Leading business schools and think-tanks predict that creativity and critical thinking will be increasingly critical and sought-after skills in the future of work. Rapidly transforming commercial landscapes require agility, innovation and consistently fresh perspectives and approaches.
Yet developing and honing these skills isn’t so easy.
In many schools, the Arts are increasingly shunned in favour of STEM (science/tech/engineering/maths) subjects. Education can be rather ‘spoon-fed’ at times – students are taught how to regurgitate data points and a precise method of essay construction designed to pass exams. So target and results-oriented have we become that there is little room left for free-flow debate, something which is absolutely vital for successful complex problem-solving.
Our lived environments no longer support or encourage critical thinking and creativity either. At home and at work we face constant disruption – beholden to the flashing lights and beeps of our smartphones and devices. In fact, recent research data from the US suggests our internet habits are entirely addictive, and are significantly eroding our capacity for deep thinking and reflection.
Developing critical thinking and creativity as skills to compliment increasing workplace automation won’t come easy to many. While both can be learned, the acquisition of either will require applied commitment and space away from distraction in order to focus.
But here’s another thing. Creative and critical thinking require time and space to allow for fresh ideas to bubble to the surface. I’ve been blogging now for 18 months and I can say with certainty that writing doesn’t happen prescriptively; it happens in ebbs and flows, and inspiration arrives at the most unexpected times. Most successful writers will support this. Writing is just one example of creativity and I’m learning through experience to sit in the discomfort of an empty page. It’s not easy.
In the workplace, however, the challenge amplifies. The modern work environment is 100% results-driven; each and every one of our workplace objectives is tightly measured for success. Business managers and leaders are adept at quantifying every single input in order to be able to measure the associated output. True fact.
So what happens, then, when the time and space that are so vital for new ideas to surface and flourish can’t be measured? How much time is needed for critical thinking? Will organisations put a time limit on it?
Transitioning to a new work landscape, where critical thinking and creativity are embraced is going to be a MASSIVE (and in some cases, insurmountable) challenge for many organisations and even more managers. In addition to changing mindset, we need to find new ways to measure progress; non-financial yardsticks that provide a framework within which ideas and experiments can flourish. Hand in hand with this comes the necessary realisation that not all ideas turn into tangible, profitable outcomes. Mistakes will and MUST be made, in order for us to learn, pivot and grow. While experimentation is easier to embrace in small and lean start-ups, businesses that are committed to quarterly reporting of earnings will undoubtedly struggle to shift mindset, both in terms of how activity is measured and how the mistakes that are critical to learning and innovation are justified.
I don’t have the answers to how these necessary transitions will play out. My best guess, however, is that stakeholders, including shareholders, will have to adapt to a new landscape of reduced profits, accepting instead that break-even is better than the inevitable commercial atrophy that WILL occur if innovation and creativity aren’t allowed to become the new normal.
We have great challenges ahead of us. We’re headed towards a perfect storm. We have to learn ourselves out of the commercial situation we’ve found ourselves in.
We predict that mindfulness and meditation at work will become regular features, as means by which to facilitate the creative thinking required to maintain competitive edge. That these practices will help reduce work-related stress and hopefully restore mental health along the way is an added bonus.
In the meantime, the sooner we can all acknowledge the new skillsets, and better still, what organisational transitions will be required in order to achieve them, the better.
Working for yourself, we’re told, will soon become the new normal. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2030, most of us will be self-employed. We support this position, for reasons that I’ve written about before. Certainly, when out and about networking, it feels like there are more independent consultants than ever before.
And this shift is only set to continue; it seems that younger cohorts are increasingly less motivated by and expectant of permanent work, preferring instead to experience multiple opportunities and sectors. Work experience becomes work experimentation. It may not fit into traditional work paradigms, but nonetheless this is the future of work.
Self-employment, however, isn’t for everyone; I’ve had many conversations in which I’ve seen people visibly recoil from the notion. As overwhelming as it might seem, I do think it’s worth sharing a couple of observations that will hopefully make the transition less alarming.
I’ve mostly worked for myself in various guises since 1999, and I think/hope I’ve learned a couple of things along the way. These are my pearls of wisdom:
1] Self-marketing and personal brand-building can be deeply uncomfortable for those of us who don’t like self-aggrandisement. It feels like showing off, but nonetheless, it’s a crucial part of life for the freelancer. Furthermore, unless you’re a secret digital marketing genius with the inside track on the complexities of web-marketing, the internet is a noisy and crowded marketplace.
