University of Melbourne Magazine

Working on tomorrow

  • The class of 2015 will find themselves entering a very different world of work than their predecessors of even a decade ago. Val McFarlane meets the men examining how we work now – and what the future might bring.

    Writing on the walls is positively encouraged at the Centre for Workplace Leadership. Much of the wall space in the Centre, on the sixth floor of the Business and Economics building in Berkeley Street, is covered in scribbles. There are lists, Venn diagrams, graphs … all ideas downloaded from the brains of the academics who work there.

    It’s just one of the signs that the Centre doesn’t just research the modern workplace; it is one. Here, academic and professional staff share the space. There’s a formal meeting room, but more informal places to gather – booths with comfy couches and a bar with high stools, like in the hipster cafes round the corner in Carlton.

    Director Professor Peter Gahan (PhD 1997) hasn’t bought a pool table for the team yet, but one wouldn’t look out of place. It’s exactly the kind of environment you would expect from Gahan, who has spent his life researching ways of making the Australian workforce happier and more productive. A former Director of Workplace Innovation at the Victorian Department of Industry, Innovation and Regional Development, he has studied the impact of workplace changes over many years.

    “We forget the enormity of technological change that has taken place over a relatively short period of time,” he says. “Just think about how long things like smart mobile phones have been around. The first smartphone came out in the mid-1990s, the first iPhone in 2007, but where would we be without them now? The first thing I do when I get out of bed – in fact I don’t even get out of bed – is check my emails.”

    Reports of the death of the traditional office may be an exaggeration, but there is no doubt the nine-to-five is changing, with flexibility the current buzzword.

    Flexibility takes many forms. “Activity-based working”, where employees no longer have their own assigned workstation, instead using a range of areas to carry out specific tasks, is just one. Teams don’t necessarily sit together, instead using videocasting to communicate, or meeting in shared spaces. In at least one Melbourne bank – and increasingly around the world – the definition of office space is being stretched even further, to include areas where customers can work alongside bank staff. Teleworking, or virtual working, with employees scattered across the city, country or even globe, is also increasingly common. At technology firm Cisco, 40 per cent of managers manage people who don’t work in the same location.