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The workplace is changing for the better, says Grant Thornton's Darren Bear

Darren Bear at Grant Thornton on Cambridge Science Park. Picture: Keith Heppell
Darren Bear at Grant Thornton on Cambridge Science Park. Picture: Keith Heppell

Has the death knell been sounded for the 9-5? And can we put our smartphones down? We ask practice manager Darren Bear

Darren Bear says there is now a maturity about the workplace. Picture: Keith Heppell
Darren Bear says there is now a maturity about the workplace. Picture: Keith Heppell

The way we are working is changing.

While the 9-5 is still a reality for many, and shift work remains typical in the service industry, a growing number of businesses are now embracing flexible or agile working, empowering their employees to decide when – and how – they complete their tasks.

With the growing influence of automation and artificial intelligence, it could be argued we’re on the cusp of another industrial revolution.

And for Darren Bear, practice manager at Grant Thornton in Cambridge, it’s exciting times.

“It’s not just about how employers allow employees to work, it’s about how employees are willing to work. There’s a push and a pull,” he says.

“Twenty-odd years ago when I started, there was a culture of set working hours. You had to be seen in those hours and you certainly wouldn’t leave without asking your superiors if it was appropriate. That philosophy is long gone.

“What’s changed is that there’s a maturity about the workplace. It’s recognised that we need people to work smart, not hard. You get the best discretionary effort when they are happy and great culture is the real answer to success, whether that’s profit with a purpose or growth of any other agenda.

“What we’re now seeing is there’s far more flexibility in working hours. The traditional 9-5 is less relevant. There’s more flexibility in when you pick things up and leave them.

“The challenge is that some sectors are more traditional and it can be hard to translate in certain areas. If you’re a manufacturing business operating a machine, it can be hard to work outside of a shift.

Machine learning and AI are changing the workplace
Machine learning and AI are changing the workplace

“But certainly in professional services and anything people-orientated, there is a real swing driven by the work-life balance and flexible working.”

While this employee-centric approach will be welcomed by staff, it poses challenges for managers.

How do we monitor remote workers for example?

“It creates a huge challenge because you can’t always judge how hard someone is working when you can’t see them. But you have to work with a great degree of trust.

“Grant Thornton has the best part of 6,000 people and most of them spend the week out at clients. You have to work off behaviours and rely less on KPIs.

“It comes back to discretionary effort: If people feel trusted, they are more likely to put extra effort in and be more productive when they are working.

“If it suits someone to come in later because they want to go to the gym, or they’ve got the school run, that’s fine because when they are here, they are focused on their work and there is a level of loyalty.

“We have to adapt. Millennials are unwilling to work in the way I was 20 years ago.”

While technology may have enabled greater flexibility, it’s also blurred the lines of work and home life – and there’s an inherent danger.

Darren Bear says workplaces are changing - for the better. Picture: Keith Heppell
Darren Bear says workplaces are changing - for the better. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Technology is a great thing – but also has a lot to answer for,” says Darren. “Smartphones make it difficult for people to switch off. If people aren’t careful, they can work 24-7.

“You can be at home with your family, but you’re looking at your emails. That doesn’t work for anyone in my opinion – and that’s where working careers can be too short, because you risk burn-out.

“There are very few employers who want their employees to work that hard because it’s about working effectively.”

How, though, does Darren fare at switching off?

“It’s important when you have a leadership role and are talking about work-life balance to be really honest,” he says.

“I always say that culturally we aspire to this. Do I always achieve it? Definitely not. There’s been many a holiday where I’ve worked too many hours. There have been many an evening or a weekend when I hadn’t expected to but I’ve worked.

“The commitment I’ve made is about being ‘in the room’.

“What I’m much better at now is putting the phone away when I’m at home. It doesn’t mean I won’t look at it. But for a period of time, I won’t. It could be half an hour. It could be two hours.

“That way, whatever you’re doing, you’re being authentic.

Darren Bear at Grant Thornton says there is more flexibiity in the workplace now. Picture: Keith Heppell
Darren Bear at Grant Thornton says there is more flexibiity in the workplace now. Picture: Keith Heppell

“So am I the full role model? Not yet! It’s work in progress.”

Part of the challenge here is to break the expectation we have of an ‘always-on’ culture, where people respond to emails at any time of night or day.

