In 1996, I was sent to London to attend a two-day recruitment training course. I can’t tell you a thing about what I learned, but I can tell you I was in London the night that England was knocked out of the semi-finals of Euro ‘96.
Back then, to be sent on training of any kind, certainly in my industry, was a novelty, and I remember feeling ahead of the game in so many ways. If only I could remember what that course was about.
Learning and Development (L&D) has become big business since then. A report published in 2017 estimated that there are over 4,000 training providers in the UK alone, and so the size of the professional L&D sector isn’t to be under-estimated. With the arrival of (almost) ubiquitous high-speed broadband, digital or e-learning has exploded, making it far easier for organisations to provide training to employees.
A key challenge for organisational L&D however is the way in which it is currently approached and delivered. With so many changes already impacting our workplaces, and so many more on the horizon, the requirement for continuous workplace L&D is only set to amplify, and for us, we sense an imperative need to shift L&D from strategy to culture.
What do I mean by this? Up until now, workplace L&D has largely been business-led. Where learning needs are identified (and it should be noted that this is far from the norm; at the CIPD Show 2018, the CIPD’s Andy Lancaster referenced survey results reporting that 66% of employees felt they’d gone two of more years without any training), it is usually the business that sources a suitable training product to try and fill the skills gap.
The future of work, however, will be full of complex challenges that will fundamentally alter the way we work and what most of us deliver to the workplace. As technology becomes ubiquitous and embedded into both our consumer and work lives, we will increasingly recognise the value that digital brings to the work that we do, and how it impacts our customers.
Moving at breakneck speed, the applications used to deliver the best commercial results will be subject to continuous evolution and upgrade. As Kevin Kelly so succinctly wrote in his 2016 book, The Inevitable:
“Endless Newbie is the new default for everyone, no matter your age or your experience.”
This has significant impact on workplace L&D. As no business exists without customers, customer experience becomes mission-critical, with a core focus on finding innovative ways to build loyalty and commitment. Innovation requires baked-in continuous improvement, to ensure that product and service offerings remain consistently relevant.
What does this mean for business?
In order for business to survive these tough new commercial landscapes, L&D must become fully embedded into corporate culture; simply 'the way we do things round here'. Continuous L&D is the flip side of innovation, and only organisations that continue to remain relevant to users or customers, through innovation cycles, will survive.
Incumbent L&D practitioners should, if not already, now be transitioning their approach towards that of digital curator, providing both the platform, and stimulating content, to encourage and enable workers to take charge of their own learning. Workplace learning is about to become highly customised and bespoke.
Successful learning will combine a blend of digital ('show me'), social ('let’s talk about this') and experiential ('let’s try this out'), with coach-facilitators on-hand to encourage the process and resolve any blockages.
What does this mean for individuals?
Lifelong learning is the new normal. It’s no longer enough to think that your career is safe based on past credentials or delivery. We should all now be consistently scanning the horizon to see what new tools and techniques we can embrace to remain relevant and add value to our work environments.
Fortunately, the range of low-cost/no-cost resources is growing. Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provide an amazing variety of free learning opportunities, and the explosion of the Internet has seen a vast array of 'how to' blogs and videos.
In parallel, peer and experiential learning aren’t to be underestimated; in fact, evidence suggests that learning through your friendship or professional network, or 'on-the-job' learning are two of the most effective methods of learning. As long as business provides an environment of psychological safety, the sky is the limit to try out new things.
When business adjusts mindset from L&D strategy to L&D culture, workers automatically gain a sense of autonomy in their work lives, which in turn builds engagement and loyalty. Returning to the survey results mentioned by Andy Lancaster in April at the CIPD L&D show, 84% of respondents said they would feel more loyal to an employer if they were offered training opportunities more regularly. Gallup also recently revealed research results highlighting that the most talented workers will move on if they feel they’re not being exposed to the maximum amount of development opportunity. This may be particularly the case among younger cohorts.
