I’ve been reflecting lately on why global work engagement figures are consistently so low. While there’s some variance in the data produced by the leading organisations who track workforce engagement data, I think it’s fair to say that engagement figures globally are pretty dire, indicating that only circa 30% of the global workforce is consistently engaged. I’m not sure what precisely that says for the remaining 70%.
In his recent book, Lost Connections, the journalist Johann Hari argues that workplace disengagement is a contributing factor to stress, anxiety and depression. I don’t disagree, but I feel compelled to unpack this in more detail.
I started my career in 1993, and so have a 25-year window of experience upon which to reflect. I cut a career in recruitment, working in the early days of the mobile telecoms industry to source and supply the engineering teams who designed, built and launched mobile phone networks internationally. When I look back, they were crazy times; the race was on for each country to deregulate and build multiple networks to add choice for consumers who had hitherto been restricted to using the state-run mobile network operator.
Back then, the focus was far more about delivering new technology and getting to the point of commercial service and monetisation. While of course there was method and process in the way these networks were built, only once the networks were launched was any real methodological rigour applied. Only then were processes and procedures created to ensure standardisation, efficiency, measure and control throughout the business.
I may be missing a trick (and I remain open to the idea that this could well be the case), but in my opinion, since the early 2000s, the world of work has gone entirely process and procedure-mad. Anything that can have a process written for it, does have a process written for it, often by someone who’s entirely disconnected from the reality of how that particular function actually works. I believe this in part explains some of the frustration so many of us feel when trying to deal with any kind of call centre. The computer says no and the consumer just has to deal with it. I’ve had the most exasperating and inane experiences with call centre agents who seem unable to deviate from their script.
This drive to standardise and codify every aspect of business is surely an effort to squeeze every last penny of value from the ‘production line’. Except we’re no longer working in an industrial age, no longer running a production line of ‘stuff’. The UK is now largely a service economy, and hey, guess what? This drive to codify has left consumers more than a little queasy. We’re sick to death of being treated like an extension of a process, and like our buying choices aren’t valued.
But what does it feel like to work in an environment where your role feels increasingly scripted, where any autonomy you may have had to deliver good work diminishes and where increasingly you feel like just another cog in a wheel?
In his 2009 best-selling book Drive, Daniel Pink pinpointed three key human motivators as being autonomy, mastery and purpose. ‘Autonomy’ is the means by which we’re empowered to make decisions over the way in which we deliver our work. ‘Mastery’ is our innate desire to get better at the stuff that we do, and ‘purpose’ is our wish to do something meaningful with our lives.
Workplace standardisation is the death knell for autonomy – we’re bound to deliver against documented guidelines, KPIs and SLAs that someone else mandated, heaven knows when (my observation is that processes and procedures don’t get updated awfully often – if it’s not broken, let’s not waste time trying to improve it, right?). If we have to perform work functions to the same SLAs each day, what scope is there for improvement? And finally, I’m not sure how many workers actually know how their work feeds into the bigger picture. Certainly, over the course of my career, I’ve seen few job descriptions articulate purpose in the context of the wider organisational vision.
Over-zealous process and procedure is one of the key reasons I fell out of love with head-hunting. Don’t get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the requirement for standardisation more than most, but in a very short space of time the recruitment profession became far less about quality candidate-screening and far more about a process where keeping costs as low as possible far outweighed any value that a decent head-hunter might bring. Recruitment processes became increasingly laborious, as in-house recruiters fought to ‘add value’, heaping on layers of complexity to confound even the most laid-back hiring manager or candidate. The cost of recruitment was easy to measure, but the cost of poor retention, not so much.
This codification of work seems to have evolved for the worse, though, as the financial ‘powers that be’ strive to identify ever decreasing amounts of cost efficiency.
Over the last five years, we’ve seen the rise of the zero hours contract; last month, the RSA published a report which evaluated the extent to which British workers are experiencing good work. Their findings are stark, pointing to increased precarity and job insecurity. This week the media reported on a DPD worker who died, tragically, after missing medical appointments because he was fearful of being penalised.
Zero hours contracts are completely unethical. They allow businesses to manipulate and control workers, offering little or no financial or job security, whilst penalising these same workers if they dare to be unavailable for work offered at short notice. They allow no scope for an individual to plan his or her work or budget for basic needs such as food or rent. Worse still, zero hours contracts distort UK employment figures, such that we’re consistently being told that unemployment is down, whereas in truth, more and more people are living on the breadline. Whilst businesses continue to inflate their profits, in-work poverty is rising, damaging the mental and physical health of millions. Whereas once zero hours contracts were the exception, increasingly they seem to be the rule.
