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Five Trends that are Dramatically Changing Work and the Workplace

The Changing Nature of Work

My wife, a manager at Hewlett-Packard, usually has a two minute commute—a thirty foot walk from the kitchen up to her office. She goes “to the central office” about once every other week, more to keep in touch socially rather than to formally collaborate. Although she only meets face-to-face with her globally-based team members about once per year, she has an audio conference with them weekly. As HP’s work force grows and becomes more global, she is a highly sought after manager. She has learned how to work with her distributed team, setting clear directions, communicating often and clearly, and, most importantly, creating activities to engender team trust and cohesion.

Most workers today do not work like my wife; most still commute to and from traditional, centralized offices and work with teams in close proximity. Nevertheless, more and more of us are—or will be—working in both non-traditional ways and places, ranging from relying on adaptable furniture and hoteling desks at the central office, to satellite offices, offshore offices, and telework from home.

According to a recent benchmarking study by our research consortium, The New Ways of Working, many organizations are formalizing “Alternative Workplace” programs that combine nontraditional work practices, settings and locations. Almost half of the surveyed organizations have started an alternative workplace program within the past two years and a large majority within the past five years. This is striking as these programs have been around since the early 1980s. The same study indicates that the adoption of such programs has accelerated during the recent Great Recession and shows no sign of letting up. Why, after all these years, is this happening now? Why has the pace of change picked up so dramatically? What does it mean for how and where we will work in the future? This paper identifies five trends that are dramatically changing work and workplaces.

The first two trends have been around for more than a quarter of a century:

1. The continuing distribution of organizations

2. The availability of enabling technologies and social collaboration tools

Their adoption has pushed alternative ways of working well past the pioneering stage and into the mainstream, when enough organizations “have adopted an innovation in order that the continued adoption of the innovation is self-sustaining.”

These two trends will be reinforced by three more that will induce further change:

3. The coming shortage of knowledge workers

4. The demand for more work flexibility

5. Pressure for more sustainable organizations and workstyles

Collectively, these trends are most pronounced in technology companies, the sector that has historically led the way in adoption of new technologies and workstyles that go with them. However, as technology has become more integral to the operation or mission of organizations, these themes are permeating the larger work community.

Importantly, these trends generally don’t impact the workplace directly, but have more to do with affecting how we work. The physical workplace is far more than just furnishings and real estate; it is also about how people work and are managed, the technologies that enable the work, and how the organization employs the workplace for its own ends. Going further, the workplace even reflects forces of the larger social and economic environment.