The future of the workplace

“Uberisation is an urban myth” and other work trends

Sarah Mellouet describes a “no going back!” mentality when it comes to returning to the office.  Photo: Matic Zorman / Maison Moderne

Sarah Mellouet describes a “no going back!” mentality when it comes to returning to the office.  Photo: Matic Zorman / Maison Moderne

Given successive waves of digital revolution and new demands from younger generations, work and the workplace had already been undergoing major changes when the pandemic struck. Close to two years later, some of these trends have been wildly accelerated, others have taken a new light and at least one is a total myth. We spoke to Sarah Mellouet, an economist who worked at Idea Fondation for five years, about the trends currently shaping the world of work.

Robots, begone! How automatisation has matured

“There was somebody saying, like ten years ago, that half of the workforce was going to be replaced by robots,” says Mellouet. “There was a lot of dark magic around it. But in the end, AI hasn’t replaced the workforce drastically. It’s probably gone smoother than we thought.”

She’s right: it wasn’t long ago that fears over entire (white-collar/non-manual) professions being lost to robots were widespread and emotionally pitched. It isn’t quite that every job was saved, or that AI stopped making inroads on workplaces--rather, that the relevance of AI has changed in tune with a broader conceptual modulation from job to task.

“It’s not jobs that have been replaced,” Mellouet points out. “Well, maybe some. But it’s more tasks. Technologies have brought us the possibilities to automatise some painful tasks that don’t have a lot of added value.”

The economist is quick to make another observation on the subject, however: that without the notions of upskilling and reskilling, automatisation might still present a scary prospect. “Our competencies are becoming obsolete, maybe even faster than previously,” she says. So much so that training itself becomes paramount: “There is definitely a trend in upskilling. Maybe it’s more than a trend--it’s a challenge.”

Changing skills, bumpy ride

Indeed, the challenge comes in the gaps created by the takeover of certain duties by machines. “When tasks become automatised,” Mellouet says, “we need to find new tasks for ourselves as employees or entrepreneurs to fulfil.” She adds that this is especially relevant for low-skilled workers, a larger portion of whose jobs might be at risk.

Ultimately, it boils down to the future of skills. And while it’s easy, in general terms, to advocate the teaching of coding and other digital-age abilities to adults, in practice this approach will leave many people behind.

“You can’t train everybody to become a coder,” Mellouet says. “I mean, at some point there will be a skills mismatch.” Indeed, if Amazon advertises a coding job and some unemployed economist or journalist--an example that came up during our interview--wants it, six months’ training is hardly likely to result in a new hire. “That would be quite idealistic,” she says. “Not everybody can be matched the way we would like.”

This, it sounds like, is a major drawback of swift evolutions in working methods. The fear of job-snatching robots has receded, only to be replaced by a more insidiously opaque trend whereby certain skills are becoming obsolete and the ones taking their place don’t necessarily suit the general public. And even if these new skills were straightforward, which they hardly are, not everybody would be happy to make a living out of them. As the economist wisely points out: “It’s also a matter of choice. Of individual choice.”

Regardless of an individual’s skills and choices, however, firms need to cope with new personnel demands and are looking beyond the borders to do so. It’s a kind of talent war. “There’s a globalised market of talents,” says Mellouet. “This is already a reality. For coders, for example, there’s an international talent market where Luxembourg also has to fight.”

The trend that wasn’t

Another buzzword that has absorbed business communities has been “Uberisation”, or the society-wide transition to a gig economy. In this vision of the future, fewer people are working as employees on permanent contracts because they opt instead to be freelancers or independents, à la Uber’s self-employed driver-as-user model. Working this way offers flexibility, opportunity and freedom.

“Uberisation is an urban myth,” says Mellouet flatly. “It’s not happening in Luxembourg.” She doesn’t mean it anecdotally: numbers from the European Commission’s AMECO database show that the rate of self-employed people in Luxembourg has indeed stayed roughly the same between 2000 (7%) and 2020 (6%).

“CDDs [temporary contracts] are more of a trend than going independent is,” says the economist. “We’re still in the salaried era.”

How we (feel about) work

What isn’t a myth, however, is how work is valued in a personal context. Younger generations care about money, but also--and potentially more so--about what the work actually is. “We want meaning, we want to make a difference,” says Mellouet. This is being taken seriously inside firms, she asserts, particularly when it comes to attracting new employees.

In that context, corporate social responsibility is playing an increasing role in workplace attractiveness, as is the potential for a good work/life balance. “Something being discussed in other countries is the four-day workweek,” Mellouet adds.

The importance of these topics has furthermore been accelerated by the pandemic, since many of us have now tasted an unprecedented level of flexibility. People realised last year that working remotely was both possible and productive--people even worked harder during lockdown, says the economist--but we have also changed our relationship with it. This amounts to a major psychological shift: “Before the pandemic, teleworkers felt a bit guilty, like their employer would feel that they’re not working hard enough,” says Mellouet. But now, having done it successfully, the guilt has eased up.

The economist goes a step further on this subject with the observation that, thanks to the pandemic, working remotely has become far more egalitarian in popular thought. “Before the pandemic, some 18% of the workforce had experience teleworking, and this number rose to 60%,” she explains. “So we discovered that some jobs could be done (fully or partially) by teleworking. In that sense, we also shifted our attitude about it, because, let’s be honest, it had been more of an executive privilege before.” Employees lower on the “hierarchy” have now proved that they can work remotely too; thus, she reckons, levels of trust have risen.

“This will remain: teleworking is no longer a favour or a perk… it can be routinised whatever your status in the firm.”

“No going back!”

On the theme of flexibility, it sounds like rights (or norms) won will not be relinquished. Mellouet makes the anecdotal comment, widespread at the moment, that there’s a “no going back!” tendency in people’s minds. In other words, that they would “never, ever come back to the office for five days a week”.

A different but complementary idea to that, albeit one for further into the future, is a reconfiguration of the workday such that the commute itself is included: “It’s something I thought about while working at the Idea Fondation,” says Mellouet, “that we’ll one day have public transport that is so well-equipped with Wi-Fi, and which is so comfortable, that you can already spend one hour working while commuting.”

In the context of ideas like these, it sounds like we are nearing a tipping point: technologies have been making the geographical location of a workplace less and less important for years, but the culture of centralisation had no particular reason to falter--until 2020 and the pandemic. The concept of remote working was forcefully democratised during lockdown (in firms where it was possible at all), and we emerged with the realisation that nothing except tradition was keeping us in one workplace five days a week.

None of this necessarily augurs the end of workplaces, but maybe these developments will continue to tear open ideas for how we, as individuals, can use technology to live better.

This article was originally published in Delano’s working in Luxembourg supplement.