The Future of (We)Work

When I left a ‘regular’ job some time back to become an entrepreneur and advisor to multiple companies, a very senior leader in the company observed encouragingly, “Instead of one company – many employees, work is moving to one employee – many companies. You are going to be a part of this future of work.” As if to prove his point, the next day itself I settled down on my ‘hot desk’ at the spanking new WeWork which had opened in my city, and contributed my bit to its ever-expanding valuation.

It’s not only WeWork; co-working spaces are mushrooming all around us in every city of the world. JLL estimates that India had 3.4mn sq ft of coworking space in the first nine months of last year; in fact, in Mumbai, 21% of all office rentals were coworking! By 2020, the estimate is that 13mn people will work out of a coworking space in India. There are perhaps 200+ different companies running these spaces in India, and WeWork is certainly not the largest. But it is perhaps the most expensive and sought-after, the poster boy of co-working – with its funky décor, free artisanal coffee, beer on tap, and a highly aspirational brand.

Of late, though, that brand has taken quite a beating. Just a few months back, the founder Adam Neumann and his merry men could do no wrong. WeWork had pulled in an estimated $10bn from Softbank, was riding high atop a stratospheric valuation of $47bn, had become the largest lessee of office space in New York, and was powering a completely new work culture across 29 countries of the world. It had been rechristened The We Company, was calling itself as a tech company not only selling ‘space-as-a-service’, but also ‘elevating the world’s consciousness’. WeWork was sailing towards the second largest tech IPO ever. But then everything started falling apart: analysts found that it was losing gobs of money and there were murky corporate governance practices. The bottom fell off the story – the company is reportedly re-valuing itself at just $10bn, management and Board changes are in the offing, and the IPO may be off. Forbes has pronounced “WeWork might not be the largest IPO of 2019, but it is easily the most ridiculous.”

So, is the ‘Future of Work’ dead? Far from it, though its brand ambassador might have stumbled a bit. There are four inexorable trends shaping the Future of Work, and all of them are going strong:

The Millennial Workforce:  By 2020, millennials are expected to make up about 50% of the workforce, and by 2025 this number is projected to be 75%. Their idea of work is different from the earlier generations. they do not want to be tied to one company, they prefer ‘fluid gigs’ where they can move in and out of jobs, and perhaps do a few simultaneously (Elon Musk or Jack Dorsey are their role models here). There is no 9-to-5, and the workplace should not look like a typical office, but like perhaps what WeWork does.

Mobility and globalization: Work is increasingly not tied to one country, one city or even one location. People prefer to work from where they are – home, office, Starbucks, parks, or malls. It is becoming harder to find highly skilled or specialized people living around their offices, especially in high traffic density places like India. Employees want more locational flexibility therefore, and so one way to get talent is to allow remote working. This also means lower office costs, higher employee retention, and higher productivity. Therefore, work is becoming location-neutral and decentralised workforces is the new normal. This is where co-working spaces with their multiple locations, but common infrastructure, have a great advantage.

Artificial Intelligence and Automation: AI is disrupting everything, it will also disrupt work as we know it. Most repetitive tasks will go away, as RPA (Robotic Process Automation) kicks in. Natural language processing (which powers Alexa), powerful Machine Learning algorithms, and the onset of Deep Learning-led Narrow and General AI will make even more jobs doable more effectively and efficiently by machines. While machines and men will work symbiotically, what humans will do far better are the jobs which require collaboration, working-together and requiring human skills like empathy and compassion. Human to human interaction, fostered by collective co-working spaces will perhaps allow us to work better than the robots in these areas. 

Decentralisation and Blockchain: Finally, as blockchains drive decentralization among large centralized industries (money, logistics, finance among others), they will also drive a new kind of company – where rigid organisation structures and centralized workspaces will lose their relevance. The DAOs (or Decentralised Autonomous Organisations) are the early symptoms of that, as employees and partners get more empowered, and senior management less and less so. This decentralization will be central to the future of work, and it will be co-working spaces that will become the infrastructural centre for that.

The Future of Work is not going away anywhere. One of the reasons that WeWork became so valuable was that the market instinctively recognized it as the ‘infrastructural pivot of the Future of Work’. The pivot has been rattled a bit, not due to external trends and forces, but due to its own internal mistakes. It might come back, or some other large co-working brand will come in to be the poster boy. So, while the Future of WeWork might be in doubt right now, the Future of Work is not.

(This article appeared, with some edits and a different heading in Mint Opinion, Mint on September 20, 2019)

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