This is the commoditisation of work and of humans. Whether we like it or not, we ARE increasingly cogs in the wheel, challenged to run ever faster for diminishing job security and opportunity to learn and grow.
This is why I think people are so disengaged en masse. Pitched against Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, not only is work failing to deliver self-actualisation or esteem, more damagingly, it’s increasingly failing to deliver psychological safety. If we continue on the path of neoliberalism, work becomes increasingly about driving profit, measuring success in financial terms only and completely overlooking business impact on society or the environment. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and societies and communities start to self-destruct under the weight of poverty.
While this all seems pretty pessimistic, I do however believe there is cause for hope. Now more than ever, we’re told that younger work cohorts are choosing purposeful work over big salaries, preferring to tackle global issues and make some change in the world. I think this trend is already potentially amplifying out to other generations, who are realising the workplace success does not drive happiness, and that intrinsic motivators are more important than the brand of car parked in the driveway.
I also believe that while technology innovators may advocate for an increasingly workless future, where computers, algorithms and robots fulfil hitherto human roles, ultimately customers will discern what kind of customer experience they want. And whilst I believe that some consumers will be happy with an A.I. interface, I also believe that others will want a human interaction, one which is connective and which fulfils our innate need to belong as social beings.
Last night I went to see Johann Hari talk about depression – his new book Lost Connections argues the case that depression isn’t necessarily simply caused by neurochemical imbalances and that as such, anti-depressants can’t logically be the only solution for someone who is suffering from depression.
It was a very insightful talk – Hari is a great speaker, combining stories of the things he learned and experienced while researching the book, with great humour, warmth, empathy and candour.
Afterwards he did a meet and greet and book-signing. I was waiting in the queue and there was an older man in front of me. He had a copy of the book in his hands and he turned and asked me what I thought of the talk.
I told him my thoughts and said how important and timely it was to be having this conversation, explaining briefly Working the Future’s specialist interest and focus on the future of work and the likely impact on humans. I then asked him about his work and he told me, as his eyes shifted to the floor, that he didn’t do anything. He told me he’d lost his job two years ago and hadn’t been able to find another one. He opened the book, turned to the table of contents and pointed to a specific chapter: Disconnection from a Hopeful or Secure Future. He seemed, in retrospect, a bit exhausted and a bit broken.
In the moment, I didn’t have time to process my thoughts or feelings about this. But we did, he and I, have a short conversation about hope.
We are very aware, Patrick and I, that lots of people and organisations are pushing the Future of Work as this year’s big topic. Perhaps it will become this year’s GDPR or AI. Here’s the thing though. Many of those organisations are using the topic as a means by which to promote their agenda, which is often not much more than a way of showing how their technology, product or service will inevitably disrupt the workplace and change the way that people connect with work forever.
We KNOW these changes are coming, but what we also know is how important it is to give people hope. It is simply too brutal to talk about disruptive change and then walk away, leaving people with no degree of certainty over the future of their work and financial security. We have to give people hope.
When we talk about the future of work, our overarching goal is to help people imagine what the future might look like. When, as humans, we are able to envision a future, it immediately gives us comfort and a sense of direction, and perhaps even purpose. When we are unable to visualise what the future might look like, a sense of hopelessness prevails.
A year ago, a very dear friend of mine gave me a book – Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. At the time I thought it an interesting choice; Annabel clearly sees me as being somewhat radical and activist (I don’t agree, but it’s interesting how others see you). Anyway, one of the opening sentences of Solnit's book sticks with me throughout the work we do now:
“Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.”
As a topic, the future of work is this year’s horror story – the robots are coming and that’s that. It’s not though. Work WILL change and it will be very different to what we have experienced previously, but if we stay true to our values, we WILL find a way for work to gather more meaning and purpose. It will of course be more fragmented and uncertain but for those of us whose nature is to want to help, and for those of us who need help, it also provides an opportunity to rediscover the things that are most important to us - human connections and social interactions, and being there for one another.
Hari’s book has inevitably drawn criticism – there are those who challenge his thinking that anti-depressants aren’t the solution. The irony for me is the idea that this “one size fits all” solution is in fact part of the problem. The very people who experience anxiety and depression in part feel anxious because they’re sick of being labelled and their stories being ignored. His ideas for me however, have great resonance; the global challenges that we face are seismic, complex and converging. Environmentally, politically, economically, societally – never have we been more broken. As an optimist however, I have to believe that we can overcome these challenges, by coming together and using collective (and inclusive) intelligence, which I suspect will go some way in healing us along the way.