Once business revises its approach to workplace learning enough to encourage learning beyond the workplace, our guess is that it will benefit from enhanced loyalty AND a freshness of perspective that truly accelerates innovation, evolution and commercial resilience.
Kelly, K. (2016) – The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future. New York: Penguin Random House
On a weekly basis, the information we analyse about the future of work feels mind-boggling. Sometimes it feels like “trying to drink from a fire hydrant”, as a former client of mine would say. The complexity of change facing our workplaces is such that I find that, as I try to make sense of it, I need to take regular breaks to allow my brain to process what I’ve learned.
This is a massive issue for business leaders as they start trying to get to grips with, and respond to, the future of work. Making sense of so many complicated, concurrent and interconnected issues, that sit on the horizon, while trying to address the operational challenges of right now, is very often too much; it’s simply easier to focus attention on today than it is to take time to consider the future.
Yet make sense of them we must, otherwise we risk sleep-walking into a future that we didn’t plan for and that we didn’t want.
Taking time out from day-to-day business is increasingly important, both for optimal mental health and also so that we can positively approach complex commercial problems and create commercially relevant future products and services.
Let’s re-think time out
Noise and disruption are now so commonplace that it can be hard to discern what time out actually is. Our mobile devices are continuously flashing and beeping, alerting us to another update, message, or call to action.
In this 'always-on’ world, we need to be clear about the kind of time out that will best benefit the human brain, and feed our creativity and our ability to think critically and solve complex problems.
Good time out is most definitely NOT having a spare half hour to catch up on social media/news/favourite websites. Those will always lead you down rabbit holes, with their endless clickbait. I don’t know anyone who is focused enough to be able to look at or read what they want to read and log off. Time out is also NOT about sitting down with the latest box-set, iPlayer catch-up or Netflix.
Good time-out is a complete disconnect from anything that can disrupt our free flow of thought.
Left alone with your thoughts? Scary, right? We appear to be living in an age where we’re increasingly afraid of our own subconscious and what unpredictable thoughts lie within. Hence our societal addiction to ‘busy-ness’.
Solitude and problem-solving
But in truth, being able to sit alone in the presence of our own thoughts, and being able to show an awareness of them, lies at the heart of effective mindfulness and meditation, and if we can allow ourselves to sit in the solitude of our own thinking, amazing thoughts start to emerge. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people report that their best ideas appear when out running, when swimming, or taking part in another activity that allows us to get into “flow”.
In his book Focus, acclaimed psychologist Daniel Goleman explores the neuroscience of concentration and attention. He talks about “a mind adrift” and says:
“A mind adrift lets our creative juices flow. While our minds wander, we become better at anything that depends on a flash of insight, from coming up with imaginative wordplay to inventions and original thinking.”
He goes on to say:
“Among other positive functions of mind wandering are generating scenarios for the future, self-reflection, navigating a complex social world, incubation of creative ideas, flexibility in focus, pondering what we’re learning, organising our memories, just mulling life – and giving our circuitry for more intensive focusing a refreshing break.”
So day-dreaming has its benefits, and we shouldn’t feel bad about taking time out to just sit and ponder.
A recent MIT SMR article reported that business leaders increasingly struggle to take time out to think about the critical issues facing their organisations. This is bad. If our leaders aren’t able to think critically, then we’re really in trouble.
Taking deliberate time out to think must, as a matter of urgency, become embedded into our commercial DNA if we are to survive and thrive in the future of work. Daniel Goleman talks about our brains having two “largely separate mental systems”. He talks about the “bottom-up mind”, our involuntary and automatic, emotive brain, and our “top-down mind”, which is voluntary and effortful. Whether we are day-dreaming and allowing our “bottom-up mind” to aimlessly meander and suddenly stumble upon a hitherto unsurfaced insight, or whether we are using our “top-down mind” to consciously focus on our complex challenges, both types of thinking require the space and tranquillity for ideas to flourish.
As we relax into the summer break to take much-needed time out, let’s be mindful of what needs to be in place situationally to foster deeper thinking.
