The changing face of the workplace

The number of people going rural will rise as work patterns shift, says Mark Vernon.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Last year, about 100,000 people fled the traffic, the hustle and the expense of the city for the clean air, slower pace and downshifted living of rural England, according to the Countryside Agency. I spent part of the summer with two of them. Just into their forties, they have not retired but continue to earn a living doing project-type work and using the internet to avoid travel. Their new life seems pretty much like the ideal portrayed on relocation TV programmes.

But - and this was the point that roused my interest, as opposed to my envy - what they had done did not seem to them like a radical break from their earlier careers in the city. Decamping to the countryside was a natural extension of the way their work was moving anyway. It was increasingly online, offsite and about projects. The logic was irresistible: why not live somewhere beautiful too?

Now, there are many factors that come into play when people consider such moves. Anything from concern for the children to love of the cinema may prevent them from taking action. However, if the latest MCA/MT survey, From Bottlenecks to BlackBerries - How the relationship between organisations and individuals is changing, is right, ties to the workplace will increasingly cease to be a hindrance.

If there is one current that underlies the responses from a wide range of individuals about their expectations for the future of organisations and perceptions of management failings, it is that power in the workplace is shifting inexorably away from the organisation and towards employees.

Four interconnected forces are causing the tectonic plates of work to stir. First, there are changes in the shape of organisations themselves, with outsourcing in particular leading to a range of previously in-house processes and functions being fulfilled elsewhere.

Second, the pattern of people's working days is changing; flexibility is the word constantly being aired, though fragmentation often echoes behind it. Third, the pattern of people's working lives (as opposed to days) is taking on a very different shape, too. It's not just that the era of jobs for life has gone, but that people increasingly want actively to pursue career changes, too. And, fourth, there is the impact of new technology; it enables workforce mobility, even if it is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

Consider first the shifts in the shape of organisations. Perhaps to be expected is that, according to the our survey, 61% of them have outsourced all or part of their IT function; 43% have done the same with facilities management. But IT is not alone. For example, 41% of organisations have outsourced some of their marketing activities; 29% some part of the finance function; 14% the same in customer services. Moreover, only 5% of people expect that the level of outsourcing will fall in the future.

Business process outsourcing (BPO), where entire functions move out of the front door, is experiencing some of the highest growth rates. 'A year ago, BPO providers and prospective buyers held many discussions, but few deals were signed,' says Lisa Stone, research vice-president at Gartner.

'The level of activity that we are seeing now reflects the fact that the value proposition behind BPO has been accepted by buyers.'

BPO applies mostly to larger companies. However, the evidence is that outsourcing is becoming more and more attractive to small and medium-sized organisations too. Two factors have brought this about. First, a growing range of business processes can be delivered via cheap online technology, which puts them within the reach of SMEs. Second, service providers themselves have found their margins squeezed by their larger customers demanding more service for the same cost, if not less. SMEs are, therefore, being targeted so service providers can develop economies of scale.

Just what can be successfully outsourced is a moot point. The common answer is non-core competencies, but that raises the question of which competencies count as core. In the report, Panos Sakellariou from ER Consultants argues that it is areas in which at least two of the following element excel: people, processes or technologies; Doug Neil at CSC sees it as those activities in which a company is world-class and passionate; David Stephens from Deloitte says core competencies are those things that you have to be good at in the eyes of your customers.

The debate will continue. But it will not halt the outsourcing trend, and organisations will become both more transparent and smaller as a result - or 'virtual', as the advocates of progress put it. Nevertheless, anxieties about outsourcing are growing, too.

NatWest will surely not be the last company to advertise the fact that it uses only UK-based call centres for customer service. But how far outsourcing can go (as opposed to what can be outsourced) is also being debated now: at what point does a company outsource so much that it no longer has the critical mass to function?

And then there are the concerns about offshoring - the drift of IT skills and services east. 'Offshore outsourcing has gathered tremendous pace in recent years,' says Anders Maehre, a technology analyst at Datamonitor, 'and political pressure and controversy have done little to deter top-line growth.'

However, its impact can be over-dramatised. Jerry Rao, former chairman of Nasscom, the Indian software industry association, points out that although percentage growth per annum is in the high 20s, it is expected to be worth only $48 billion by 2008 - a sizeable figure for the Indian economy, but a tiny fraction of the global IT spend.

So, although outsourcing is a growth industry, few businesses are truly virtual yet; and while organisations may be looking smaller, the dissolution of neither the company nor local IT economies is imminent.

What is more dramatic today is the changing pattern of people's working days. For example, more than two-thirds of the respondents to the survey said they spent a significant amount of time working outside their organisation.

Remote working is now a common experience for a third of participants.

Why? First, they want to find somewhere less distracting to work. And, second, they want to avoid a hellish commute at least one day a week.

These are good things. But it is here that real negatives start to appear, too. For one thing, only 40% of employers cover the costs of working remotely.

Alternatively, and more significantly, the cost of flexibility is the fragmentation of the working environment. A number of factors conspire.

For example, Stephens at Deloitte points out that remote working tends to accentuate the glamour associated with project work. 'We've reached the point where everyone thinks they have to work on projects to be successful,' he says.

This is, though, to the detriment of line management. And the risk is that it kicks off a vicious circle. The problem is that if remote working sidelines management, it actually requires more, not less, supervision of people. Coupled to this is the danger that project work itself becomes more and more repetitive as people become dislocated 'experts' in increasingly narrow spheres.