This morning I can’t stop thinking about the man in the queue. I wish I’d been able to say more to him. I wish we’d connected for longer. I hope though, above all else, that he got some hope from Hari’s talk, and from being able to connect with someone, however briefly in that queue.
Hari, J (2018). Lost Connections - Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions. London: Bloomsbury
Solnit, R (2005). Hope in the Dark - Untold Histories - Wild Possibilities. Edinburgh: Canongate
Towards the end of last year, we were commissioned to write a white paper on workplace diversity for a client. We were excited. We are strong advocates of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and our feeling was that there would be lots to say about how workplace diversity positively impacts on the commercial bottom line.
While there is indeed a lot of data that points towards the positive impact that workplace diversity can have on the bottom line, it was, we felt, disappointing to find that far too few organisations are going beyond token-gesture lip-service to test, measure and publicly report on the impact of diversity programmes.
Furthermore, while we had geared our research towards a more comprehensive and rounded coverage, our client asked us to focus specifically on gender and cultural diversity data points as the anticipated audience of the white paper was still quite 'traditionalist' in its outlook.
It got us thinking. For us, diversity transcends its various delineations. We are constantly being told that the future of work is complex and ambiguous and that critical thinking and creativity will play pivotal roles in future commercial success. We are also strong advocates of the belief that the traditional relationship between buyer and seller is on the cusp of irrevocable transformation (take a look at Dan Pink’s book To Sell is Human for more on this), such that failure to keep the customer at the heart of all innovation will ultimately result in commercial decline.
Surely then, if the commercial ambition of any organisation is to maximise revenues, we are less preoccupied by WHO we sell to than HOW MUCH we can sell of any given product or service? If we are trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, then surely it makes sense to have, internally, as many perspectives as possible, in order that we can develop products and services that appeal to this diverse target customer group?
Equally, we know that technology innovation is going to revolutionise the commercial landscape and that this will pose multiple complex challenges within the business community. Having a workforce that is able to demonstrate plurality of perspectives will be a key requisite in order for holistic and systemic problem-solving to successfully take place.
Plurality of perspectives comes from diversity of thought. Diversity of thought comes from being able to apply multiple lenses to any given situation and this can only come from diverse life experiences. In my personal life, when faced with a challenge, I can only apply my own unique life filter and this is why I will often share my dilemma with friends in order to get multiple perspectives. In these instances, I’m hoping for something more than simple validation that what I’m thinking is correct; I’m hoping to be able to gain insights that will shed a different light on my predicament. Very late last year, Wharton professor of Management and Psychology, Adam Grant, tweeted that we should all have challenge networks in addition to support networks. The purpose of a challenge network is to give us tough feedback and encourage us to improve. I love this idea. I also think that if we were to embrace this idea in our workplaces our corporate ability to think critically and problem solve would be greatly enhanced. For a challenge network to be effective however, plurality or diversity of perspectives is critical; without it we face the wasteland of an echo-chamber.
So, for us, diversity and inclusion in the workplace transcends a simple tick-box exercise of being seen to do “the right thing”. Of course, I suspect that until more organisations are willing to take the time to test, measure, and transparently report on the efficacy of their workplace diversity programmes, the D&I agenda will continue to be perceived as a “nice-to-have”, rather than an essential component of competitive advantage in the future of work.
It seems that few days go past now without some new headline about the future of work. AI will steal all our jobs. We all need to re-skill. The only work available will be part-time. It all seems pretty stark.
Whilst I do agree that all of those things will and must happen to varying degrees, I take a different, and I hope, more optimistic view.
I don’t think it’s in doubt that AI will transform the way we operate in business today. Creating efficiencies and improvements previously unthought of, of course AI will replace many human jobs. The inexorable advance of technology innovation is here to stay; in his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly says, “Technology is humanity’s accelerant.” Deep. Scary. True.
I also think it’s clear that there is a shift away from the traditional model of permanent full-time employment. This is starting to happen for a number of reasons; the most notable is that people are increasingly seeking flexibility and balance in their lives. Others (notably younger generational cohorts) are also opting to seek more variety in their work and self-employment lends itself well to this.
Another compelling argument for a move towards a 'gig economy' is that as technology eats up certain job functions, there will be less scope for a business to offer full-time employment; it simply won’t make sense to employ someone full-time when their scope of work has fragmented and they are vastly under-utilised.
A third and perhaps even more ominous reason why the future of work is looking to be fragmented and part-time is the UK state pension system. It is unsustainable in its present form; it simply isn’t capable of supporting all the people who are coming up to retirement age and the fact that we are all living longer adds to the burden. Furthermore, you don’t have to do too much digging to find suggestion that many who have invested in company pension schemes are going to be bitterly disappointed when they come up to retirement. We are in trouble.
