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Publisher's Note
Photo by Thomas Fricke

Flexible Workplace

By John Kearsey, Vice-President (External)

The message that today’s workplace has changed dramatically from what it was a mere few years ago really hit home for me last August after I broke my two legs.

That’s right, both. In 38 different places. But that’s a subject for another column. Suffice to say that at age 50, one might be wise not to jump off seven-and-a-half-foot fences.

My injuries kept me in bed in hospital for two weeks, and then at home for another 10. When I was finally mobile I attempted a gradual return to work—first with a walker, then with a crutch—that in quick order was not so gradual. Soon I was back at work every day, ultimately with no walking aid whatsoever.

Over that time I realized that our workplaces are amazingly resilient, they are flexible, and they are technologically connected in almost any way we might want them to be.

One word kept coming back to me as I considered the impact my workplace absence might have: team. My work at the University of Manitoba involves a number of teams, and I was concerned that I was letting them down by not being fully present. I didn’t have to be. What I saw play out was that the teams were resilient enough to rise to the challenges they faced, with or without a key member. Having already built a strong foundation, our teams filled me with a sense of pride and fulfilment as they recalibrated their strengths and continued the remarkable work we do each day in the service of enabling and connecting people dedicated to learning, discovery and engagement.

The flexibility demonstrated by my colleagues left me overcome with awe. They were willing to fill in, take on new roles, and meet and conduct our work in ways and at hours that blasted the myth of the 9 to 5 office.

This is not the 1991 workplace I entered. It’s not even our workplace from a decade ago.

It’s a workplace that is in many ways virtual, so we can get our work done in the most unconventional of ways.

New technologies, of course, made that possible. I called into meetings on my cell phone. I received calls on my cell while in a hospital bed, where formerly I might have been considered out of reach. Texting and emails quickly backfilled me with relevant information. FaceTime allowed me to poke my nose (at least electronically) into Homecoming celebrations.

It was like I wasn’t away at all.

That’s the future of work. As you’ll read in this issue of UMToday The Magazine, it’s a lot of other things too. New power structures that no longer abide abuse and harassment; new people, who challenge our conceptions of what is normal, or whether “normal” even exists; and new forms of intelligence, most of them artificial, doing much of our work for us.

It might seem scary. Unfamiliar, definitely. And change will be constant, even while so much remains the same.

Because, in the end, work is work: We’re getting things done that have value beyond our immediate personal needs.

I know one thing for sure, though. The best preparation for navigating these new challenges, no matter what the field, is learning to think critically and creatively.

And that’s exactly what people will continue to be able to learn right here at the University of Manitoba.

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