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Pioneers of the workplace

The world of work is defined by the tools we use, the conditions we work under, and the concepts we work with. We tend to take them for granted, but many of these ideas were once groundbreaking innovations. As technological changes continue to affect the workplace, what can business leaders learn from how earlier ideas gained a foothold, and what can we expect in years to come?




Unlike the minds behind major scientific developments, the people whose ideas have changed the way we work are not so widely known. Yet their ideas have a continuing impact on the daily lives of millions around the world. Often they did not set out with this goal but were simply seeking a solution to a problem in front of them.

Take the ‘qwerty’ keyboard, for example. Christopher Latham Sholes, the US newspaper editor who came up with the layout in 1874, was simply looking for a way to prevent the keys on his newly invented typing machine from jamming. His layout separates as many common combinations of two letters as possible. By 1890, there were already 100,000 ‘qwerty’ typewriters in use in the US. It quickly became – and remains – the de facto standard for typists.

If something as small as a keyboard can have this big an impact, what about larger constructs that have changed the way work is organised or the way we think about companies?

No more 9 to 5
As the ‘qwerty’ keyboard shows, solving practical problems can lead to ideas that influence businesses. In the case of the German business economist Christel Kammerer, it was a car parking problem that led to her idea first being put into practice.

Kammerer developed the concept of flexitime – or Gleitzeit in German – in an article in 1965. At the time, most women in Germany stayed at home to care for children. Not only was this their expected role, but also the rigid structure of the working day meant it was difficult to combine childcare with employment. However, during the 1960s, West German businesses were experiencing labour shortages. Kammerer suggested letting employees start and end work at different times of day to fit around family duties, thus enabling more people to enter the workforce.

Flexitime has been shown to increase job satisfaction and well-being among men and women.

It was a radical idea and businesses did not rush to take it up. In fact, it was first tested as a way of solving a rather different problem – congestion around the car park at Messerschmitt-Bölkow in Munich. Introducing flexible start and finish times ended congestion in the car park, and the company also found it was able to attract more female workers. Before long, the idea spread, and by 1977 a quarter of the West German workforce was on some form of flexitime and the system was being used by 22,000 companies across Europe. With take-up by the multinationals, it has been exported to the rest of the world.

Flexitime has been shown to increase job satisfaction and well-being among men and women. Meanwhile, employers find that providing flexibility reduces absenteeism and boosts productivity. A recent study for the International Labour Organization identifies a growing trend towards various forms of flexible working time, including shift work, com- pressed working weeks, and time banking. Studies in the UK show that three quarters of employees respond positively to the idea of flexible working, and a third even say they would prefer it to a pay rise.

An anthropological view
Any company that hopes to stand the test of time needs to build on a firm foundation of shared beliefs, values, and norms of behaviour. Companies and organisations thrive best when the people who work for them implicitly understand which characteristics are important for their company and live these principles in their daily working lives. This is never more so than in companies competing in fast-changing markets.

We call this, loosely, corporate culture. Tom Burns, a professor of sociology at Edinburgh University, coined the term as part of his pioneering work during the post-Second World War era on organisations and company structures. Burns sought a reason to explain why companies in the same sector and employing similar kinds of staff nevertheless performed differently, particularly in situations with rapidly changing technology.

Using anthropological field methods, he interviewed individuals throughout the organisations he was studying to find out what they thought about themselves, their jobs, their companies, and their industry – and he listened carefully to their tone as well as observing what actually happened in the factories he visited.

Burns sought a reason to explain why companies in the same sector and employing similar kinds of staff nevertheless performed differently, particularly in situations with rapidly changing technology

This was radically new – Burns was looking not just at how individuals applied themselves to their tasks, but also at the social relationships between individuals and their companies. This led him to identify two broad categories of organisational structure: mechanistic and organic. The mechanistic system is a classic ‘top down’ hierarchy, whereas in an organic system the roles are less rigid and there is more lateral communication.

Burns found that companies organised along organic principles were better at coping with rapid change. But in order to make this work, he found that they needed what he called a common culture. In 1961, Burns and his colleague, G M Stalker, published their findings in ‘The Management of Innovation’, where they defined common culture as the dependable constant system of shared beliefs about the standards and criteria used in the company to judge achievement, visible to the outsider. Today, a company’s values are as important as the products and services it sells – all of which would be strange if we had continued to view companies as purely mechanistic organisations.

Just in time in the digital age
Smart devices, co-working spaces, cloud computing, co-creation – these are a few of the most recent innovations that are radically changing our perceptions and behaviours. But what about reshaping the very idea of employment?

With the pace of change increasing, businesses need to evolve their attitudes to workers and organisational structures. People, especially younger generations, no longer want to be tied to one location or even one sector. The rise of the gig economy is one manifestation of this trend. But how can companies – and individuals – embrace a more flexible approach to employment?

Viktor Calabrò is the founder and executive chairman at Coople, a Swiss start-up that is seeking to help companies adapt. Coople, the largest just-in-time staffing platform in Europe, aims to make flexible work “easy, reliable, and fulfilling”. It enables companies that need a temporary boost in workforce to find workers looking for short-term employment within hours, rather than days. Currently, the flexible job market is full of pain points – needing hand-signed contracts for two-hour jobs, no benefits for workers, and complicated paperwork for employers. Removing these could help the market reach its full potential.

Calabrò envisages a future where people will have the opportunity to choose the working model that works best for them.

While traditional agencies lean towards longer-term placements and work mainly with employers in mind, Coople serves both parties equally and caters to short-term placements that are becoming increasingly common – and popular. This type of placement not only helps companies to run more efficiently as they can manage peaks and troughs in workload, it also enables workers to embrace a completely different lifestyle, where they have the freedom to work around their lives, rather than the other way around. Calabrò envisages a future where people will have the opportunity to choose the working model that works best for them.

He also sees this model as one way to help solve the skills gap that will be caused by automation. Short contracts can help people to learn new skills and get their foot in the door of a new industry without creating long gaps on their CVs while they retrain. The team at Coople are working with the Swiss government to test the viability of this approach. They are also talking to ministers, insurance firms, and other partners to highlight the areas of employment regulation that no longer make sense in a digital world – those hand-signed contracts, for example. For the flexible model to really take off, regulation needs to be updated, but this will take time.

Just like those office pioneers before him, Calabrò set out not to change the way we work, but to solve a problem that he himself faced while running his first start-up – finding a better way to hire temporary employees. But if Coople and others who are pushing for modernisation of global employment regulations are successful, the way we work in the coming decades could look very different.