Work, business & professional services

The ever-disappearing workspace

The days of turning up at the office and sitting at the same desk all day, with your family photographs on the cubicle divider, are fast disappearing. First, the trends for hot desking, job-hopping or freelancing, means you sit where there’s a space and only as long as you need it. Second, more of us are working at home or in a ‘third space’. Third, a robot might even take your place at the office.

Condeco Software has developed sensors that can tell whether anyone is sitting at a workspace. Employees book a space and sit there to work but, if sensors notice you’ve been absent for a while, they send a message to your mobile asking whether you would like to leave it for someone else. Yikes.

This concept is part of the Internet of Things, where everything has the potential for connectivity. It benefits employers because they can see how efficiently workspaces are being used and, in the long run, may allow them to rent smaller offices by getting more productivity from one desk.

Working at home or in a ‘third space’ is not a new idea, but it is certainly increasing. Cisco’s survey of its global workforce found 89% of employees telecommuted at least once a week. As a result of not having to commute to work, 3 million employee hours were saved - the equivalent of $370 million in productive work time – and the company saved $1 billion in real estate costs in 2.5 years.

The idea of what can be a third space is constantly being stretched. Regus in Germany locates offices at petrol stations so drivers who are on the road can have meetings there, access printing and internet, or mail and collect packages. It does make sense, fuelling ideas perhaps. Meanwhile, the Australian government wants to have 12% of its public service working from home (not at the petrol station) by 2020.

Finally, if you cannot get to the office, but you don’t want to miss out on face-to-face interactions, a robot can take your place. This is already happening at First Light PR (UK), where a robot called Jenkins Steel (like a Segway with an iPad on top) moves around the office sending and receiving video feeds of you and your colleagues.

The question is how much longer companies will need an office at all. Technology makes it possible to work anywhere and replace the workers themselves. Will the idea of an office die out completely? We doubt it. Humans, like ideas, are inherently social. Moreover, measuring physical presence might work in a factory, but with knowledge workers things can be a little more nuanced.

Ref: Business Insider (Aus), 27 January 2015, ‘6 Trends that will define the workplace in 2015’ by M McQueen.
The Guardian, 27 April 2015, ‘Robots, hot desking and heat sensors:meet the office of the future’ by M Jenkin.
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Search words: robot, video, smartphone, wearable technology, workspace, Condeco Software, interconnectivity, efficiency, Cisco, ‘third space’, Germany, ‘job-hopping’, freelancing.
Trend tags: Virtualisation

I spy on employees

In the US, two thirds of employers monitor the internet use of their employees, 45% track their keystrokes and 43% monitor email. Only two states are required to let their employees know. In Australia, only one state, NSW, has a specific Act about workplace surveillance. So are you being watched?

The internet has made it easier than ever to watch you, whether at work or not. Cornerstone OnDemand provides ‘talent management software’ that allows employers to analyse someone’s performance based on all their online interactions, including emails, instant messages and Web pages. Its clients include Starwood Hotels and Virgin Media.

The company describes it as “gamification of performance management’, where what you do, your networks, and what you care about becomes part of the ‘game’. OMG.

Kronos is another workforce management system and sites, such as Yammer, Chatter and Facebook at Work, are ‘enterprise social’ platforms. Kronos gives employers one so-called “killer KPI”: labour cost as a percentage of revenue. Some of its clients are Starbucks, Payless and McDonald’s.

The Kronos idea is to cut costs (of course) and the best way to do that is to trim labour costs to the bone. No more overstaffing. On the contrary, employees have become temporary and replaceable.

The number of retail employees now working part-time, involuntarily, has gone from 644,000 in 2006 to 1.6 million in 2010 (62% of retail jobs). Two thirds of retail managers maintain a large workforce with maximum flexibility. The story is similar in other countries. One of the biggest problems is unstable scheduling, where people do not learn in advance what are their shifts and most seek radical changes from week to week. They are expected to be on call, but might not be called.

McDonald’s managers have told employees to clock out and wait in the break room for as long as it takes for revenue to pick up enough for them to return to work.

The fact a huge volume of packages can be delivered rapidly all over the city arises because of intense surveillance of drivers and their trucks, where every minute counts. UPS adopted what is called ‘telematics’ (telecommunication plus informatics) in 2010 and saved 1.7 million driving miles and 15 million minutes of idling time. A driver can deliver 400 packages in one day, making 110 stops. But he or she is scrutinized every second of the day.

The heavy, human costs of this level of scrutiny - and unstable scheduling of shifts – are thanks to so-called performance management and workforce surveillance.