Once the pension crisis becomes public knowledge, I suspect the government will try and push the financial burden onto the private sector, as has been attempted to various degrees of success previously. Once again however, the figures don’t stack up. Dr Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott of London Business School have undertaken various financial modelling and their work shows the cost of a sustainable pension provision, alongside increased longevity would make the financial burden entirely punitive for most businesses. It will become far more attractive for businesses to utilise self-employed consultants as they carry their own on-costs.
As all these factors come in to play, it creates a highly compelling backdrop to the idea that the future of work is all about self-employment.
This being the case, how will organisations who need to bring in the right people at the right time to deliver commercial results make sure they have access to those people? Now is the time to start building 'eco-systems' of people who share the same values and vision and who can help move businesses forward. Lynda Gratton is one of the leading experts on the Future of Work. In her 2011 book The Shift, she makes the case for eco-systems, and defines them as “gatherings of like-minded people, gathering around an idea.”
The rise of self-employment is going to massively disrupt the way that many organisations both hire and retain the right staff; there will be a certain skill to bringing the right people on board at exactly the right moment to optimise efficiency and deliver the best commercial outcomes. Managing complex impermanent relationships will also require planning – those who truly feel a sense of belonging to these eco-systems will inevitably deliver best results but fostering a feeling of inclusion and cohesion throughout a product or service life-cycle won’t come naturally to many. On the upside, building social relationships is hardwired into our DNA – the growth of Facebook et al stands testament to that – and perhaps a solid commitment to building authentic professional networks will provide the sense of belonging and community that many of us have felt is missing in recent years.
As mainstream recruitment becomes disintermediated, I say again that those in the recruitment space who are more committed to long-term relationship building than “scores on the doors” will do well; any for whom recruitment is a zero-sum game would perhaps do well to consider their next career move.
Work provides many of us with so much more than a monthly or weekly pay packet, even if we don’t necessarily see it. At its most basic, work gives us a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning and a sense of routine and structure.
Work also provides us with a sense of community – for many, it provides the mainstay of our social interactions outside of our immediate circle of family and friends. For those who are without an inner network of family and friends, work gives us an entire social network. We socialise with our colleagues, we stay in touch with some of them long after we’ve moved on professionally. Some of my closest and oldest friends are people I met in the workplace shortly after graduating.
I don’t for one moment aim to mislead by suggesting that work is in any way similar to religion, but in some (many) ways, our work does provide us with the sense of belonging and purpose that going to a place of worship might do. In faith communities, of whatever denomination, people tend to get to know each other, get to know about one another and they go on to support one another as and when it’s needed.
But openly declaring religious affiliation isn’t so popular these days; like many other institutions, the Christian church has been rocked by scandal in recent times. Elsewhere, many of the conflicts and atrocities we see occurring globally are linked to fundamentalist beliefs or religious intolerance.
I was talking this week to some associates about the social breakdown that tends to follow industrial decline. Within the UK we can look at what has happened to communities in the North East that have been decimated by the decline of the fishing industry, communities in Wales that have been rocked by the closure of coal-mines and more recently, some towns that were hitherto deemed thriving due to the glory days of the financial services sector. The 2007-2008 financial collapse has seen those communities whither and nose-dive.
Several years back there was a spell of fly-on-the-wall TV documentaries showing what life is like in those towns, where entire families are dependent on their benefits cheques; to this date, I’m not sure if the purpose of those documentaries was to inform or ‘entertain’.
Really, though? I’m not sure I can imagine what it must feel like to have no trade, no skill-set worthy of employment, and I’m pretty sure I too would take solace from the bottom of a bottle in those same circumstances.
The journalist Johann Hari explores the history of addiction in his book Chasing the Scream, and one thing that comes through loud and clear from his research is that addiction is far more likely to occur when people feel disconnected from a social group. Addiction is just one small aspect of mental illness, and mental health charities already estimate that as many as 25% of us will experience a mental health disorder in any given year, even if that disorder does go undiagnosed. We clearly have an epidemic of social disconnection going on right before our eyes.
Given the increasing craze for all things AI in the technology (and subsequently) the business sector right now, and the ongoing journalistic content about how AI and Robotics are going to steal all our jobs, why are we not having more conversation about the social impact of mass redundancy? Where is the government debate and thought leadership in this area, when it is so desperately needed?
