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A Workplace Christmas Carol

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At this time of the year, I always turn my attention to my yearly reading of 'A Christmas Carol'- known to many as 'Scrooge'. It gets me in the Christmas spirit as I start winding down for the holidays.

This year, it got me asking a 'What If.' What if old Scrooge was a personnel manager of some sort being spirited through workplaces past, present and future. What would he see and think?

The workplace of the past

It is not so long ago that workplaces were utterly hierarchical places. Very clear delineation of tasks, and a very explicit understanding of peoples role, and level in their companies.

Scrooge would have seen people working in a very specific task-focused way, many in companies making things, with a big focus on manufacturing. In Victorian times, when Scrooge was prowling the streets, there was a heavy emphasis on apprenticeship, guilds and very hard graft.

Even though by the 1870s the nine-hour day was pretty widespread as was the half day off on Saturday, big differences remained- for example, most bakery employees worked an 83 hour week! As the importance of the bigger stores grew through the 1880s and 90's the hours became more 'normalised'.

It is interesting to note that miserable Scrooge kept his poor clerk Bob Cratchit working until 7 pm on Christmas Eve, with little heat, poor light, and in cramped conditions. The 'technology' of the time was paper, pens, and calculating tables. Before the advent of modern computers, people were the computers or more specifically there was a job role called 'a computer.'

According to journalist David Skinner, women had largely taken over the role of the human-computer by the early 20th century so much that the terminology changed. Respected mathematicians would blithely approximate the problem-solving horsepower of computing machines in 'girl-years' and describe a unit of machine labour as equal to one 'kilo-girl.

The workplace of the present

What Scrooge would see in workplace present would be a mix of ideas, competing philosophies with HR leaders trying to deal with new technologies, waves of independent contractors, outsourcing, new workplace practices, new models of engagement, new ideas like harnessing diversity and companies trying to drive a meaningful sense of purpose.

He would see different working business models like Valve with their Cabals, Supercell with their work cells, and new flat structures, rub up alongside more traditional style businesses. He would also see a growing lack of real engagement and people looking for greater meaning in what they want to do.

Scrooge would be amazed at the new technologies sweeping through the workplace and probably loving the fact that some of these technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, better user interface design and analytics were driving significant efficiency and cost savings across the board. Saving the pennies was something Mr Scrooge always liked to do!

The workplace of the future

What would he see in the workplace of the future? Would it be a depressing vision like Scrooge coming face to face with his own death? Or would it be an optimistic one, where we would have gotten our heads around new ways of working with 0 supervision, 0 offices, 0 hours, 0 friction technology all being the norm in our workplaces?

I think most likely he would see something in between, where humanity has been put back into the centre of the workplace enabled by human-centric technologies like Voice interfaces enabling workers to achieve their best work. New instinctive platforms of engagement driving new forms of customer and employee relationship development.

He would also see hyper collaboration between all types of employees and the broader networks they live within. Collaborators, partners, alumni, crowds, amateurs and professionals alike. This would be accompanied by increasing anxiety, possibly reaching boiling point, about real job security (by approximately 2027 freelancing will be the most frequent working 'type' in the US) and all the challenges that will go with that for government, companies and individuals a like.

Like all trips through the past and present, the future will ultimately bring some of the good and bad of those eras with them. But there is no doubt that the future world of work will be a fundamentally more socio-centric place than before with a greater emphasis on total benefit to individuals and society and a strong consciousness focused on making a real difference.

To paraphrase Arthur C Clarke and to slightly alter his now famous phrase- 'any sufficiently advanced workplace may seem like magic' and this will certainly be the case when we look back 30 years from now.

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