What is the future of work? A large and diverse group of Digital Leaders debated the question in September in front of a panoramic view of the Tyne, where traditional shipyards have given way to chic flats, and the flour mill has become an iconic art gallery.
The salon quickly agreed that at least there IS a future for work, although its nature will change. From the early 20th Century when Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies led to the automation of metal cutting, this process has been feared as the end of work. However, it is really the adaptation of work and we must adapt with it, investing in the workforce to manage both change and fear of change. In the face of rapid societal shifts, there is a basic need to equip people to contribute and thrive.
Children of the digital age
Enabling the new digital generation to self-manage in a flexible environment is one challenge we, as children of the analogue age, face with some trepidation. Will they have the discipline, responsibility, accountability, adaptability to survive? Has the emergence of digital natives and the ‘always on’ culture resulted in anthropological changes as identified by neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield? Can education adapt quickly enough to the changing nature of work and the workforce?
The signs are positive. There are increasing examples locally and internationally of businesses who rely successfully on self-regulation in terms of working hours and vacation. The Maverick story (Ricardo Semler) shows how devolved responsibility and accountability in a manufacturing setting delivered amazing results. New graduates do not want nor do they expect a job for life, adapting unconsciously to the concept of a liquid workforce. In terms of education, a recent Institute of Directors report recommended the reshaping of education around research skills not knowledge, and the emerging University Technical Colleges are employer led, aiming to match what is needed with what is possible.
It was also observed that the ‘skills gap’ may not be as serious as we believe. There is an outcry when a skill is needed and supply is scarce. But is this a genuine skills gap, or an adaptability gap? As the adaptability of the workforce overtakes their base training, people can flow into new roles and satisfy skills requirements more effectively. Freelance workers and portfolio careers may become the rule, not the exception.
There is a note of caution. As professionals in the digital industry, we are embedded in a fast changing environment. We see the future of work through a very specific lens. But what of traditional skills, the craft skills, making and growing and repairing everything from instruments to people? The increasing tendency towards shallow learning, skimming the headlines without absorbing the detail in long term memory, compromises learning that is essential for the healthy future of society.
How do you hire the right people?
A perennial challenge is that it’s tough to recruit based on ‘adaptability’. In the future workplace, life skills may well become more important than academic skills, but academic skills can be evidenced. There are no clear benchmarks for adaptability, and traditional recruitment and selection relies upon fixed, measurable criteria to sort the wheat from the chaff. Often, this means that ‘HR gets in the way of good recruiting’ and the organisation ends up with the compromise candidate as the least risky option from an HR viewpoint. The pressure is on for good recruiters to make a personal connection in order to assess adaptability, creativity and research skills as best they can, mitigating the risk to the business of hiring the wrong candidate despite paper qualifications. It’s a tricky path to navigate, but essential for effective and sustainable role-filling.
The future of the workplace
The changing nature of work is also changing the nature of the workplace. In professional services, the predictable work is becoming automated. For example, law firms are increasingly automating data-sifting and contract comparison tasks, reducing the burden on or need for rafts of junior lawyers. In many arenas, the wealth of free and accurate information available online means that an accountant may be approached by a client who knows the basics of what they want to do and need an expert simply to fill in the blanks.
There’s a move towards communication through new media with webinars and video advice, and less need for a fixed office space for clients to visit or to denote seniority in increasingly flat management structures. One discussant described a complete hotdesk environment at a high level in professional services. The outcomes include better morale, fewer departmental silos, more communication and cross-collaboration. This aligns well with theories that a regulated environment stifles innovation, and that creating freedoms boosts creativity, and evidence that performance and cognitive ability improve through social interaction. We have a real human need to be with others.
Our future is unlikely to be one of augmented reality and exclusively distributed workplaces, rather one of continued close collaboration and co-operation using the full suite of communications, media and technologies available to us as they develop. We call on all Digital Leaders to get involved with your local educator and demonstrate leadership in changing the workforce to meet the challenges of the future workplace.