I’ve just finished a really great book, recommended by my friend Andy. The book is called The Hard Thing about Hard Things and is by US technology entrepreneur and now venture capitalist, Ben Horowitz. Ben worked at the heart of Silicon Valley during its boom years, but also endured the challenge of the dot.com crash. He set up one of the first SaaS / IaaS technology companies and eventually sold to EDS and HP respectively. In his book, he talks about the hardship of being a CEO when nothing is certain and when, mostly, you only ever have about 10% of the management information you actually need to critical decisions. It’s a very good read for anyone who runs a business, anyone who’s thinking about running a business, or anyone who’d like to get a clearer picture of what running a business is like.
Anyway, the point of all of this is that in his book, Ben talks a lot about the importance of treating employees and co-workers right, and how business success is contingent on the people you have around you.
I completely get this. After 20+ years of helping technology businesses hire people, I’ve seen my fair share of businesses fail because they didn’t get their people strategy right.
In the future of work, we believe the way in which business leaders engage with their people will make the difference between success and failure. Whereas in the past the customer has always been king, such are the sweeping changes that will transform the future work landscape, the worker will also increasingly become king.
The World Economic Forum has suggested that by 2030 many of us will be self-employed. This, it suggests, will come about as millennials, rising through the ranks of the workplace, seek increasing flexibility in their work. We suspect there may be other factors at play. Just as Cloud storage and Software-as-a-Service have revolutionised the way that businesses use data storage and IT services on a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) basis, we believe that increasingly, businesses looking to achieve continuous cost efficiencies will start to look to workers to provide their skills on an ‘as-a-service / PAYG’ basis.
Should this be the case, workers will naturally feel more vulnerable, disposable and insecure. A key way to mitigate this from a business perspective will be by creating and maintaining a working environment that is wholly connective – where workers, whatever their employment status, feel respected, valued and purposeful. For us at Working the Future, these things lie at the heart of engagement. Engage for Success, the UK voluntary movement promoting employee engagement, defines engagement as ‘a workplace approach resulting in the right conditions for all members of an organisation to give of their best each day, committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, with an enhanced sense of their own well-being’.
If a business focuses on employee engagement then, it surely stacks up that productivity will proliferate, and this can only be a good thing, right?
Well, there’s something else that interests us. As technology continues to revolutionise the way in which we all use products and services, it stands to reason that the future commercial landscape will be increasingly disruptive and, at times, chaotic. This being the case, it won’t be enough for one CEO, or small group of strategic leaders, to set the pace, tone and direction of business. In his book, The 4th Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab talks about a ‘digital mindset, capable of institutionalising cross-functional collaboration, flattening hierarchies, and building environments that encourage a generation of new ideas’. We heavily suspect that future commercial success will be contingent on not one small group of strategic thinkers, but on entire teams of co-workers, acting as eyes and ears for the business and offering up fresh thinking on how to potentially maintain competitive advantage.
Once again then, engagement is key. Why would disengaged workers care about commercial success? On the other hand, empowering workers to take up the mantle of corporate eyes and ears requires a deep company-wide understanding of not only of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, but also the ‘why’. This will, we believe, embed engagement in a way that builds both commitment and loyalty. The successful future workplace will be one that embraces ongoing deep learning and reinvention, such are the demands emanating from the sheer pace of technology evolution.
Building a business culture that has clearly defined values and vision, where employees are valued as much as, if not more than, the customers they serve, can only add to employee engagement. And as before, if engagement breeds enhanced productivity, it can only be the case that with the right commercial strategy in place, the profits will follow.
Horowitz, B. (2014). The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers. New York: Harper Collins
Schwab, K. (2016). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva: World Economic Forum
In March 2017, the CIPD presented its carefully researched report on the UK Gig Economy. The report provides some useful insight into what the gig economy is, how many people in the UK currently gain income from it, whether the gig economy provides a sustainable income source, and the role it’s likely to play in the future of work. It makes for a very interesting read.
Less than a week later, PWC published its own research findings, which suggested that up to 30% of all UK jobs could be “susceptible” to automation, robotics and AI over the next 15 years. That’s a daunting statistic in anyone’s book. In brief, any job function where a worker follows a defined and repetitive process is vulnerable to the possibility of eventual automation. The Guardian, reporting on the PWC research, has stated that potentially 10 million workers in the UK are at risk of being replaced by technology. Whilst these figures on their own might appear to paint a rather dystopian future, there is also an understanding that new jobs will be created, even if we don’t yet know what they’re going to be.
Despite the rather daunting scenario outlined above, one thing is very clear. In order to continue working and thriving in the future workplace, a significant amount of re-skilling will need to take place. The CIPD report makes mention of this, and indeed, in many of its cited case studies there seems an overarching acknowledgement that re-skilling is required. I foresee two challenges.
The first is that for many of the workers whose roles will be destabilised by automation, AI and robotics, a change of mindset will be required. Recent advances in neuroscience show that the brain is more than capable of learning new information, habits and ways of doing things, even into more advanced years – as the adage goes, it’s never too old to teach an old dog new tricks. Key to successful learning, however, is developing what is known as a “growth mindset”, as pioneered by US psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck (1). A growth mindset is one whereby the learner understands that learning might take time, but that with practice and dedication, new skills can be acquired. It’s the understanding that talent and intelligence can be enhanced with a positive attitude towards learning. The Growth Mindset is currently a hot topic within leadership forums and is recognised as a core attribute required for success in the future of work.
The second challenge is around the associated costs of retraining. The CIPD Gig Economy report suggests that most current gig economy workers are undertaking additional work in order to supplement existing income, and whilst they acknowledge a requirement to up-skill or re-skill, they simply don’t have the funds available to put themselves through this process. Equally, in times of increasing economic uncertainty, corporate learning and development budgets are often the first to come under pressure. And yet worker reskilling is undoubtedly going to become increasingly crucial if commercial organisations are to continuously refine their offerings, as we suspect will be one of the defining success criteria of the Fourth Industrial revolution and the digital age.
Fortunately, seemingly every week now, new, cost-effective and even free ways of learning are appearing online – empowering the self-directed learner to better themselves. All that remains is for UK businesses of all sizes to recognise and embrace that continuous learning, right across the commercial landscape, will become increasingly critical in order to maintain competitive edge.
A final thought from us here at Working the Future. Much of the strategic leadership thinking around success in the future of work suggests that open and collaborative working environments will be essential in order for business to thrive and prosper. If we can adjust our thinking to encourage shared and peer learning across our organisations, I think re-skilling has the potential to be far less complicated – and less intimidating – than we might imagine.
If you’d like to discuss the topic of learning and development in further detail, please do feel free to start a conversation!
Cat’s recruitment career has furnished her with fascinating insights into how people behave in the workplace, particularly in response to change. She has a deep interest in human behaviour, organisational psychology and helping business leaders create sustainable, ethical and values-based working environments.