most people will be paid in crypto!