My advice? It's vital in this day and age to have a website, but NEVER assume this will automatically bring you business. The best way to find business, in my experience, is by getting out there and meeting people. Re-connect with people. Tell people what you're doing and what help you need to get to where you want to go. Business networking has had its fair share of bad press over the years, and often rightly so, but my experience is that when you strike a connection with someone, you'll find that they want to help and whilst they may not hire you directly themselves, they'll spread the word about your services. And referral business is absolutely the best kind of business.
2] Great amounts of emotional agility and resilience are required in the world of self-employment. Trust me, you WILL have days where you completely doubt yourself and wonder if you will ever work again. Trust me again when I tell you those days will pass and if you can be accepting of these ebbs and flows, you’ll find opportunity, often where you least expect it. It’s a shame that business has spent much of the last 20+ years trying to codify the business development process, as for many it can now feel like some kind of dark art, but for me, I can honestly say that building authentic relationships does work. Also 99% of the time that I’ve been feeling nervous about my business pipeline, when I’ve leant into the anxiety, acknowledged and named it, within a short period of time something pops up to restore my mojo.
3] Isolation is the bedfellow of remote work and freelancing. It’s a hard truth that once you leave the world of permanent employment, you also leave behind the security of belonging to a tribe. Not only will you have the challenge of always feeling like a bit of an outsider in your new impermanent work life, but there will be days when you work from home and in-between periods where you’re waiting for your next project. These can make for lonely times.
So why not find a new tribe? Build a network of people whose company you enjoy and who also work as independent consultants. You'll meet plenty of them when you go out and network. These people will become invaluable, providing you with your virtual water-cooler banter. They'll get the freelance lifestyle and lift you up when you're feeling the pain. As long as you reciprocate of course.
4] Keep one eye on your skillset. Now you’re independent, you can no longer rely on an employer to identify your development needs. The commercial world is moving much faster now and it’s down to you to make sure that your skills are both sharp and in demand. This requires continuous (re)investment to ensure you stay relevant. Move with it.
5] When your diary is no longer being managed by the corporate machine, it’s down to you to organise your focus. In an increasingly disruptive world, maintaining focus is HARD. I’ve had to learn new ways of doing things, including new ways of scheduling work so that I can juggle the complexities of client work, business development, business admin and ‘life stuff’. In the new world of work, traditional boundaries and structures completely dissolve and being able to manage your time (AND attention) becomes a skill-set in and of itself. It’s a habit that needs to be learned and if you’re anything like me, takes constant commitment and effort.
We’re thrilled to announce the imminent launch of our first Solopreneur Masterclass. This workshop is specifically designed to help those starting out as independent consultants adapt to an entirely new way of working – view more details here.
As we approach the mid-point in our working lives, many of us take time to reflect. It can be a poignant moment, often raising the question of how to make work more enjoyable.
We already know the world of work is dramatically changing, naturally raising the question how we will work in the future.
Official data tells us we’re living longer and because pension funds are not delivering the returns we’d hoped for, we’re realising we’ll also need to work for longer. The gradual increases in statutory pension age reflect this.
Emerging scientific research also indicates that the more cognitive function we can maintain in older age, the more likely we are to protect ourselves against dementia and other cognitive decline. This undoubtedly fuels a desire to remain mentally active for longer.
As technology assumes more of the routine tasks within our workplaces, job functions will become increasingly fragmented. This fragmentation will, we believe, lead to increased part-time work and self-employment, as businesses simply won’t need the volumes of full-time staff. Younger cohorts are already showing themselves to be more open to self-employment, preferring more autonomy over their careers. We’ve written about this previously.
By midlife, however, most of us have accumulated a set of skills and experiences that can be leveraged. As we strive to create more purpose in the second half of our working lives, we recognise that our expertise is valuable.
As we explore the various options available, more and more of us are alighting upon the portfolio career as a viable career choice.
So, what is the portfolio career? Known also as ‘going plural’, the portfolio approach is about providing services, usually consultative or advisory, to a variety of businesses concurrently, rather than working for one client at a time. The primary benefit for the client is access to a niche set of expertise for less cost than a full-time alternative. For the portfolio practitioner, risk is spread; it’s highly unlikely that all client work will cease simultaneously. Portfolio professionals also talk enthusiastically of the satisfaction derived from working flexibly across a variety of clients.
