It’s work but not as we know it

As the Millennium Dome celebrates a new world of work, Dominique Hammond
argues it is HR people who will be key to making it reality

It is a sinister world visitors step into when they enter the work zone at
the Millennium Dome. A wall of time cards sliced in half by clocking-in
machines bears down. Rows of cages contain hapless toy hamsters glued to their
wheels. A bank of television screens shows a scene from a Monty Python short in
which ageing grey men slowly decay into their desks. All the while a clock
deafeningly ticks away the seconds adding up to the 100,000 hours we are
informed we all work during our lifetimes.

This is the "old world of work" according to the organiser, New
Millennium Experience, and it is a relief to leave it behind. Moving on we step
into the brave new world of the modern workplace characterised by light and
music, cages that are empty because the hamsters have been freed, and a wall
covered with 6,000 yellow Post-it notes. These were donated by sponsor
Manpower’s staff who were asked to send in real notes pulled from their desks.
They detail the daily and familiar minutiae of office life – Kate, call Eddie;
Alan, can you sort out training for Julie; two teas, no coffees, lots of
biscuits.

The next room introduces us to the kind of working lives we can now expect.
Giant models of electronic organisers each depict a different way of working:
through an agency, from home, as a freelance, as a job-sharer. Hundreds of
different uniforms on moving rails represent the death of the job for life and
the possibility of a varied career.

Two doors – one green, marked "Skills to declare" and one red,
marked "No skills" – lead onwards, but only the green door opens to
inform us that we all have skills whether we know it or not. In the final room,
which looks much like a bingo hall or amusement arcade, there are games for
visitors to test their ability in six key skills areas: numeracy, hand-to-eye
coordination, teamwork, communication; problem-solving and IT.

This is a world of possibility. Having managed to manoeuvre a ball bearing
into a hole by tilting a board in different directions I am informed by Emily,
recruited by Manpower and employed by New Millennium Experience as one of the
Dome’s 1,500 "hosts", that I have the requisite skill to be a brain
surgeon – steady hands. This could also land me a job as a fork-lift truck
driver.

Emily enjoys working at the Dome. As a mother who helped run a community
centre she has excellent people skills which she believes are put to good use
in this job. Other staff I spoke to seemed to be equally happy. Wendy Butterfield
from Leytonstone said working at the Dome has given her the leg-up back into
work that she needed after two years of full-time motherhood.

Dome hosts earn £6 an hour and work a regular five-day week of 44 hours.
Their contracts last until the end of the year. They may enjoy their jobs but
what they don’t have is the flexibility, the variety and the opportunities that
the people who employ them are celebrating in the work zone. They are not
alone. Several visitors I spoke to were sceptical about the kind of work life
being portrayed.

"It’s a nice idea but it doesn’t happen," said Andy Baker, a
computer analyst and programmer from Kent. "This is exposing a lot of
people to the kind of work that they might dream of but are never going to be
able to do." Mike, who develops computer-based learning at a university,
said they were "futuristic ideas".

HR professionals know that work patterns which offer flexibility, the
opportunity to balance work and home lives and the chance to develop skills and
careers are a reality. In the year of the Dome and the first year of the 21st
century its up to people in HR to ensure that the rest of us spend our 100,000
hours in the most productive way possible – for ourselves and the companies we
work for.

• Dominique Hammond is senior reporter for Personnel Today

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