“That’s a certain culture that we need to break,” Darren suggests. “It becomes self-fulfilling. And that’s where people burn out. We need to be far more honest. As long as we respond to people’s needs in a reasonable time, that’s fine.

“I have a view that if I’ve responded to anything urgent in 24 hours and anything else within 72 hours, I’ve done OK. But it’s not easy.”

In modernising its working practices, Grant Thornton has introduced three key policies.

“One is dress for your diary – so today I’m wearing jeans, a shirt and a sweater,” says Darren.

“We have full flexible working – all of our people have the right to ask us to work differently and we actively encourage people to say if they’ve got a dip in the diary to do something different – go home, play squash, whatever it is. But equally, when they are needed, we expect that accountability and effort. It’s about give and take.

“The third thing is shared enterprise. If you can come up with ideas that increase our profitability and get behind the culture, and we produce more profit with a purpose, you can share in that. It sits outside regular bonuses and pay rises – they are not going away. But there’s a chance to take an extra slice for shared enterprise, which unlocks discretionary effort.”

Darren envisages that Grant Thornton will become increasingly international as flexible working makes timezones less of a consideration.

And the nature of offices is likely to change too.

“We could have 200 people but an office that seats 60 and a truly flexible environment where people are working in many different locations,” he predicts.

While we’ve seen notable change already in the way we work, there’s a greater transformation coming.

Two decades ago, there were fewer than 7,000 industrial robots worldwide. Today there are about 1.8 million – and by 2019 that figure is expected to be 2.6 million.

From chatting to Alexa or Siri to being greeted by a digital screen instead of a receptionist, the rise of the machines is all around us.

Take agriculture: Drones are being used to monitor farmland, robots can pick the fruit and big data techniques can help agronomists make informed decisions. Self-driving tractors – not to mention cars – are on the horizon.

In the US, Amazon has opened its first artificial intelligence (AI) supermarket, with any mistakes or losses mitigated by the need not to have people employed there.

It raises the prospect of food going from farm to fork with minimal human intervention – and other sectors can expect similar disruption.

Where does this leave all the (human) workers?

For Darren, it’s not something we should all fear.

“Automation and AI have been around for many years but where we are getting to now is machine learning. I think we’ll see a huge amount of change. There will be far less need for shop assistants in local supermarkets.

“For professional services like Grant Thornton, we can use machine learning on data and give you advice. We will be able to take out huge amounts of labour. That would be true of law, accountancy and many other sectors. What do you do with all the displaced labour? In our sector, I think we’ll be surprised how little displacement it will cause because at the moment it’s really hard to recruit people.

“If we get machine learning AI right, we can utilise our people to do the really interesting stuff – taking the data, interpreting it and giving really good value, unlocking further growth for companies, as opposed to churning data. It will allow us to use people for different and more interesting things.

“Where it can get really disruptive is when it’s hard to envisage where that work goes. So if you are a barista or you work in a retail outlet, or you’re a taxi driver, where will that displaced labour go?”

As we head towards Brexit, however, there could well be a shortage of unskilled labour – and here necessity can be a driver of innovation,

“That’s where automation can solve the problem,” says Darren. “A business I was talking to automated two extra lines because they can’t see an outcome over the supply of labour, so they are automating aggressively ahead of the curve.”

These changes pose questions for educators too, who must prepare our future workforce for more skilled roles. Darren suggests apprenticeships can play a key role.

“If you look at a nine-year-old now, the job they’ll be doing doesn’t exist at the moment, so how do you make education relevant?” he adds.

“The education system needs to be far braver in producing young people who are behaviourally and academically ready for the workplace. It’s about being adaptable, being resilient and having an inquiring mind,” says Darren.

Cambridge, however, is ahead of the game in many respects, he suggests.

“We can always do more but we have good organisations like Form the Future looking to bridge business and education. Our own Vibrant Economy strategy is about immersing yourself into the surroundings where you work.

“Cambridge is the most vibrant city in the UK. It’s the fastest growing in the UK. It’s very dynamic. It has a huge wealth of industry from start-ups to AstraZeneca.

“Cambridge is in a great place but we mustn’t rest on our laurels. We need to show the rest of the UK what can be achieved.”

The future of work starts here.

Published as part of the Cambridge Independent’s series of features in association with Grant Thornton’s Vibrant Economy strategy.

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