One such portfolio careerist is John Shinnick, who today blends coach-mentoring-advisory work with non-executive directorships and charitable work. John left a successful career as a partner for a leading professional services firm five years ago, but felt it was too soon to stop completely. He wanted to ‘remain purposeful’ but also achieve work-life balance. Fast-forward and today John leads a deeply fulfilled work-life, supporting a number of ambitious senior executives and business owners. He blends this with a passion for photography and volunteer work for the Mines Advisory Group. John says:
“I’m nearly five years out of a long-term professional services career and now live a portfolio life. I love it. I can accept roles, I can reject roles. I can work in spaces where I feel very comfortable, I can push myself to go out into areas that are relatively new for me.”
When asked what he loves best about this lifestyle, he says, “The freedom. The freedom to say yes and no, to choose things that I am excited about doing and the ability to scale it to my time commitment – currently, I’m involved around 50% of my time.”
The portfolio career as a deliberate career choice is on the up. One thriving company that helps C-Suite executives embrace this lifestyle is the UK-headquartered Liberti Group, parent company for a number of brands that provide part-time directors across the finance, marketing, sales, HR, IT and legal sectors. In their words, they provide these professionals “to SMEs who either don’t want, don’t need or can’t afford a full-time in-house executive.” Their executives are quick to extol the benefits of the enhanced work-life balance they enjoy, the stimulation of working concurrently across several businesses, and the sense of freedom and control that this way of working affords.
While a portfolio career can be deeply satisfying, it’s not all plain-sailing, of course. Client relationships are crucial and strong interpersonal skills are key. Be prepared for an extended runway too; it takes time to build the trust that underpins a successful client portfolio, and even with the team support of an organisation like Liberti Group, it can still take some months to find clients that are a good fit.
John Shinnick says that both self-belief and self-awareness are crucial. As a portfolio executive, you are ‘Brand You’ and it’s vital to identify, and remember, the value that you bring and to market this in all business activity. This is a necessary adjustment that needs to be made in order to survive and thrive in the world of self-employment. Alternatively, you may not be comfortable working as a solopreneur, preferring a team-based approach such as that offered by the Liberti Group. Liberti Group executives favour the collaborative approach and being part of something bigger.
One final consideration. The portfolio lifestyle requires solid self-discipline. Balancing multiple client commitments is a juggle and being able to organise oneself effectively is key. This said, the myriad benefits of this approach provide huge satisfaction, and our sense is that going plural is going to become a far more commonplace way of working as the workplace continues to disrupt and fragment.
The world of work is changing and without a doubt we’re seeing more and more people transition to less secure freelance work. While many will extol the virtues of enhanced work-life balance and the sense of control that this lifestyle can bring, it’s also true that it can sometimes feel quite precarious and that in order to survive and thrive in this new world of work, persistent focus needs to be applied to building a new business pipeline.
There are a number of different ways to achieve this, but for me, by far the most successful means to develop a robust commercial pipeline has always been networking.
Before I progress, I should tell you, I’m fully aware of just how hideous the concept of networking is for many! Trust me when I say I’ve been to more than my fair share of networking events where I’ve met someone who has asked me who I am and what I do, without even attempting to disguise their disinterest as they peruse the horizon for someone more interesting or relevant to introduce themselves to. Trust me also when I say that those people are DOLTS!
I think the challenge is that, over the last 20 or so years, as the corporate world has attempted to suck every last penny of value out of the commercial transaction process, networking has been perceived increasingly as a commoditised process, where certain actions should yield certain outcomes. Business people have come to networking events with certain targets or quotas to hit, and certain expectations around finding convertible business leads. It leaves the rest of us feeling more than a bit queasy.
I think I have good news, however. I’ve recently resumed attending local and regional business networking events and, if I’m not mistaken, things appear to be changing. If more of us can assume a more sensible, pragmatic approach to networking, then I’m confident that the activity will ultimately bear more fruit for all.
So, what is this sensible pragmatic approach? Here are my top tips:
I hope that the above sheds some light on how to get the most out of your networking endeavours moving forward. Good luck out there, folks!
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.
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.