The Workplace of the 21st century

Raphael Kiyani - New Writer

Photograph: Jesus Corrius/Flickr

The nature of work and what it means in society has, of course, developed and changed throughout the centuries. From what was largely a mass agrarian base through to the sprawling Industrial Revolution, the workplace and employees’ place in it has constantly evolved technologically. Technology, advances in machinery, the computer age have had a fundamental, wide ranging impact on the nature of work. In more modern times, the rise of globalisation has dramatically altered business and technology and as an inevitable result – the places we work. In conjunction with the effects of globalisation it has, of course, created a more global economy in which one area or country or even a handful of trans-national corporations can send repercussions around the entire planet. For example, the recession in 2008 , which was triggered by a sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US sent the British economy and others into dire straits also.

The steady rise of globalisation has facilitated the increase in people migrating to the UK, which has led to a far bigger cultural diversity in the workplace. This, in turn, has sparked new ways of doing things in many workplaces, for instance the creation of a broader employee base. Companies taking the decision to have branches in different parts of the world has begun to change the way in which we see the traditional idea of a central office as obsolete – Instead, creating ‘virtual hubs’ to connect employees. This, then, transforms the old notion of a singular office environment to a more interconnected one. This interconnectedness, which may have been vital financially and digitally is, though, a double-edged sword. The diverse range of people in the workplace has allowed companies to utilise their skills for improving profit – allowing them to provide their services more efficiently to other areas and other countries (especially as they are able to take advantage of local knowledge, language and a better-informed cultural awareness). They are bolstered in their efforts to appeal to global market forces because of their ability to adapt, possessing a more diverse range of skills within the workplace. Different strategies are then executed; resulting in higher productivity, increased profit, and return on investment (Konard et al. 2006). The increasingly diverse workplace has created a more collaborative environment when expanding business relations abroad – the ability to overcome so-called ‘culture-shock’ faster as employees are constantly learning about different cultures from their fellow peers. For example, a British company attempting to expand into Poland can possibly gain a greater insight into Polish society and culture and a more intricate knowledge of the financial dealings of Poland, for example, the country’s tax regulations. On balance, one could say the UK workplace has evolved into a broader knowledge base.

The role of trade has been instrumental in fuelling this globalisation. According to the BBC, trade has increased “more than 100 times (from $95bn to $12 trillion) in the 50 years since 1955”, and this has had an undeniable effect on the British manufacturing base with Far-Eastern countries like China and South Korea targeting exports at wealthy Western nations. The UK manufacturing base has suffered and declined (shipbuilding, mining, steel to name a

few) over time, with a result of a loss in the workforce of about 5.4 million, roughly translating as two thirds between 1971-2011. Multinationals have become more global by setting up manufacturing plants in other parts of the world in an effort to take advantage of cheaper labour costs. Secondly, the British service sector is now under strain with many jobs threatened due to the increasing possibility of outsourcing. India is now the world’s leading exporter of IT Services – the profit made from exports doubling every three years. In 2015, the UK steel industry suffered heavy blows with many factories going bust due to the imports of Chinese steel – which the country was selling at allegedly unrealistically low prices, deliberately, it was thought, to undercut domestic prices. On the whole, the UK manufacturing sector has largely lost out to lower-cost economies in Asia. Rob Dobden, a senior economist made the assessment that the sector had been “stunned by a triple combination of a sharp slowdown in consumer spending, weak business investment and stagnating export order inflows”. Further analysis from the ONS stated that UK manufacturing made up 10% of the economy in 2013, compared to 36% in 1948. This has been a huge decline.

Recession has led to a rise of self-employment as jobs are harder to find and many skilled workers have been made redundant. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2014 stated that self-employment is at the highest it has been since records began almost 40 years ago at 15%. Also, fewer people are leaving their self-employed jobs with the ONS reporting that “Fewer people left self-employment over the last five years than at any period in the last 20 years” this most likely due to pervasive insecurity in the workforce since the economic downturn. They’ve been hardest hit by pay squeezes with an average of a 22% real pay fall. This boom in self-employment since the recession does not seem to be a temporary phenomenon, with 40% of new jobs in the last four years being self-employed in nature, putting the UK above the European average. Despite the potential for entrepreneurial flair in the UK creating opportunities – the overall effect of this shift at least contended by some, particularly union leaders, is a more insecure, low paid job-market becoming the new norm. The once-held concept in the ‘Golden Age’ of a ‘job for life’ has now largely been made redundant. No longer is it the rule that people expect or are even able to stay in one job or profession their entire working lives – a part of this is due to the rise in self-employment as people are enjoying being their own boss and adapting to what they can do. Retirement specialist LV made the rather bold assessment that a mere 1.5% of new workers in Britain will only have one job across their entire working lives.

Since the economic catastrophe in the form of 2008’s recession hit the UK, the job-market has seen a massive increase in Zero Hour Contracts. The trade union Unite found through their research that around 5.5 million British workers are eligible to be signed up to a Zero Hour Contract. The result of this, arguably, has been to further increase the pervasive insecurity that already existed in the workplace, due to the nature of such contracts – there are no set hours and employee’s basic rights are not protected (for example lack of pension and paid leave). This, too, has dramatically altered the UK workplace and in some ways sent

it back to the early parts of the 20th Century. The nature of such contracts harkening back to the time Dockers in the early hours would stand and hope to be picked, treating workers as commodities that strip them of basic security. In modern Britain, being in work is now not a sure-fire way of getting out of poverty. With a low-wage paying economy based on a back-bone of insecure contracts many are still finding it hard to survive. In fact, most people receiving a form of state benefit are actually in work. The ONS found further information. w 40% of those who were on Zero Hour Contracts wanted to work more hours than the amount that had been made available to them, perhaps indicating that over half a decade since the financial crash there were many employers still operating at a level below their usual capacity.

In conclusion, when looking objectively at the evidence presented, the nature of the British workplace has definitely dramatically changed due to the increase of globalisation in all its forms and because of the recent financial crash. Many factors have played their part,such as global trade, the increase of immigration, the rise of self- employment and the changing nature of work contracts. These have proven that both globalisation and recession have altered the workplace in the UK. We have also seen that the cherished notion of a ‘Job for Life’ is fast becoming a thing of the past. Whilst the workplace in the UK continues to be an ever-evolving structure,it is clear that it is now very much at the whim of global forces.

About Raphael Kiyani 1 Article
Former student, turned freelance writer. Passionate about writing, politics, the visual arts, food and challenging injustice.
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