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Freedom key to workplace of the future

By Susanne Gargiulo for CNN
November 19, 2011 -- Updated 0914 GMT (1714 HKT)
Could this type of office be a thing of the past? Future offices spaces could be like mobile meeting places where workers gather.
Could this type of office be a thing of the past? Future offices spaces could be like mobile meeting places where workers gather.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As workers gain more freedom, the line between self-employed and employed will become blurred
  • The concept of the full time job may be the first thing to go
  • The changing workforce may also shift global power centers to the developing countries

(CNN) -- The world's workforce is undergoing a revolution which will change the way we think about employment, office spaces and hierarchy - and may also shift global power centers to the developing countries, experts say.

As workers gain more freedom over when and where they work, the line between self-employed and employed will become increasingly blurred. Office spaces will become more like meeting places where mobile workers occasionally gather, and senior leaders will come out of their offices to engage more closely with workers. This, in turn, will eliminate some of the traditional hierarchies and create a flatter corporate power structure.

Among the first things likely to go, according to Peter Thomson and Alison Maitland, co-authors of the book "Future Work: How businesses can adapt and thrive in the new world of work," is the idea of a fulltime job. "The assumption has been that work is a fulltime job, but that's rubbish," says Thomson. Instead, work will be chopped into more easily digestible chunks and sandwiched around other priorities in our lives, such as our children. "It will be life first and work second, as opposed to the other way around," he says.

Another thing likely to fall to the wayside is the assumption that we have to work our way to the top and then quit. 'We have this strange idea that once we reach the top of the mountain we have to jump off the edge instead of working ourselves down the hill again," says Thomson. Instead, he says, those hitting their 50s could choose to cut back working hours.

"We'll see more networks of individuals contributing to a common goal, people coming in for projects and disappearing again," says Thomson.

This will also change the way corporations manage employees -- or rather, stop managing them. "Once you allow people the freedom to work as they want, managers can't control the input, they have to measure output," says Thomson.

It's an approach that is being implemented by companies such as clothing and electronics retailers GAP and Best Buy in the U.S., who measure results as opposed to hours worked. "They don't care when or where their employees get the job done, as long as they get the results," says Thomson, adding that studies show flexible hours usually increase both innovation and productivity.

While productivity speaks for itself, experts say there are some key drivers behind these major shifts. One is that more women in the workforce are creating a demand for more flexible hours. Another is that there's a new generation of entrepreneurial graduates who don't see themselves staying long-term with one major employer, and want more freedom to work where they want and when they want.

Ultimately, that means we have to say goodbye to things like traditional job security and career paths.

"In this new world, everyone will need to become a CEO of themselves," says Richard Judy, founder and chairman of TORQworks, and an expert on workforce development. "They have to consider themselves a company, and as a good CEO think about what is needed in the marketplace. They need to regularly think about how knowledge and skills can be honed."

The need to stay relevant is emphasized by the changes taking place in corporations. As global competition increases, companies will go anywhere to find the necessary talent, increase productivity, and lower cost. Already, knowledge and expertise previously thought to be the prerogative of the west is moving to places in the far east, where universities are churning out highly capable graduates.

"This is the last time in world history that the western world will set the standard, says Axel Olesen, CEO of NextNordic. "From now on, others will be more important. Asia, Latin America, even Africa. They want it more and they're trying harder. We're going to need a radical change to maintain our standard of living."

At the University of California Berkeley School of Information, they are stepping up to this new reality by deliberately changing the curriculum of their students to make them more competitive.

Employers are increasingly looking for a new kind of graduate, says Dean AnnaLee Saxenian, one with the understanding and expertise to collaborate effectively across wider areas of expertise and functionality. They also need to be entrepreneurial, prepared to solve complex problems, and flexible in adapting to a changing work environment. "These skills were typically not valued in the past, but will be richly rewarded in the economy of 2020," she says.

And if you thought graduation signaled the end of school, think again. In this new world of work, lifelong learning and continual education is crucial, as is constant vigilance about changes in the marketplace. "People really have to be prepared to adapt and to change their career in midlife," says Thomson.

So, while this revolution in working practices is likely to give us more freedom, it does seem to come with its own set of stresses. Thomson believes they're worth it. "Empowerment is a word that gets overused, but I think these changes are genuinely giving some power to the individual," he says.

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