The Evolution of Work
Nothing is more constant than change. Due to technological innovations, such as the first moving assembly line invented in 1913 by Henry Ford and his engineer Charles E. Sorensen, or the launch of the World Wide Web in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee or social innovations, such as women’s rights or shared economy, working habits have changed immensely over the past century. These innovations led to new approaches, which had an immense impact on efficiency, hierarchies, working hours, communication and more. Let us take a look at which developments we’ve been through in recent years.
From Hierarchy To Employee Empowerment
Managing directors, department heads, deputies – and then regular employees. This is often the case in companies with clear and steep hierarchies that determine the daily work routine. In the past, this was the norm.
Now, let’s look at steep hierarchies and their impact with the following example: an employee complains to his deputy about the unfeasible workload expected of him. The deputy may forward this complaint to the responsible department head, who, in turn, reports to the managing directors. Once a decision has been made by the Executive Board, the department heads will be informed of the decision and pass this information on to the deputies who pass it on to the regular employee. And still, there is only a slim chance that the Executive Board will make a decision that meets the regular employee’s needs. Sounds silly… but strangely familiar.
This hierarchical model was primarily intended to ensure compliance and discipline, in an age with very clear inputs, work and outputs. Today, modern companies tend to take a flatter approach, in which everyone can talk and interact with everyone else. Where quick decisions need to be made by a workforce dealing with a greater degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.
To illustrate this with the example of our regular employee, the situation would look like this: The employee is dissatisfied and stressed due to this huge workload. The employee addresses this directly to the Executive Board. The board listens to the problem, discusses possible solutions with the regular employees and later informs them of the actions that will be taken.
Nowadays, many companies are aware of the disadvantages that are common for hierarchical management structures and, thus, try to counteract them. In the spirit of “employee empowerment”, company managers encourage their employees to take on more responsibility for decision-making regarding their specific organizational tasks. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to separate the two organization structures. Bigger companies with more than 100 employees often follow a steep hierarchical for practical organizational reasons while smaller companies, such as startups, sometimes follow flatter hierarchies. How to scale a flat structure remains a challenge.
From Fixed Working to Flexible Working
Working time depends on many social and economic factors. After the Second World War, for example, Germany extended working hours to a six-day week to support the reconstruction of the economy. Under the famous slogan “Samstags gehört Vati mir” (in English “Saturday is my Daddy’s day”), the trade unions brought back the five-day week in 1956. By the mid 1970s, the five-day week had established itself in almost all industrial sectors. From 1965 on, the 40-hour work week was common throughout various industries. Following the oil price crisis in 1973, short-time work (by cutting overtime) was introduced in large parts of the economy to prevent mass redundancies, which was partly successful. Nowadays, fixed working hours are no longer the norm in many European countries. The rigid time structure of the 8-hour work day and the 40-hour or 42-hour work week has eased noticeably since the early 1990s. Today, there is a wide range of flexible working models that offer employers and employees more leeway in the organisation of working time. Ideally, both parties benefit from more flexibility: companies can react more flexibly to customer needs as well as market conditions and employees enjoy more freedom in their lives. Whether it is part-time, flextime or annual working hours – today it is far easier to combine work with family or a time-consuming hobby than was the case ten years ago. According to flexible working advocates, the possibility of flexible working hours brings employees one step closer to a pleasant work life balance. Unfortunately, this is still only the luxury of a few leading economies.
From a “Knowledge is Power” to a “Knowledge Sharing is Power” Business Culture
Bilginoğlu (2019) points out that holding back acquired knowledge is a natural tendency of employees across all levels and throughout all kinds of companies.
A typical reason for hoarding knowledge is the “knowledge is power” workplace culture, in which employees hide their knowledge from others for personal gain or to make themselves indispensable in their working environment. In companies with a highly competitive internal work environment, one can experience great personal vulnerability by revealing the secrets of one’s own competitive advantage. This thinking is particularly common in companies that measure employees by their own performance rather than team performance. With the turn of the millennium, a new approach became widely spread: Knowledge Sharing or Knowledge Management. Nowadays, many leaders have realized the importance of keeping and sharing their employees’ knowledge within their company. Not only for organizational continuity and security, but for the clear benefits in innovation or problem solving of a team building on each other’s knowledge. Simply put, promoting a culture of knowledge sharing can help companies close knowledge gaps, improve work efficiency, raise innovation, increase employee satisfaction and promote leadership skills. Knowledge sharing also fosters team trust and, with it, teamwork, which leads to a “knowledge sharing is power” business culture.
From Typewriters and Faxes to Computers and Emails
Imagine walking into an office and not seeing a single computer. This was the case in most places until the early 1990s. Until then, secretaries would take notes at incredible speeds and then would have to write a letter with a typewriter making sure not to make a single mistake or have to start over.
Mercedes Elektra, launched in 1921, was the first electric typewriter. Then, in 1973, IBM developed a machine with a correction button. From then on, correcting an error was possible with the help of a key-controlled correction function. The development of personal computers took place around the same time. While companies were still paying $16,000 for an HP computer in 1965, IBM recognized the gap in the market for desktop computers for everyday use. The specifications for a computer were clear: the best product for the lowest price. In 1981, IBM sold 65,000 computers at the price of $1,500 each and became the industry leader within no time. But the competition never sleeps. Apple-1, developed by Steve Wozniak, was the first personal computer (PC). With a price of $666 dollars the Apple-1 was affordable for private households. In addition, it was equipped with all the necessary connections to operate it in a modern way via keyboard and monitor. These computers quickly spread to offices and replaced typewriters. From then on, everything happened very quickly. In 1984, the very first email was sent.