Without doubt, positive and restorative time-out involves consciously stepping away from our always-on and hyper-connected world. We need to acknowledge, and step away from what social health expert Julia Hobsbawm refers to as ‘infobesity’. Digital detox comes into its own.
So my challenge to you, this August, is to take time each day, even just 15 minutes, to switch off, head outside and enjoy the beauty of the world around you. You’ll be amazed by the ideas that surface when you do.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence. London: Bloomsbury
Hobsbawm, J. (2017). Fully Connected - Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload. London: Bloomsbury
Last month, my piece about creativity made me realise that we hadn’t yet talked about the skills that will be key to success in our future workspaces.
As a topic, the future of work has been grabbed by various journalists as a sensationalist opportunity to paint a dystopian picture. We need to remember however that we can’t possibly precisely predict the future; indeed, it’s worth remembering what Peter Drucker allegedly said:
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Earlier this year, the OECD published a report on Automation, Skills Use and Training. This working paper outlines research in progress and presents an update to the now much-cited 2013 Frey & Osborne report. The OECD predicts that across 32 member-countries, up to 66 million jobs will be impacted by automation and AI.
That’s frankly quite stark. On the flip side, we can use that data to ask another question. What can we do to future-proof our careers? Let’s then take a closer look at the skills we’re told will prove essential in the future of work.
Here at Working the Future Towers, we assess various reports speculating on the skills of the future. As technology becomes increasingly pervasive at work, it goes without saying that we will all need to keep on top of digital and our ability to learn (at least the basics of) new and emerging business applications. The sought-after skills however will be increasingly human – ones that computers can’t emulate, and one’s that, if we don’t pay attention, we risk diminishing as online contact becomes the prevailing means of communication. Let’s get started.
1] Critical thinking & complex problem-solving
Complexity is the new normal, transcending socio-cultural, economic, environment and political domains. Our challenges are complicated, interwoven, and both local and global in tandem. They require evolved systems thinking if we are to overcome them.
Unfortunately, in the Google age, where algorithms provide answers to most questions, we’ve also become mentally indolent.
Ironically, we used Google to find our favourite definition of critical thinking. We like this one:
“…that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skilfully analysing, assessing, and reconstructing it.”
To us, this means thinking objectively, being open to the multiple approaches and being aware of the inbuilt biases that impact thinking.
Thinking systemically is also key – acknowledging that few of our challenges exist in isolation. Deeper thinking is required to unravel viable and workable solutions.
While this all seems complicated, it’s worth remembering that software can only solve the problems it’s been written to solve. Ultimately, software’s ability to problem solve is contingent on the critical thinking ability of the code developer, and how that ability converts into code. Context is everything!
I’m sure it wasn’t just me who was told at school that I was rubbish at art. From tweendom, I spent years believing I was vastly uncreative. Here’s the thing though. Creativity covers such a wide gamut of activities that we are all creative at something, and our creative streak can and will fuel other creativity. In the future of work, businesses will require many more creative thinkers to retain the attention of their customers, providing innovate, fresh and relevant products and services. Who better to work out what might work for a human than another human being? This is where we have significant advantage over machines as we will always be better placed at figuring out what others like us might like.
3] Emotional intelligence (EI)
Daniel Goleman is, for us, the EI guru – he argues that it matters more than IQ and as we move into increasingly technological futures, it matters more than ever.
At its simplest, EI is the ability to recognise your own emotions AND recognise the emotions of others, in order to respond in a suitable fashion. Where technology will drive mass uniformity in business, our human ability to read emotion nuance will provide the leading-edge over a machine. Disgruntled customer? We’re a long way from a machine be able to accurately read and decipher that nuance.