'People are specialising, and the more they specialise, the more work is compartmentalised,' says Sakellariou. 'There's a risk here that we'll end up asking people to do more repetitive work, perhaps in locations like their homes where they have little social contact with colleagues.'

Another dark side to this is stress. The fear is that employees react badly to the lack of informal face-to-face time. On the one hand, they may become insecure about their place in and value to the organisation.

And, on the other hand, there is evidence that the lack of face-to-face contact may cause people to treat each other less humanely.

This latter point has received disturbing support in recent research from City & Guilds. This notes that assaults on customer-facing staff have risen substantially in the past two years: more than a third of Britons have been verbally abused while at work, and 7% have been physically abused.

Rob Roseveare, conflict management specialist at City & Guilds, believes that the time pressures and the faceless service of the modern British workplace contribute significantly to this. 'As a nation, we are becoming increasingly aggressive, more impatient and less aware of the effect of our behaviour on others.'

These factors, good and ill, relate closely to the third area raised in our report: the changing pattern of people's working lives. In short, if people work more autonomously, then their sense of responsibility grows.

But as this happens, their sense of independence grows, too. And with that, people's sense of connection to a company loosens. So they readily switch organisations, taking with them their portfolio of skills and know-how.

Thus, we reach the point when two-thirds of respondents expect to be employed by many different organisations during the course of their working lives. 'People increasingly believe they have a right to do what they want to do,' explains Jeremy Webster at Water for Fish.

Individuals choose employment that allows them to work from home or provides the latest technology. Firms that cannot compete on this level will find it hard to fill posts. 'The number of people moving from organisation to organisation has never been higher,' says Eric Lesser, an associate partner at IBM Business Consulting Services. 'And each time someone goes, they take knowledge with them.'

Finally, behind all this change is the fourth area of interest, technology.

It is usually called an enabler, and more often than not it is. But the research shows that it can be disabling too. Take e-mail: undoubtedly the boon technology of the e-business age, this medium has transformed communications, making it flexible, global and cheap. The survey shows e-mail to be the most important activity in helping people get their job done. It comes over and above working alongside the team and way ahead of using the telephone - landline or mobile.

However, e-mail is also a burden; the ease it brings to communications can be a curse. Few say they would rather do without it, but if you can't live without it, it's hard to live with it, too. People tend to send e-mails on the slightest pretext, thus wasting time. Moreover, managers increasingly worry that individuals, including themselves, spend too much time dealing with e-mail. Indeed, there is a growing micro-industry in e-mail management training. And don't forget spam: the latest estimates say that it accounts for up to 80% of all e-mails.

There is also the security threat. A virus can bring down a corporate communications system as effectively as it can down a group of invading Martians. 'Spam, viruses and offensive content threaten to clog e-mail systems, spread malware that deletes files and steals passwords, and expose organisations to litigation,' warns Ian Williams, enterprise security analyst at Datamonitor. Security measures can minimise the threat, but companies must invest time in choosing the right one.

In fact, at the organisational end, there is something approaching panic among CIOs at the proliferation of electronic content. Often referred to as knowledge (with little sense of irony), this consists of material from websites, e-mails, customer records, supplier exchanges, and the incoming/outgoing blurb of other stakeholders.

The worry stems not so much from the cost of storing it - storage is cheap - but managing it. This can be expensive both in its own right and because of the liabilities that accrue with bad management. For example, US banks have been fined up to $100 million for not complying with accountability legislation. A Fortune-500 company spent $750,000 retrieving e-mails demanded by subpoena from an archive.

A more general point about technology is that it tends to overplay its hand. 'It only tells organisations what they can do, not what they should do,' says Richard Coughlin at PA Consulting. 'Organisations need to understand where technology can make a valuable difference and distinguish this from the temptation just to follow the latest trends.'

This, then, seems a useful conclusion to draw from the survey. Amid all the changes going on in the workplace - from the growth in outsourcing to the adulation of the project - savvy organisations will identify which ones add value for them, and for which ones they merely add themselves to the statistics.

And life can't be all bad: the number of working people going rural seems set to rise.

A copy of the MCA/MT executive report, From Bottlenecks to BlackBerries - How the relationship between organisations and individuals is changing, produced in association with Water for Fish, is available free in pdf format or at £50 as a hard copy. Call Davina Page on 020 8267 4629 or e-mail

RISE OF REMOTE WORKING Proportion of respondents saying that remote working is now very common in their organisation Utilities 64% Telecoms 62% Technology 60% Business services 47% Financial services 36% Public sector 25% Manufacturing 18% Top reasons for remote working Able to concentrate without distractions 41% Reduce commuting time 28% Encouraged to work away from office 7% Spend more time with family 4% Which of the following help you get your job done? E-mail 35% Time working with my team 31% Access to the internet 16% PDA (BlackBerry/Palm/iPaq) 5% Mobile phone 4% Landline phone 4% Source: MCA/MT Executive report From Bottlenecks to BlackBerries - How the relationship between organisations and individuals is changing. Is outsourcing on the up? In future, will your organisation outsource: More than at present 46% About the same 49% Less 5% Top six outsourced functions Proportion of organisations outsourcing some or all of function IT 61% Facilities management 43% Marketing 41% Finance 29% Human resources 27% Customer service 14% Source: MCA/MT executive report From Bottlenecks to BlackBerries - How the relationship between organisations and individuals is changing.

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