The Universal Basic Income trials are great, but as I said before, work provides us with so much more than a pay packet. It provides us with our community, our sense of belonging, of contribution, of self-worth and of purpose, even if we may grumble about things and feel like we could be doing so much more elsewhere at any given moment.
It seems clear to me that more open dialogue is needed about the social aspect that work brings to our lives. Our workplaces are facing mass disruption and uncertainty and my overarching concern is that without active debate and conversation, job precarity will only go to fuel mental health issues, something that we need to avoid at all cost.
Hari, J (2015). Chasing the Scream – The first and Last Days of the War on Drugs. London: Bloomsbury.)
Your business idea has paid off. You’ve successfully made your first sales, proving the potential of your offering. You now need to scale. This means hiring new people to help take your business to the next level. You know the skills you need, you create a job description and you go out to market. And then…? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. You get a couple of applicants, but no-one that meets your requirement.
As a recruiter for 20+ years, I’ve watched business branding evolve and significantly impact the way we all interact with businesses. I’ve also seen a significant change in recruitment trends across the last 10 years, driven by a change in the way people make decisions about whom they want to work for.
The days of advertising job openings in hard copy are obsolete. 20 years ago, a newspaper or industry journal would tell you which jobs were available in the city of your choice. Today, job searches are almost entirely digital. The challenge here as an employer is simple. The internet is an overcrowded and busy marketplace, with so much going on that it’s almost impossible to make any kind of impact, unless your business brand is well established and recognisable.
It’s only going to get harder
Futurists tell us that the world of work is changing. Rapidly. Every week, new technology comes on-line to change the way we work, saving time and money along the way. Automation and AI are set to take over any repetitive tasks and, as a consequence, many job functions will no longer require human input. With many aspects of core commercial activity undertaken by machine, in the future, human contribution will become far more specialised and fragmented.
The financial crisis of 2008 taught many workers in developed economies that there is no such thing as job security. This has led, inevitably, to a ‘me-first’ mind-set as we no longer believe in a job for life and instead look for opportunities that will work for us, that will enhance our lives and careers in some way. Today’s workers, particularly those with sought-after skills, need a reason to even consider a job opportunity. It’s an increasingly fickle market.
Most workers want interesting work, or to work for interesting companies. Those with strong brands are able to far more easily convince workers of their potential as employers. Branding, however, can be both costly and time-consuming, so how to do smaller companies with less cash to burn compete?
Know and share your values
As political and economic landscapes become increasingly volatile, we each look for ways to reconnect with our value systems. These are our internal moral codes – our sense of right and wrong, and in times of conflict or fragility, most of us look to reinforce our values, sometimes without even knowing that we are doing so.
Introducing Corporate Narrative
A corporate narrative is the means by which a business can tell prospective workers, customers, partners and other stakeholders what its values and vision are. It tells the story of why it is what it is, and what it strives to achieve in the world. This story, when well told, acts as a really effective magnet, compelling the audience to want to find out more.
A corporate narrative is the story of where your business has come from and where it is headed. This should naturally reflect the founding stakeholder’s (and thus the business’s) values, alongside its purpose and vision. A compelling corporate narrative will both attract people to your business and will make them want to be (and remain) a part of it.
Corporate narrative that accompanies a job description can be a game-changer. A well-written narrative will outline what the business values in the world and will provide an opportunity for like-minded individuals to ally themselves to the ‘cause’. For organisations that have not had the time or budget to build an established corporate brand, a corporate narrative is a simple and effective way by which to showcase offering, purpose, values and vision.
It goes without saying that this must be backed up by truth – an inauthentic story will stand out by a mile and ultimately do more harm than good. A story well told however is an invaluable tool by which to attract workers to your business. In the future of work, it is a necessary, if not vital component of commercial success.
If you’d like to hear more about how corporate narrative can help your organisation, contact us for an informal chat today.
Business is becoming increasingly disruptive and disrupted. Technology innovation is driving huge change across the entire commercial landscape, transforming both how businesses connect with customers and how businesses operate internally to best serve those customers. Futurists predict changes so wide reaching that only the professions that require deeply ‘human’ skills will remain unaffected.
This disruption poses great challenge for business leaders everywhere. The pace of technology transformation is, simply put, testing the strategic decision-making capability of even the most skilled entrepreneur or leader. It’s already becoming hard to forecast what the world of business will look like even five years from now. We know, because research is telling us, that the average life-span of a business is falling – such are the forces of globalised competition and increasingly fickle consumer behaviours. From every angle, competitive edge is being challenged like never before.
Mass disruption is the new normal. This being the case, how can business leaders make sense of their commercial environments to know that the decisions they make are the right ones?
