Work, business & professional services

Work trends

Predicting the future of work is tricky but sometimes you get it right. Charles Handy predicted the emergence of portfolio careers – collections of jobs - many years ago. Similarly, Alvin Toffler described a world in which a career was no longer a linear progression, but a collection of jobs for different employers. Not only do people split themselves across companies, but companies now splinter jobs into different micro-tasks.

Txteagle is the largest employer in Kenya, founded in 2008 by a computer engineer called Nathan Eagle. It has 10,000 workers in Kenya but does not pay a cent for office space to house any of them. In fact, the company has never met most of its employees. Txteagle sends small jobs to anyone with access to a mobile phone. The jobs are tiny – little bits of translation, a quick market research survey, or a handful of images to be tagged – and pays just a few cents each. This can easily turn into a few dollars, which is a significant daily wage in some parts of the world.

To some extent, txteagle is simply a tale of a savvy entrepreneur and the way companies are chopping up big tasks into small bits, aided by technology. But it’s also a story about the future of work, especially the way in which independent or freelance workers are taking over from salaried employees. According to the US Government Accountability Office, such jobs – ‘contingent workers’ in jargon-speak – already make up 1/3 of the US workforce. This trend is starting to make some people rethink what a job actually is or could be.

Of course, a job is more than just a series of tasks. Jobs (especially full-time jobs) provide economic stability and identity, although most employers don't understand this. Employers increasingly break up each position into a series of tasks and then wonder why 'their' people are unhappy. Jobs also provide legal security, healthcare, pensions and other benefits. Or at least they used to. Now there is a debate about the societal implications of a free-agent nation, linked to the role of unions in a freelance world. One solution is the Freelancers Union, a US-based union for the self-employed with 130,000 members.

But how exactly do you negotiate for pay and conditions in a world where everyone is their own boss? How can companies ask for loyalty when they display none themselves? Perhaps the answer lies within companies. Companies such as Threadless, eLance and iStockphoto are distributed labour firms that offer their ‘employees’ some of the social benefits enjoyed by full-time workers inside traditional bricks and mortar firms. Admittedly they won’t lobby for pay rises, but at least they offer one thing that people miss most from the old world of work: they are part of something larger than themselves and not alone.

Ref: (US) 17 January 2010, ‘The end of the office. and the future of work’ by D. Bennett.
Links: The Future of Work by Thomas Malone
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Search terms: work, freelance, Threadless, iStockphoto, unions, Freelancers Union, contingent workers

Live/work communities

The idea of building physical communities that blend work and leisure is nothing new. Titus Salt’s Saltair Village in Yorkshire and Ebenezer Howard’s Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire are UK examples. Victorian tycoons were appalled by the social conditions of urban workers and sought to build models of ideal villages and towns. These concerns were driven by religious sensibilities and hard-nosed commercial acumen. After all, a happy workforce tends to be a more productive one.

Well the idea is back. A study by the New Economics Foundation (UK) has found a long commute to work is the one thing above all others that makes people feel gloomy. Add concerns about the environment and community cohesion and it’s no wonder that building the ideal community is back on the drawing board of architects and urban planners alike.

Some people don’t see the separation of work and leisure as a problem. But the current model in which high density urban and suburban housing is bundled up with poor transport infrastructure just isn’t working. Furthermore, the new idea of digital nomads, where people can work alone anywhere they like, isn’t sustainable because people so highly value being part of a physical community. People want meaningful work that is located close to where they live and communities that are diverse and safe. They also want to be familiar with the people they see all day, go outside when they need to, and be able to walk or cycle rather than drive a car all the time. Is this really too much to ask?

Ref: The Guardian (UK) 7 August 2010, ‘Back to the drawing board’ by T. Smedley.
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Search terms: physical community, commuting, New Economics Foundation, urban planning

Social networks and business

Social networks like Twitter and Facebook are huge influences on how people interact socially. But their impact on how people (especially older people) do business, especially finding or offering employment, has been negligible. However, this could be about to change. Companies are already using social networks to check up on potential employees but many businesses are now using social networks to find new staff, bypassing expensive recruitment agencies.

Linkedin, for instance, boasts 60 million members worldwide and has recently integrated its service with Microsoft Outlook, so individuals can see who people are, and who they are connected to, from their inbox. Clever, but even better would be the ability to integrate video tools to conduct interviews online. Networks like this will probably only go so far for business use because text (even with pictures) does not give much sense of what a person is about. Video is much better, but is still no substitute for meeting somebody.

Many believe the future of business networks will probably lie more in specialist networks and communities rather than general networks. Furthermore, such networks could behave like internet retail now. Some people will buy online but many will prefer to use online as an initial research tool, but needing physical interaction to close the deal.

Ref: Weekly Telegraph (UK) 31 March-6 April 2010, ‘All work and no play for the social surfers’ by E. Barnett
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Search terms: social networks, employment, interviews, Linkedin, Facebook, video, text, recruitment

Customer networks

Giffgaf is a new ‘sim only’ mobile phone company (owned by O2) that pays its customers to be sales people or help other customers with their phone problems. Customers don’t earn much (between GBP 14 and 200 per month is quoted) but it’s still not bad pay for what is generally only a few moments’ work. Tasks that can earn points (to be exchanged for cash) include promoting the company to friends by giving away sim cards or posting clips on Youtube. Mobile network 3 does something similar with its Free Agent scheme, although the variety of tasks on offer seems to be narrower.

Ref: The Guardian (UK) 10 July 2010, ‘Bottoms up to new mobile idea’ by R. Jones
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Search terms: Giffgaf, sales, tasks, free agent, mobiles