Nowadays, a workplace without emails is practically unthinkable. They serve as a simple, fast, direct, and inexpensive means of everyday communication. According to a survey by EmailMarketingBlog, three out of ten business email users receive more than 30 emails a day. For 8%, it’s even 50 and more. In total, an employee receives an average of 21 emails per day. This has greatly improved information sharing, but clear communication is still a challenge for most companies.
From working in cubicles to working in an open office space
In the 1970s, it was common for employees to work in tight cabins, also known as cubicles, separated from the rest of the employees to avoid distraction and foster efficiency. Employees had a simple routine: do their daily work and then go home. Mostly exchanging with their co-workers at the coffee station, water cooler or during cigarette breaks.
Over the years, however, with new management approaches and changing technologies, office design changed as well. In a working environment where employers encourage their employees to be more cooperative and creative, the environment needed to adapt. Work environment designs are designed for workers to share information and knowledge with their colleagues and gather new ideas through brainstorming. Additionally, many employers today are increasingly recognizing the personal needs of their employees and responding accordingly. Google is one pioneer in this area. By offering its employees a hairdresser, fitness as well as relaxation rooms, restaurants and cafes, hobby rooms with various instruments, game rooms and more. Nevertheless, a balance is required, as various studies indicate that only open office or too much open office can also lead to drops in efficiency and even communication.
From Working at the Office to Home Office and Remote Work
The constant development of new technologies and business cultures will continue to change the way we work. Employees are no longer limited to working in cubicles or at their desks. Wherever you choose to work – from home, in a café, in a co-working space or from another country altogether – when all you need is internet and a laptop or smartphone, employees can work from practically anywhere. But not only employees are more connected than ever before. The IT infrastructure in companies, such as cloud computing, online web conferencing and instant messaging have further enabled better communication around the world. In the 1980s, IBM was an early pioneer of remote work. For example, IBM initiated “remote terminals” in the homes of distinct employees during this period. This program boomed so much that by 2009, 40% of IBM’s 386,000 employees worldwide were working from home.
Individuals can connect, share information and even collaborate inside and outside their companies with a single click of a button – no matter where from. Unlike the ability to “only” work from home, remote work means you can work from anywhere. The remote work approach is a trend that seems unstoppable. More and more companies allow their employees the possibility of choosing their working space to foster employees’ well-being and their work-life-balance. Remote work should satisfy employees and encourage productive work. The urge for remote work is encouraged by the desire of the millenials to work where they choose. But not only generation Y has this desire. Older employees in particular have recognised the advantages of this working model. According to Stellenmarkt.de, 18.8% of over 65-year-olds in the USA work this way. According to more recent surveys, 74% of 50-year-olds and older employees would like this kind of job flexibility. Therefore, there is a growing tendency towards remote work. Face to face meetings and on-site teamwork is nevertheless still difficult to replace for many working modes such as negotiation or workshops.
From Imbalance to Diversity
In the Canton of Zurich, only men were allowed to practice law in 1890. Emelie Kempin-Spyri, the first Swiss lawyer to receive her doctorate at the time, fought for her rights, but was met with resistance from the Federal Court. Then 37 years later, in 1927, when Dora Roeder came to the Federal Court with the same request, the wind had changed. From then on, women were also allowed to practice their choice of profession.Still, it was not until 1971 that women’s right to vote in federal affairs was finally introduced by referendum. From the social movements in Switzerland as well as from similar movements in the USA (e.g. Affirmative Action 1961 by President John F. Kennedy) more and more companies aimed at better representing society within the company. While in the late 1990s, the term “diversity management” mainly dealt with better integrating disadvantaged groups into companies, today it has become all about creating heterogeneous workforces regardless of gender, nationality, education or impairments of any kind. The main advantage being the impact a diverse group of people has on brainstorming, the working atmosphere, employee motivation, sharing knowledge and skills as well as innovation as a whole. Yet much work still needs to be done in this regards, as studies continue to show that women in Switzerland for example continue to face discrimination, lower pay and lack of advancement opportunities.
Conclusion – From work as a daily burden to work that is fulfilling
To conclude, each change listed above has contributed immensely to turning our work situation upside down – both for employers and employees. Each change has had an impact on the work life balance and overall work experience. With these changes and the additional freedom as well as responsibilities that have come with them, employees can create a work life balance that better meets their personal needs. Downsides to these changes are also evident and well documented by research. Every team, work mode, company has its needs. Added to this, these needs are constantly changing. However, all in all, it is undeniable that these changes have allowed corporate culture to change for the better. In fact, according to a report by the Society for Human Resource Management, 88% of employees say they are satisfied with their work. This number represents the highest rate of employee satisfaction in the last ten years. These changes and more are proof of a huge transformation: companies are far more oriented towards the needs of their employees and taking measures to improve their day-to-day working environment. Finding the right solution is just not something that can be bought, it is something that needs to be built and it needs to keep adapting. The first mistake we need to avoid is to assume the future of work is a destination, rather than a journey.
Coming up in the next blog
The changes in the world of work are still in progress and the technologies, devices and different approaches will continue to evolve in the future. That is why our next blog post will focus on how work will look like in the future.
By Alan Cabello, Senior Partner