We already know we will all need to up-skill as computers assume the more process-oriented aspects of business. But commercial leaders face an additional requirement, with increasing urgency, to adjust their mindsets and acknowledge that it is no longer the case that successful strategic business decisions can be made without the input of others who can add alternative commercial perspectives. To think businesses can be led and managed by one or two leaders is, to our mind, little short of dangerous.
Today we’re flooded with information and overwhelmed by choice. This is never more true than in the area of technology where we’re continuously told we need to embrace change, sometimes without even understanding why. Technology is transforming every cornerstone of business, and such is the size and scope of digital transformation, how can business leaders be sure they’re making the right decisions and choices at every step?
A pragmatic approach, we believe, is for business leaders to build a professional network of trusted advisors who are all committed to optimising business outcomes. Key to this is objectivity – these advisors should be detached enough from the business to be able to impartially assess the threats, opportunities and challenges. There are several ways in which this can be achieved.
One option is to hire into the business the right amount of senior leadership support. For a smaller business, however, this may not always be cost effective, particularly when the business doesn’t need this expertise on a full-time basis.
Another option for a business leader looking for executive advice and support is to join a Peer Advisory Circle. We recently participated in a sample session of a Peer Advisory Circle, designed by coach and facilitator Sylvana Caloni. These sessions are designed to bring together a small number of entrepreneurs or business leaders to confidentially share commercial challenges and gain support, input and advice from their counterparts in other organisations. Each member is hand-picked so as to avoid any conflict of competitive interest.
Business leaders often describe leadership as a lonely journey and it is usually both refreshing and empowering to be able to share ‘war stories’, gain empathy, build trust and work out solutions to business challenges. Peer Advisory Circles allow business leaders the space to step away from their challenges and quite often, this alone acts as enough of a catalyst to gain fresh perspective. Other members of the cohort invariably have both relevant leadership experience and enough objectivity to be able to add significant value to the conversation.
At Working the Future, we believe that in order to remain competitive, businesses will increasingly need an objective 360-degree view of their commercial landscapes. This will require the ability to review situations through multiple lenses in order to weigh up the various options available and determine the optimum way forward. The day-to-day running of a business seldom allows for this, so leaders will need to, as a matter of priority, create the space for deeper thinking to happen. Signing up to a Peer Advisory Circle creates that space, cements commitment, and facilitates the development of a trusted professional network along the way.
For more information about Peer Advisory Circles, please visit sylvanacaloni.com/peer-advisory-circle/.
I read with interest last week that Google plans to give LinkedIn a run for its money by introducing a dedicated jobs search engine – Google for Jobs. Good. The changes LinkedIn has made this year to its user interface have frustrated and disengaged many of its users who have been loyal since the early days. I appreciate the fact that LinkedIn’s parent company Microsoft will be looking to optimise revenues wherever possible, but with so many of its useful features now removed, it somehow looks and feels as if LinkedIn might have peaked as a business networking tool. So perhaps it’s high time another party came along to mix things up a bit.
According to Wired, Google for Jobs has leveraged Machine Learning technology to better sort search results, and, more interestingly, better categorise the types of jobs searched for. This is precisely what job hunters need, I think – previously the Internet has thrown up, at best, tenuous responses to job search criteria. Even some of the job boards have struggled with this, in my opinion. Forbes has also written that Google for Jobs is building a ‘job family taxonomy’ – essentially, a way of aggregating similar job titles into ‘job families’, thus creating a far easier and relevant search output for the aspiring job seeker. Based on Google’s track record, I’m hopeful that they’ll nail it and I’m excited to see what the offering yields, once it launches here in the UK.
This development leads me to a wider discussion point. It’s been my observation for some time that the recruitment industry is in urgent need of an overhaul. Frankly, the last time something truly transformative happened was when RPO (Recruitment Process Outsourcing) arrived in the late 1990s. Whilst various iterations of RPO have since popped up, there has, I feel, not been much in the way of innovation.
And yet within the recruitment sector, ‘user experience’ appears increasingly negative, with both candidates and clients openly sharing stories of frustration on social media. At the candidate end, recruitment seems generically to be a highly frustrating transactional process where the biggest bugbear is a lack of feedback and even barebones simple human engagement. Stories of ineffective communication are rife – super frustrating when most will agree changing jobs is up there as one of the more stressful human experiences. Clients, on the other hand, often complain about being deluged by irrelevant CVs, the lack of effective candidate screening and the sheer frustration of being hounded relentlessly by recruiters as soon as a vacancy crops up.
