Facilities Management and Office Resources

9,000 people "who think for a living" weigh in on the future of work

There has always been a lot of interest in what the workplace of the future will look like. Yet one of the flaws in this thinking is, future work covers such a cross-section of different roles, it can be hard to make any sense of the situation.

Now, to try to add a bit more structure to this question Unify – an integrated communications provider – has produced a research study of 9,000 knowledge workers from USA, UK and Germany.

It defines knowledge workers as those whose job is to “think for a living”. And while a breakdown of specific job roles was not available when I asked, the study incorporated seven job levels, from graduate to business owner, and covered 14 industries, from arts and culture to IT and telecoms.

So, why is this an interesting survey?

Well, partly because the sample size is so large. I get spammed with an awful lot of studies which try and fob me off with 50 responses masquerading as proper research. And while the term people who “think for a living” may still be ridiculously broad, 9,000 is a decent number.

On top of this, aside from a quick comedy upsell for Unify solution in the section on virtual teams (see page 10) this is not too heavily weighted towards “BUY NOW”. The research does, of course, highlight that knowledge workers want to “fewer, but better technologies” (Ah, a unified solution, you say?) but this is towards the end of the report not pushed as the most salient point.

The other things which makes this study worth looking at is that some of the findings contradict the established norm of thinking on this topic.

How did this contradict accepted wisdom?

The survey highlights that work life balance is slightly “more important” to older respondents than younger ones. This is interesting because although there is always a lot of chat about driven young people working 24/7 there is also a lot of hype about how millennials are more interested in work life balance than anything else.

The study also suggests that although knowledge workers do work more hours than they’re contracted to, it is only a couple more a week. Not the dozens that tend to get pushed in the “shock-horror everyone is working 28 hours a day!” studies.

How do knowledge workers feel about their roles in the future?

Of the knowledge workers surveyed 65% suggest their job won’t be the same in five years’ time while 35% believe it won’t exist.

Of course, it is hard to say what this really means without knowing exactly what these individuals do each day. But as the workplace is largely transitional at present – look at the march of data analytics for example – many roles are in a constant state of flux. So, these findings seem like an enviable part of digitisation and to highlight the need for flexible human skillsets, rather than offer a lament on future job loss.

In fact, 92% surveyed believe they make a positive contribution to their workplace which suggests these individuals aren’t too worried.

What about the office mentality and flexibility?

There is no real reason why people who think for a living should be confined to the physical office. And 69% of knowledge workers say that the having a single office as a physical workplace is less important than it was in the past.

Also, everyone surveyed wants to spend less time in the traditional office environment. Yet while many are considering contract or freelance work, this is most attractive to those who are young enough or senior enough, to consider more flexible options.

Does it all, ultimately, come down to changing mentality then?

I think that is exactly what these findings suggest. Knowledge work is quite hard to quantify and certainly hard to monitor. Whether you’re doing a good job is partly determined by the organisational aims, which in a time of transition, are not always very clear cut.

This survey lists three primary means by which knowledge workers believe their productivity is measured: client or customer satisfaction, hours worked and quality of work. Younger workers tend to place more emphasis on hours spent while older ones tend to focus on quality.

Realistically, the highest value knowledge workers will always be monitored on quality. Yet this can be a hard mental transition for people if they are used to being paid to “show up”.

Personally, I believe as flexible working becomes more entrenched, and people become less afraid to work outside the office for fear of looking like they’re slacking, this is likely to become more and more apparent. This is of course easier with seniority, and a therefore ‘proven worth’, but is also a reflection of mind-set.

In the end the workplace of five years’ time will inevitably be a different place from today. Yet as automation becomes more of a reality, high value quality-driven knowledge workers are likely to command more of a premium than ever before.


Further reading:

What will the workplace of 2026 look like?

Overpriced smart cities vs. the death of the office


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