A third of the US workforce now has contract, freelance or temporary work. Freelancers who work for oDesk, for example, can have everything they do watched, to guarantee payment. A feature called Work Diary takes regular snapshots of your screen and tracks every piece of inactivity. It even counts mouse clicks and keystrokes.

One UK executive said workplace monitoring is not Big Brother, it’s simply the quest for productivity. Make up your own mind. If getting productivity means the erosion of trust, to the point of counting keystrokes – or tracking whether a driver stops too long to climb stairs – then we can look forward to a very productive, but miserable shrinking workforce.

Ref: Harper’s Magazine (US), March 2015, ‘The spy who fired me’ by E Kaplan.
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Search words: cloud software, Virgin Media, Starwood Hotels, gamification, Cornerstone OnDemand, Yammer, Chatter, hiring, firing, tracking, employees, keystrokes, monitoring, productivity, theft, USP, deliveries, telematics, labor, retail, scheduling, McDonald’s, fast-food, Work Diary, screenshot, metrics, freelancing, disabilities, discrimination, Costco, Trader Joe’s.
Trend tags: Big data

Matchmaking for employers

Employers these days are spoilt for choice. While LinkedIn is still the mainstream networking site for employers and candidates, several start-ups offer matchmaking services to specific cohorts. It makes sense and cuts down on the need to advertise.

Collegefeed, for example, is for employers who want recent graduates but don’t want to go to career fairs or advertise. Because graduates do not have much experience, the site emphasises personality and motivation. Its algorithms then suggest potential matches beween employer and jobseeker. Collegefeed aims to make students from all colleges available, not just those with status, and has connected 50% of its 40,000 students with employers. (The national average when applying for a job in the usual way is 5-8%.)

For people who want a job that pays by the hour, such as retail, there is ZippyApp. It looks at an applicant’s experience, availability, skills and then ranks them for a particular job. The success rate can be 80%, according to its founder, and it takes less time than the usual hiring process. The ZippyApp uses a dynamic algorithm, which refines your profile over time.

We suspect this form of matchmaking will work well for relatively uncomplicated profiles and for less complex roles. It is hard to see how an algorithm, no matter how dynamic, can replace a well-trained HR person. But it may well save time for lower level roles, if saving time is what matters.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 13 December 2014, ‘Network – minus the work’, by R Nuwer.
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Search words: Amazon, recommendation, classifieds, Collegefeed, algorithm, jobseeker, employer, ZippyApp, Talentral.
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Not everyone likes sharing

The sharing economy, otherwise known as ‘collaborative consumption’, ‘peer economy’, ‘P2P’ or ‘asset-light lifestyle’, is a boon to many – and a threat to the establishment. By establishment, we mean insurance, law and tax. The insurers want to make sure everyone pays premiums, the lawmakers want to keep us honest, and the tax collectors, well…

Companies in the sharing economy are showing signs of not wanting to play inside these strictures. AirBnB, for example, has fallen foul of regulations about zoning and temporary rentals, not to mention avoiding hotel tax. It had to increase its own insurance in May 2012, to guarantee against property and furniture damage. Its head of public policy now works with governments all round the world to “clarify and even change’ the laws, which it claims do not suit today’s society.

Car rental services, like Uber and RelayRides, have a similar problem. Three states in the US say the car sharing service is liable if there is an accident while a car is being rented. One insurer has withdrawn accident coverage for cars rented to people in states that allow it. Withdrawing insurance is a great way to kill the fun.

Of course, some companies are having a bet both ways. GM Ventures has invested $US13 million in RelayRides while Avid has acquired ZipCar and a stake in Wheelz. This means the insurers, regulators and tax collectors are happy – and it extends the business model of traditional companies in case the sharing economy turns out to be bigger than they hoped.

The downside of the sharing economy is the growing instability of work. The rise of start-ups, self-employment and casual work will hurt the 21st century worker unless there are new arrangements to protect them. A healthy economy offers steady incomes and a social safety net, but this is not the direction we are heading now.

About a third of the workforce in the US do some freelance work and the trend is similar in the UK, where 95% of micro-businesses set up in the past decade are for single owners. Not all freelance jobs are truly freelance. Some employers advertise for ‘independent contractors’ to avoid paying employment benefits, but then expect people to behave as employees by wearing uniforms or obeying rules. This is sham contracting.

If the sharing economy must share the risks of the market economy, then society has to find ways to support and protect the self-employed. If not, the insurer, regulator and tax collector will inevitably have their way.