Frey and Osbourne’s 2013 Future of Employment report listed jobs that are highly routine or repetitive (such as those most tightly bound by process) as those most vulnerable to automation. For my money, recruitment absolutely falls into this category, and with the rise of Machine Learning, technology will eventually be able to match candidates to their ideal roles far more accurately than many recruiters – with limited specialist knowledge – ever could. Automation has the potential to transform the recruitment sector, cutting through unnecessary layers of process and providing a much-improved service at both ends of the transaction.
This said, it’s important to recognise that the human element of recruitment will still remain a vital component. It takes innate levels of cognitive and emotional awareness to accurately match a candidate’s intangible wants and needs to the values and culture of a potential employer.
Whilst we think technology has the potential to significantly streamline the recruitment sector, those recruiters and head-hunters with good old-fashioned strong communication skills will thrive. As much as technology will cut through unnecessary layers of process to improve efficiency, ‘user experience’ and ultimately ROI, as humans we’re innately programmed to crave contact and connection, and for this reason alone, recruitment as an industry sector will need to retain many ‘human’ characteristics. Certainly, I wholeheartedly attribute the success of my recruitment years to my ability to build relationships at both client and candidate end – an ability which was, for me, underpinned by my underlying interest in ensuring the best long-term outcome for all parties involved in the transaction.
This is great news for recruiters who’ve long felt frustrated and undermined by the lack of ‘quality’ in the profession, for candidates who’ve felt marginalised by the recruitment process, as well as by clients who ultimately very simply want someone to understand what skills they’re looking for and to deliver them.
As we transition towards an age of increasing self-employment, successful recruiters will need, more than ever, to build candidate ‘ecosystems’, knowing exactly where and when relevant industry specialists are to be found. To do this, they’ll need to acquire in-depth knowledge of their niche areas, and commit to building long-term relationships based on trust, transparency and authenticity. I suspect the highly sought-after specialists in each niche area won’t accept any less than this (and why should they? With highly sought-after skills, they’ll be able to pick and choose whom they collaborate with).
Having strong EQ skills will be crucial to recruiter success. Whilst dramatic transformation is on the recruitment horizon, we believe those recruiters with the right levels of EQ will thrive. And so they should – recruitment is, after all, all about connecting humans to humans.
I’ve just finished a really great book, recommended by my friend Andy. The book is called The Hard Thing about Hard Things and is by US technology entrepreneur and now venture capitalist, Ben Horowitz. Ben worked at the heart of Silicon Valley during its boom years, but also endured the challenge of the dot.com crash. He set up one of the first SaaS / IaaS technology companies and eventually sold to EDS and HP respectively. In his book, he talks about the hardship of being a CEO when nothing is certain and when, mostly, you only ever have about 10% of the management information you actually need to critical decisions. It’s a very good read for anyone who runs a business, anyone who’s thinking about running a business, or anyone who’d like to get a clearer picture of what running a business is like.
Anyway, the point of all of this is that in his book, Ben talks a lot about the importance of treating employees and co-workers right, and how business success is contingent on the people you have around you.
I completely get this. After 20+ years of helping technology businesses hire people, I’ve seen my fair share of businesses fail because they didn’t get their people strategy right.
In the future of work, we believe the way in which business leaders engage with their people will make the difference between success and failure. Whereas in the past the customer has always been king, such are the sweeping changes that will transform the future work landscape, the worker will also increasingly become king.
The World Economic Forum has suggested that by 2030 many of us will be self-employed. This, it suggests, will come about as millennials, rising through the ranks of the workplace, seek increasing flexibility in their work. We suspect there may be other factors at play. Just as Cloud storage and Software-as-a-Service have revolutionised the way that businesses use data storage and IT services on a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) basis, we believe that increasingly, businesses looking to achieve continuous cost efficiencies will start to look to workers to provide their skills on an ‘as-a-service / PAYG’ basis.
Should this be the case, workers will naturally feel more vulnerable, disposable and insecure. A key way to mitigate this from a business perspective will be by creating and maintaining a working environment that is wholly connective – where workers, whatever their employment status, feel respected, valued and purposeful. For us at Working the Future, these things lie at the heart of engagement. Engage for Success, the UK voluntary movement promoting employee engagement, defines engagement as ‘a workplace approach resulting in the right conditions for all members of an organisation to give of their best each day, committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, with an enhanced sense of their own well-being’.
If a business focuses on employee engagement then, it surely stacks up that productivity will proliferate, and this can only be a good thing, right?
