Tunde Leye: The future of work

by Tunde Leye

My friend Cheta Nwanze gave a talk for the CBN a few weeks ago on The Gig Economy and while discussing it with him yesterday, it triggered a couple of thoughts I thought to share.

One of the peculiarities of being human is that whilst big changes might be happening when we take the long view, there are very few generations that actually experience these changes in their lifetimes. So for a long time, everyone moved around riding horses and camels. But sometime around 150years ago, the automobile came into the scene. It was only one generation that really experienced a period when the horse was still a major means of transportation concurrently with the rise of the automobile and were actually part of this change. For most of us alive today, we have lived all our lives moving around with cars and motorcycles, so we really cannot imagine a world without them. It is easy to fall into believing that this is the only way the world should be.

Another example is our counting. Today, our number system is in Base 10 and it is easy to assume that this is the most natural way to count. But there have been cultures in the past where they counted in Base 6 (the Sumerians) and it was perfectly normal for them as well.

The thing though was that in the past, the pace of change was usually over a couple of hundred and sometimes thousands of years. But today, the pace of the change is very different, much faster and unlike generations in the past that would probably experience maybe one major change in their lives (most experienced none), generations today have experienced multiple seismic changes in their lives.

My father is 78 this year, born in the year WW2 started. In his lifetime, he has gone through radio becoming mainstream, then television, then telegram, then fax, then telephones when he called an operator, then mobile phones, then smartphones with internet connection and if he’s around for one more decade, one wonders what bigger change in how we communicate and share information. And this is in just one area of his life.

So it’s easy to assume that because it’s all we know and how work is organized today, this regimented 8–5, 5 Day workweek is how work has always been organized. But this is not true, and perhaps reflecting on how this has changed over time will encourage those who employ people to rethink how they will organize work and more or less accept what is already happening. The only difference is the pace of the ongoing change. As with all things in this era, the pace is much faster than with the previous eras, meaning that we have to respond and adapt our practices faster.

Way back in our hunter gathering past, we worked very differently. Researchers who have spent time with existing hunter gathering societies record that they spend between 3 and 5 hours working daily after which they spend most of the day in leisure.

After the Agricultural Revolution, how we worked changed. Most people were peasant farmers who woke up before the sun and worked until the sun went down on farmland or tended to animals close to where they lived. They worked everyday, except for the holy days (Sabbath, Sunday, Friday and so on, depending on whether you were Jewish, Christian or Muslim). We worked this way essentially for thousands of years, except for the aristocratic few who specialized. Even most of the craftsmen had workshops in their houses and they worked all day. People were essentially tied to the land they worked or the animals they reared and wealth was determined by how much of these that you owned.

After the industrial revolution, a few things were introduced that again changed how we worked. First, work was mechanized and centralized in factories so people had to leave home and congregate at factories daily to work. A result was that the work many people did was not to produce their own primary needs, and the work became disconnected from what you directly put into your mouth. Second was that time was standardized and timepieces became so cheap everyone could own one (mainly so the railroads could schedule their journeys) and hence rather than depend on a cock crowing or the sun to tell when to start or stop work. Factory owners took advantage of this to ensure that people arrived at work when they were needed so tasks that depended on them were not delayed. Over time, this morphed into the system we are familiar with today, regimented by the clock with weekends (with variations to accommodate religious beliefs).

But again, new innovation has caught up with how we work. The same way mechanization and factories centralized work, information technology is decentralizing it. The regimentation and sequence required in factory type division of labor settings that led to everyone resuming and leaving at the same time are no longer required. People can simply complete their tasks and share using powerful but relatively cheap tools. The type of tasks are also different and automation takes care of many of the mechanical tools.

Of course, different parts of the world arrive at the place when they need to change how they work at different times. Europe had done the 8–5 for a long time before this became the norm in Africa. Globalization makes the transmission time of these changes much smaller today however. The expectations of the workforce are also changing, and the opportunity to live in Nigeria and work for a company which has adapted to ways of working outside of the 8–5 paradigm using these powerful sharing tools now exists.

Nigerian employers will need to begin to reconsider the current fixation with having people come to offices everyday for fixed times to work daily very soon. The benefits include reduced cost of premises and transportation, congruence with the growing expectations of the workforce, being able to tap into a more global pool (hec, someone can live in Texas and work for your Nigerian company) and more goal focused work. The alternative is to lose the most savvy of the already inadequate number of skilled workforce to more forward thinking employers in other climes, even if they physically live in Nigeria. We are entering into a period where workforce will no longer be exclusive to employers but will deliver on specific tasks/responsibilities for multiple employers and where labor will be organized in a distributed manner.

We really have no choice but to move with the times.


Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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