4] Adaptability and flexibility
Future work-scapes will move at lightning speed. Technological efficiencies will accelerate the pace of change, and to an increasing extent, humans will complement technology. Human contribution will inevitably become more “on-demand”. Business schools predict future organisational structures as far more fluid; a core team of niche strategic talent, supported by transient work teams who “roll on – roll off” to deliver commercial objectives tactically. Great amounts of mental and emotional flexibility and resilience will be required in order to succeed in this new landscape. Mutability will become mainstream.
* * * * *
The great news is that these skills can be developed and honed.
The not so great news is that our 24-7 always-on all-digital environments don’t lend themselves to the development of those skills. We need to take time away from our devices and spend time both in reflection, sharpening focus, and also in the company of those others who can stretch our thinking and perspectives. The amazing thing about spending time switched off from digital is that this is when breakthrough moments occur. I can’t explain it, but please trust me when I tell you that it does.
There are many jobs of the future that haven’t evolved yet. They will however undoubtedly require the skills listed above, and those who get ahead of the curve in focusing on and practicing these skills will be the ones who survive and thrive in the future of work.
As you’d imagine, we meet lots of business leaders in our travels and have many conversations about change and what successful organisations of the future might look like.
Future-thinking is illuminating. There’s no doubt that many of us feel that business has become devoid of emotion, organisations myopically focused on making profit to the detriment to any other sensible metrics. And yet it seems an almost insurmountable challenge to decouple our way of doing business from our current commercial obsession with perpetual growth.
Several years back, I made myself read a book called Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson. It was a hard read for me; I studied A-level Economics and didn’t enjoy it at all. Despite running several businesses, I’ve had an ingrained aversion to anything perceivably related to the subject ever since. Anyway, in the book, Tim Jackson sets a vision of how we might successfully adapt to a different economic model – one that successfully operates within the constraints of finite global resources. Given the twin challenges of climate change and resource depletion, it’s a compelling read for anyone interested in sustainability.
It strikes me that there’s something super-unhealthy about our current commercial obsession with growth. That we spend our time admiring those start-ups that achieve “unicorn” status is indicative of this. Perhaps I’m the fool, but I literally fail to understand why the markets get so excited about something so arguably risky. When we set business growth as the primary goal, we lose sight of many other important metrics.
It’s my perception that corporates who focus on growth and share-holder return beyond all other measures are, more often than not, completely toxic in nature. Employees of such companies tend to report much higher levels of work-related stress and anxiety and we’ve even been given accounts of bullying and threatening behaviour within these organisations. Such is the pressure to meet targets.
But here’s another thought. When business leaders put their own goals for financial growth before the needs of the partners who support them on their journey, they’re forgetting the importance of feeding their eco-system. We all need to make a certain amount of income to succeed commercially, and those organisations who drive a perpetual hard bargain with their suppliers will eventually feel the consequences. It’s already happening both in some areas of retail and in the restaurant sector, where suppliers can no longer afford to do business with certain chains – it just isn’t worth it.
In my recruitment career, too, I came across so many businesses whose only measure of success seemed to be how low a fee they could negotiate for recruitment services; months or years later they’d wonder why their supporting recruiters had such little experience. It simply isn’t financially viable to place an experienced recruitment consultant on client activity that yields such a small return.
When we feed our eco-system and pay our support partners a fair and reasonable rate, we’re building loyalty and commitment, invariably encouraging them to work harder and go the extra mile for us. When we squeeze on day rates, we send a clear signal that we don’t value their service as much as we could.
In the future of work, as commercial landscapes disrupt and we are forced to find new ways of doing business, our eco-systems will become critical. The commercial eco-system is made up of all those other parties who want to do business with us, who support us and who buy into our commercial vision and aspirations. It consists of the people and support partners who will help us achieve that vision. If we send a message to the members of our eco-system that we don’t value their contribution, we will find our eco-system is small and shallow.
Feeding our eco-system allows others to flourish. It enables other members of our business community to put food on the table, to pay for their children’s football or dance lessons. It enables all of us to feel useful and valued in these new uncharted commercial territories.