Well, there’s something else that interests us. As technology continues to revolutionise the way in which we all use products and services, it stands to reason that the future commercial landscape will be increasingly disruptive and, at times, chaotic. This being the case, it won’t be enough for one CEO, or small group of strategic leaders, to set the pace, tone and direction of business. In his book, The 4th Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab talks about a ‘digital mindset, capable of institutionalising cross-functional collaboration, flattening hierarchies, and building environments that encourage a generation of new ideas’. We heavily suspect that future commercial success will be contingent on not one small group of strategic thinkers, but on entire teams of co-workers, acting as eyes and ears for the business and offering up fresh thinking on how to potentially maintain competitive advantage.
Once again then, engagement is key. Why would disengaged workers care about commercial success? On the other hand, empowering workers to take up the mantle of corporate eyes and ears requires a deep company-wide understanding of not only of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, but also the ‘why’. This will, we believe, embed engagement in a way that builds both commitment and loyalty. The successful future workplace will be one that embraces ongoing deep learning and reinvention, such are the demands emanating from the sheer pace of technology evolution.
Building a business culture that has clearly defined values and vision, where employees are valued as much as, if not more than, the customers they serve, can only add to employee engagement. And as before, if engagement breeds enhanced productivity, it can only be the case that with the right commercial strategy in place, the profits will follow.
Horowitz, B. (2014). The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers. New York: Harper Collins
Schwab, K. (2016). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva: World Economic Forum
In March 2017, the CIPD presented its carefully researched report on the UK Gig Economy. The report provides some useful insight into what the gig economy is, how many people in the UK currently gain income from it, whether the gig economy provides a sustainable income source, and the role it’s likely to play in the future of work. It makes for a very interesting read.
Less than a week later, PWC published its own research findings, which suggested that up to 30% of all UK jobs could be “susceptible” to automation, robotics and AI over the next 15 years. That’s a daunting statistic in anyone’s book. In brief, any job function where a worker follows a defined and repetitive process is vulnerable to the possibility of eventual automation. The Guardian, reporting on the PWC research, has stated that potentially 10 million workers in the UK are at risk of being replaced by technology. Whilst these figures on their own might appear to paint a rather dystopian future, there is also an understanding that new jobs will be created, even if we don’t yet know what they’re going to be.
Despite the rather daunting scenario outlined above, one thing is very clear. In order to continue working and thriving in the future workplace, a significant amount of re-skilling will need to take place. The CIPD report makes mention of this, and indeed, in many of its cited case studies there seems an overarching acknowledgement that re-skilling is required. I foresee two challenges.
The first is that for many of the workers whose roles will be destabilised by automation, AI and robotics, a change of mindset will be required. Recent advances in neuroscience show that the brain is more than capable of learning new information, habits and ways of doing things, even into more advanced years – as the adage goes, it’s never too old to teach an old dog new tricks. Key to successful learning, however, is developing what is known as a “growth mindset”, as pioneered by US psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck (1). A growth mindset is one whereby the learner understands that learning might take time, but that with practice and dedication, new skills can be acquired. It’s the understanding that talent and intelligence can be enhanced with a positive attitude towards learning. The Growth Mindset is currently a hot topic within leadership forums and is recognised as a core attribute required for success in the future of work.
The second challenge is around the associated costs of retraining. The CIPD Gig Economy report suggests that most current gig economy workers are undertaking additional work in order to supplement existing income, and whilst they acknowledge a requirement to up-skill or re-skill, they simply don’t have the funds available to put themselves through this process. Equally, in times of increasing economic uncertainty, corporate learning and development budgets are often the first to come under pressure. And yet worker reskilling is undoubtedly going to become increasingly crucial if commercial organisations are to continuously refine their offerings, as we suspect will be one of the defining success criteria of the Fourth Industrial revolution and the digital age.
Fortunately, seemingly every week now, new, cost-effective and even free ways of learning are appearing online – empowering the self-directed learner to better themselves. All that remains is for UK businesses of all sizes to recognise and embrace that continuous learning, right across the commercial landscape, will become increasingly critical in order to maintain competitive edge.
A final thought from us here at Working the Future. Much of the strategic leadership thinking around success in the future of work suggests that open and collaborative working environments will be essential in order for business to thrive and prosper. If we can adjust our thinking to encourage shared and peer learning across our organisations, I think re-skilling has the potential to be far less complicated – and less intimidating – than we might imagine.
If you’d like to discuss the topic of learning and development in further detail, please do feel free to start a conversation!
Cat’s recruitment career has furnished her with fascinating insights into how people behave in the workplace, particularly in response to change. She has a deep interest in human behaviour, organisational psychology and helping business leaders create sustainable, ethical and values-based working environments.