Opinions - 15.03.2013 - 00:00 

The future of knowledge work

The creative proportion of knowledge work is on the increase. 50 per cent of all Swiss people in gainful employment are knowledge workers. Oliver Gassmann on innovative forms of work.
Source: HSG Newsroom


15 March 2013. 50 per cent of all Swiss people in gainful employment are already knowledge workers. With their knowledge and their experience, they create added value for companies and their customers. Information technology has greatly changed our working lives. Things that are part of everyday business today were regarded as unrealistic illusions 20 years ago. 70 per cent of all employees in Switzerland work with the help of IT today. Thanks to Skype, Dropbox, computer conferencing and chat fora, virtual innovation teams that are spread across several locations develop new products and ideas.

Flexible working arrangements
Work, spare time and travelling merge: in their spare time or en route, people communicate and work intensively – with smartphones being regarded as either a blessing or a curse. This is anything but gratifying if you want to enjoy nature in peace or want to concentrate on a book on a train. Constant availability constrains us but also extends our possibilities. The omnipresent availability of knowledge workers provides opportunities for more individual freedom: we reckon that 20 per cent of all knowledge workers would have the possibility of working in their home office one day a week.

Such flexibilisation can increase the quality of life. Family and job can be more easily reconciled if the following three criteria are satisfied: firstly, employees must be measured against the yardstick of their achievements, not by the time they are present on the business premises. Numerous executives must be cured of their illusion of control: in the age of knowledge work, which incidentally is also quite prominent in industrial companies, it is results that count, not time cards. Secondly, however, many people have to learn first how to deal with more freedom and responsibility. Self-discipline for work but also for regeneration becomes important. Thirdly, corporate culture must be sufficiently strong for employees not to lose their group identity. A few days ago, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer surprised her employees with a home office ban. Yahoo is aiming at a stronger corporate culture. This limits virtual work.

Creative jobs for freelancers
Knowledge workers are increasingly becoming portfolio workers who simultaneously work for various companies and organisations in numerous roles. The proportion of freelancers who have no permanent employment contract will continue to grow. The pioneers in this field are creative occupations like advertisers, programmers and journalists. Other professional groups of knowledge workers will follow – for example, professional thinkers for crowd sourcers.

This does not only have advantages: in metropolitan centres, an increasing number of freelancers and virtualised entrepreneurs are beginning to share business premises. Models such as the Betahaus in Berlin, which offers desks in open-plan offices for rent on a weekly basis, are popular. In fact, these intercorporate creative workplaces are so popular that established big corporations such as TUI and Telekom rent desks now in order to provide selected staff with the “founders’ air” of start-ups.

Working life in the incubator
New entrepreneurs dream about setting up a big corporation. Established companies want to relearn how small, innovative firms work. The Berlin incubator “The Factory” does not only want to be a breeding ground for start-ups. Besides the shared workspace, it also offers a flat-share type of residence; in this model, life and work inextricably belong together.

A flexibilisation of work also entails an increase in personal responsibility. Everyone wants more freedom, but not everyone is necessarily happier with the increase in responsibility for results and personal organisation. Work and a sustainable balance between work and private life are increasingly dependent on how individual people deal with them. There are already more and more people who are unable to “switch off” and will have a burn-out in the medium term. Thus the responsibility for a better quality of life and a more sustainable increase in productivity must also be shared by every one of us.

Bild: Hub Zurich / Collaborative Working Place and Incubator for Social Entrepreneurship