It’s time for us to move away from the old measure of profit and growth above all other measurable. We need to start thinking about business eco-systems that are sustainable, where all participants feel valued and that their contribution is worth something. I suspect this will be quite a break-away from how businesses have operated over the last 20-30 years, but in turn, I imagine that all participants will begin to feel altogether more fulfilled and purposeful, resulting in an altogether more symbiotic way of doing things.
I have a friend who works for a NASDAQ-listed multinational. She works long hours; her role is global, requiring regular calls with colleagues across Australia, APAC, Europe and the US. Some days, she has calls with people in all of these places. You can imagine the long hours that this would require.
As a public company, the overriding priority in the C-suite is to deliver shareholder value. Shareholder value and stock price is their north star.
This has a number of repercussions down the organisational hierarchy.
Employees are constantly expected to do more with less. There is no budget for any kind of staff development and the infrastructure available for employees to do their best work is restricted by finance, usually in response to the latest share price.
A lack of infrastructure investment increases the likelihood of system errors, for which workers are then held accountable. A blame culture has set in, as workers compete against one another to remain “safe”. Pressure increases and a vicious circle appears to have developed. The more stressed employees become about delivering increasingly ambitious (dare I suggest unrealistic?) goals in ever decreasing time-frames and with minimal spend, the more mistakes are made which have significant impact on customer service. Compromised customer service goes on to affect share price, in turn creating more pressure at board level, amplifying the stress cascading down the organisation. It seems that some executives are unable to handle the pressure, with aggressive and threatening behaviour and language accepted as culturally normal.
When I talk to my friend about her job, she is utterly miserable and disillusioned. She remains in situ because her salary is a good one, and she feels a responsibility to her family to deliver a certain lifestyle. In today’s job market and at her level, she’s not sure that many jobs exist for people like her, and even if they did, would she be “jumping from the frying pan into the fire”? In short, she feels trapped, and I’m reasonably certain that her work-life is already significantly impacting both her physical and mental health and wellbeing.
I write this because I know my friend is far from alone in her predicament. Many large corporates will acknowledge the continuous pressure of trying to deliver value to shareholders in a global economy that is increasingly dumbfounding even the savviest economists and investors. The pace of change afoot in the commercial world is unprecedented.
In parallel, we are witnessing a rapidly emerging tsunami of poor mental health across much of the developed world. I’d wager that much of it is due to increasingly stressful working conditions. We may have a better standard of living than ever before, but work conditions are increasingly fraught, time-bound, and for many, increasingly miserable.
I want to take a moment to explore psychological safety. If you google “psychological safety”, you’ll immediately find various articles from websites including hbr.org, hrzone.com, forbes.com and personneltoday.com, each stressing the importance and benefits of psychological safety in the workplace.
So, what is it? Wikipedia describes psychological safety as:
“…a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as ‘being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career’. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.”
Psychological safety and the future of work
Psychological safety at work is essential. Not simply to reduce the rising tide of work-related anxiety and depression, although that alone is reason enough to strive for it.
For workers to successfully contribute to the innovation that we know will be needed to commercially survive and thrive in the future of work, psychological safety is vital.
Successful business leaders recognise that psychological safety is the bedrock of commercial progress. Being able to create and sustain work environments where every opinion counts, where each worker feels valued and supported, and where everyone knows that all mistakes made are considered a learning opportunity, is in many ways the antithesis of where many organisations currently are.
Evolving towards environments of psychological safety will require a shift of focus away from the current fixation with quarterly shareholder returns and a realisation that in order to create more sustainable and holistic shareholder value, employees need to feel part of the business, and not just a “human resource”. Only once this happens will true transformation and innovation take place.
Thankfully, we’ve started open dialogue about the importance of good mental health in the workplace. Recognising our mental health crisis is a HUGE step forward. Acknowledging work as a contributing factor is the logical next step.
As painful as it will no doubt be, identifying and alleviating the work-related triggers of stress and anxiety will be essential, and those leaders enlightened enough to recognise their responsibility in this regard will be the first to benefit commercially.
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.
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.