I reluctantly crawl up the stairs to my 9am yoga class on a Friday, I’ve been traveling to the UK, Spain and Portugal for a few weeks so it’s been a while but I am able to get into most of the poses and feel very comfortable in my downward dog. I am craving a dirty chai latte with almond milk so I pop into the restaurant next door for my treat. I get home, shower, and then I check all my emails. I see that my supervisor from the African Union didn’t call me yesterday afternoon as she suggested, so I make sure that I send her a WhatsApp message to suggest we chat this afternoon. After a WhatsApp call with her, she agrees that I don’t have to fly to Addis Ababa next week and can work from home and dial-in to the meetings via BlueJeans which is the African Union’s version of Skype. I search for the relevant financial rules and regulations via email and start to think about my approach to the work for next week. I may have to do some work tomorrow on a Saturday but I don’t really mind. I don’t adhere to traditional weekends or holidays anymore. I can fit the work in after swim squad and before my date. It’s 4:30pm on a Friday and I head off to meet a friend for a swim at Camps Bay and then an early dinner.
For over 10 years I worked as a lawyer in the corporate environment from law firms to large asset managers and found increasing dissatisfaction with the world of work. I was bored and unstimulated with repetitive and non-varied work and hated the feeling of being chained to my desk for a set number of hours per day regardless of whether I was busy or not. I also know that at most, I am only really at peak productivity for about 5-6 hours in a day. I would live for the weekends but usually spend most of my time doing personal admin and then relaxing because I was so exhausted from the work week. Not necessarily from the work but from the hours and hours of sitting at my desk. I didn’t feel connected to the work I was doing although I always tried my best to deliver my work on-time or before the promised time and to the best of my ability.
Some jobs, like mine, require a lot of alone time for thinking and writing in front of the computer. They do not require as much input and human interaction from others and if so it’s usually in the form of comments and questions on written documentation. These documents are reviewed by virtue of an attachment on email. That’s why in big law firms, lawyers sit in their own offices. But in the modern corporate world, it’s all open plan and you are expected to concentrate in the midst of chats, food, music and all other forms of distraction. To be clear most people are actually introverts and studies have shown that they are less productive and ironically less collaborative in an open plan office. The open plan office model is sold to employees as a model of a “flat structure” and “open-door corporate culture promoting collaboration”. But in reality, it’s a cost saving measure to cut down on office space but arguably this is offset by the loss of productivity. It therefore makes more sense to have these employees who would prefer to work alone at home and only come into the office for ad hoc meetings.
My experience is that a lot of corporates in South Africa haven’t caught up with the modern work culture and feel that their employees need constant supervision. In reality, I know that a lot of my corporate colleagues spent a bulk of their time at work doing personal admin via their computers or phones. Whether it was filing their tax returns or completing school application forms for their children. And so, unless employers want to spend their time watching what their employees were doing every minute of every day, they have created a fabricated sense of supervision, which just causes unhappiness and dissatisfaction on both sides. Corporates basically treat a large number of their employees like children, incapable of finishing their work on their own unless they are sitting in the office under ostensible supervision. I don’t believe people do their best work that way. They need to learn and develop their own ways and times of working. What works best for them and deliver an agreed set of tasks to an agreed set of upfront deadlines. That’s how being self-employed and contracting works. If employees can’t deliver then that’s a different conversation.
The flipside to this flexibility is obviously the requirement to stay connected at all times. Yes, it may be a pain to reply to an email while touring a thousand year-old castle in Lisbon, Portugal but the email takes 10 minutes and I would rather be bothered by the email for 10 minutes that have to stay in an office all day for that one email.
Another major trend in the modern world of work is artificial intelligence or AI which is fundamentally transforming our work capabilities. For me, AI means the ability to assign mundane and routine bulk tasks to a computer or bot which can process that work faster and with greater accuracy than a human. The core of my current work is still experience and judgement based and I am not sure it can be adequately replaced by a computer. So, I am excited for some of the developments in AI because I see it as enhancing work efficiency. I do not believe that anyone should be doing this type of work. However, for many people it may mean downsizing and a redundancy for their jobs. It raises further questions about what work people could do to earn an income when their current work is replaced by a bot.
Since I have been self-employed I have been incredibly happy because of the diversity, freedom and flexibility in my work and I have fully embraced all the opportunities that the modern working world offers. But I am very aware that very few people are fortunate enough to be in my position.
Fortunately, when the robots eventually take over they can solve all these issues with modern work.