Futurology – it sounds like an early Prince album or perhaps a weird religious cult, right?
In fact, it has become a major corporate watch-word in recent years, fuelled by businesses keen to recruit more of us millennials (and most importantly, retain us for longer than five minutes).
Businesses are now hiring psychologists specifically to predict the future, and how it might affect employees’ attitudes and behaviour, so they can create a better working environment to attract and keep hold of young talent.
This means looking carefully at technology and how it’s used, keeping up with ever-changing work patterns and asking young employees what they REALLY want from their careers (and lives).
I chatted to a top lady in this field last week, Dr Nicola Millard. She works for telecommunications giant BT, specifically in its global services team, and her role is to predict how the workplace is changing so a major employer like BT can keep up with the times. BT has long been famous for thinking differently about the all-important work/life balance, which started tentatively in 1992 when advisers were allowed to do their work at home. However, the technology wasn’t available to do this cheaply and easily until the turn of the millennium, when home working really took off at the company.
We’re big fans of the remote working model on the Young Money Blog and Nicola had some VERY interesting things to say about it…
I wanted to ask you first of all about your work at BT, tell me how this role came about.
I’m part of the innovation team, at BT Global Services, based just outside Ipswich. BT is the third biggest investor in research and development in the country and only behind big pharma in this area. We’ve worked hard at developing what I call an “innovation eco-system”. We have researchers and labs all over the world, work with MIT (Massahuchets Institute of Technology) and partner with Cambridge University, using tech scouts and incubators all over the world.
My role used to be known as futurologist but job title got a bit less interesting of late. I was once kindly given a crystal ball but it doesn’t work! My role isn’t to predict the future going way forward but to engage with people who know what they’re talking about and distil that from a strategic perspective, deciding what it means for the future of work. Since psychology is my background, my job really is to understand behaviour chances in the workforce and that makes a lot of sense for sensing how the future will pan out.
You reckon that there will be five generations at work by 2020, ranging from us millennials to traditionalists over the age of 65. But we’ve seen a lot about “intergenerational conflict” in recent years. How do we solve this?
The problem comes about if people just talk to those within their age group; you get an echo chamber of ideas and a sense that only your way of doing things is the right way of doing things. Unfortunately, that’s where social media falls down as a genuine collaboration tool.
Workplaces need diversity of thought. That’s where the physical office comes in. The challenge is getting today’s leaders, who tend to be baby boomers and traditionalists, to adopt new ideas about flexibility, agility and new tech. Pretty much anyone under the age of 40 or even 50 – generation X – has already sussed this out.
Millennials increasingly say they’re looking for work with meaning in the future. Does your research bear that out?
Absolutely. The Open University has found that morale in the workplace is achieved through three factors. You need to know how your work contributes to an overall organisation, you need to understand what your role will be the future and then you need social glue in the workplace. Millennials are pushing for this more but it’s what generation X wanted all along – it just got a bit crushed over the years.
How much has the workplace changed since you started out?
I do remember a time where I would log on at 9am, do everything I needed to do it, log off and go home. But technology blurs those spaces and connects us all the time. The problem now is we need to find the off-switch and redefine the boundaries that office life previously offered.
But the remote working revolution was supposed to have taken off by now thanks to technology. Why hasn’t that happened?
Technology is great but unless you do something good with it, you’ll fall behind. The future of work is being increasingly untethered from the desk but still we see commute times going up rather than down, with 2 hour commute times becoming the norm. So we travel into work just to send an email to someone opposite us.
London Business School did some research around remote working and found that in many organisations there is a belief that “if I’m not seen to be in the office, I won’t get promotions or good appraisals. But that’s just not true if you’re a productive employee.
The future is not necessarily all about technology. Yes, tech is already fundamentally changing the way we work; we can work anywhere anytime and anyplace. If we’re knowledge workers, we’re not necessarily tied to a physical location anymore. The attractive aspects of this are we choose when we work; we balance work and life better; we use tech to our benefit, not just for our employer’s benefit.
But this still presents what I call the “collaboration conundrum”; we still have people needing to come to a physical location to meet one another. We’re social creatures working on primitive software and our brains haven’t been updated recently.
Futurologists often say offices won’t exist in the future but if anything, they’re becoming more important than ever. It’s just that they’re not where we work anymore, they are where we socialise about work. However, we need to offer space to contemplate as well as collaborate in the modern office.
Could the remote working revolution actually present a bit of a problem for young people if they don’t have a good working set-up at home?
Young employees don’t necessarily have a home that they want to be in, either because they’re living with their parents or they’re in a flat-share. That’s why a lot of younger employees still want to come into a workplace. Having said that, there is a fast-emerging “mid-point” for younger workers, what I like to call the “coffice” or co-working space. It could be a coffee shop, airport lounge or even hotel lobby.
In order to work, I need coffee, connectivity and company. Isolation is the big homeworking problem; some love it, some hate it. I think it’s instructive that a growing number of buildings in London are becoming co-working spaces.
I’ve generally found that if you want millennials to come and work for you, you have to offer a working space where they can meet other younger employees and spark off them. Do you have enable younger talent to bring their own tech to work – they’re used to intuitive technology. If they bring their own device, software and apps into the workplace, the HR and IT departments start saying “no, you can’t do that” due to concerns around security. Guess what? They use them anyway, which makes the system insecure. So we need to say “yes” but make sure it’s secure and controlled.
The problem that tends to crop up with workplaces is this tendency to have meetings for the sake of it, right?
There is such a thing as over-collaboration and meetings are part of that problem – I’ve had what I call “death by meetings” days where you just get nothing done. One way around this is to ask, every time you’re called to a meeting, what is on the agenda and how you can contribute. If they can’t tell you, don’t go – you have other things to do. The other issue with meetings and collaboration is that they don’t suit introverts very well unless you have a very good leader who brings them into the conversation. There is such a greater understanding now about the difference between extroverts and introverts and good workplaces accommodate those differences. Introverts might feel a lot comfortable writing things down.
There are worries that technology is making us less productive and effective. An academic in the States called Cal Newport has written a book all about so-called “Deep Work” and how the ability to switch off from distractions like social media will determine how successful you are in the future. How do you feel workplaces will respond to this concept?
We have to aim for what I call a “balanced communication diet” within businesses. We’re all multi-tasking a lot more and it’s not necessarily damaging but it is tiring, because your brain effectively has to juggle eight hours a day. Besides it ends up being more like “time slicing” – we don’t perform well on any of our tasks. The biggest problem comes with interruptions and task switching. Again, London Business School has found that if you get interrupted once every 3 minutes, you can become incredibly unproductive, and for complex tasks, it takes between 12 and 20 minutes to get back into the right thought process. We’re seeing the rise of the digital detox where people take back control of their time. You have to recognise when you have a problem, and more often than not it’s emails. We abuse our inbox and use it as a collaboration tool when it isn’t. We have to be prepared to tell people when we’re switching off for a few hours, days or even weeks.
Over collaboration can cause health problems and burn-out – the millennial generation is experiencing the greatest sleep disruption ever known in modern times due to the temptation to look at our phones and catch up on email even in bed. We need to keep devices out of the bedroom and know when to hit the off switch.
A longer version of this interview will appear in the upcoming Irwin Mitchell “Embracing Exceptional” magazine