We all believe employers are having to respond to rapidly changing conditions by increasing the flexibility of their workforce. But are they? Stephen Overell examines whether the talk is pie in the sky
Those who believe that working life has changed beyond all recognition in the past 30 years do not have to search too hard for people who agree with them. Consultants, management schools and thinktanks have churned out a view of working patterns, careers and organisations being in the throes of chaotic transformation. "The only continuity is flux," the wags say.
But their opponents, offering a pragmatic message of "much like it's always been", seem to be getting stronger by the week. The Economic and Social Research Council's Future of Work programme1 surveyed HR managers recently, and found - well, that the future of work bears an uncanny resemblance to its past.
Few organisations have sought to boost performance by strengthening commitment and loyalty. Family-friendly work practices are not widespread. Most companies offer staff no more than the minimum entitlements on employment rights and leave. The amount of sub-contracting work is tiny. Trade unionism is inching ahead due to recognition legislation and employment law eats into managerial time. Open-plan offices and hot-desking are popular, but teleworking and working from home are insignificant. Managers do not have a "here today, gone tomorrow" attitude towards their staff and are not keen to make it easier to dismiss them. They believe jobs should have career ladders.
It is an unexciting picture, but it underlines how far removed much of HR's talk actually is from the real work in real organisations. This is not to say that the banquet of clever-sounding ideas we swallowed in the 1980s and 1990s - about the end of good, steady jobs and the arrival of the just-in-time, disposable, self-managed workforce - were completely wide of the mark. Yet, with hindsight, an awful lot of expensive cogitation about work that was indulged in now seems fanciful - as if too much time with a telescope trained on distant galaxies had blinded writers to the grey carpet tiles and veal-coloured filing cabinets.
Remember William Bridges and how the nature of work was changing from "a structure built out of jobs to a field of work needing to be done. Jobs are artificial units imposed on this field"?2 Or what about C