Ref: The Economist (UK) Technology Quarterly, 9 March 2015, ‘All eyes on the sharing economy’ , anon.
Financial Times, 18 December 2014, ‘The sharing economy must share the risks’ by J Gapper.
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Search words: sharing economy, peer-to-peer, collaborative consumption, access economy, insurance, legal liability, tax, accommodation, cars, Airbnb, Uber, Wheelz, DogVacay, rating, review, Facebook, Lloyd’s, accident, rentals, GM Ventures, Avis, workforce, Freelancers Union, self-employed, sham employment.
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How to forecast the future better than the experts

It’s impossible to see into the future. Or is it? While a great many experts in forecasting still get it wrong, there are a few secrets to being better than the rest. There is also evidence that people who make forecasts are not really interested in the future at all.

A research program, funded by Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity in the US, started out in 2013 to look at good judgement. It was called the Good Judgement Project and 20,000 people elected to take part. Some were futurists, some were academics, and some were amateurs, and they were separated for different purposes. One segment received training in probability, one was put into teams, some were given information about other forecasts, and others just worked by themselves.

Early results were quite surprising. Training in forecasting, even 20 minutes, helps people understand probability and biases. Teamwork produces better predictions because of the value of discussion and argument. From the project, there arose ‘superforecasters’, who were more accurate than chance in predicting geopolitical events.

In fact, being a successful forecaster does not mean they are good at forecasts, but good at getting people’s attention. It means they know how to make conversation, get you thinking, or sell you something. Superforecasters are not trying to do any of these things – they have the single objective of seeing into the future. This is fascinating because it’s rare!

Superforecasters also have a few traits that help them along. According to Tetlock, the “fox” way of thinking is broad, intuitive, self-critical and open to new evidence. The “hedgehog” style is methodical, logical, narrow minded and assured. Today we are much more fond of foxy thinking. Successful forecasters are not afraid to change their minds when new evidence comes along.

Here are five quick clues to being a superforecaster, using the acronym CHAMP. Make use of Comparisons, Historical trends, Average opinions, Mathematical models and Predictable biases. If you can master each of these, who knows, What’s Next might want to employ you.

Ref: Financial Times Magazine (UK), 6-7 September 2014, ‘How to see into the future’ by T Harford.
Expert political judgement, by Philip Tetlock, 2005.
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Search words: forecast, future, superforecaster, Irving Fisher, Roger Babson, Google, weather, Philip Tetlock, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, Good Judgement Project, training, teamwork, foxes and hedgehogs, probability.
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What will we be when we grow up tomorrow?

Jobs are disappearing and, by 2030, more than 2 billion will be extinct. This is shocking unless you realise that many new, funky jobs will rise up and take their place. For example, you may become an extinction revivalist (someone who revives extinct animals). But while some roles may seem a bit far-fetched (limb maker), others are well on their way already.

What you and I once called cars, will become Personal Rapid Transit Systems (PRTs) or podcars. These will need a massive infrastructure system and hundreds of millions of people to be station designers, architects, traffic flow analysts and construction teams.

The Internet of Things, which will connect 75 billion devices by 2020, means each person will own 9.4 connected devices. Look for lifestyle auditors, efficiency consultants and avatar relationship managements (and device fixers?).

Big Data is not going to go away. As data explode beyond any imaginable quantity, we will need data interface mavens, waste data managers (important one, that) and opportunity spotters. The ‘quantified self; describes how each of us will be individually measured by big data. This will employ data contextualists, skill quantifiers and guardians of privacy.

The commercial drone industry will demand all kinds of new jobs, such as drone docking designers, engineers, drone standards specialists and backlash minimisers (which we might just call PR).

Expect 3D printing to transform manufacturing and, as Goldman Sachs said, “destroy how we do business”. You may work as a material expert, design engineer or organ agent. Biofactories will replace manufacture with petrochemicals or nature. Look for jobs as gene sequencers, strategists and bio-factory doctors.

One interesting point is that people have not migrated to the mountains, the beaches or small villages, even though technology allows them to work anywhere. It appears we just want to be near each other. This is particularly true for young people. So expect to see second-tier cities become more popular as the first-tier ones become too expensive for anyone but the elites.

With all this technology, who stands a chance of keeping their job? Specialists, creative people and jobs that need emotional intelligence (salespeople, coaches, teachers) should, along with healthcare workers and tradespeople, be able to hold on to their old careers. Albeit with some kind of future twist.

Ref: The Futurist (US), July/August 2014, ‘Inventing tomorrow’s jobs’ by T Frey.
Fast Company, 19 May 2015, ‘What work will look like in 2025’ by G Moran.
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Search words: jobs, personal rapid transit systems (PRTs), water harvesting, sharing economy, drones, 3D printing, internet of things, big data, driverless, bio-factories, seniors, agriculture, robots, wearables, task, specialist, flexibility, second-tier city.
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