Is the workplace really changing that much?

I’ve been asked to comment on a recent article[1] written by George Zarkadakis from Willis Towers Watson’s Talent and Rewards Practice; and that has led to this response.

It’s an interesting article in which the Global Future of Work Survey[2] is cited as finding that companies expect automation, robotics and artificial intelligence to take an increasing role (up to 22% of work being done) in business.

The article looks at the preparedness of businesses, and of HR departments in particular, for what they anticipate being a significant change in working practises over the next three to five years.

The first thing to say is that in real terms I don’t think anything is really changing.

Over the last hundred years we’ve seen massive changes and a significant increase in the use of technology in the workplace.

Even the move to computers and the rise of PCs and Microsoft Office has already resulted in huge levels of automation in the workplace that never existed, even twenty years ago.

The development of apps, the increasing use of mobiles and tablets and the continued development of technology in the workplace – not only in offices but across all areas of business – means that organisations are already making changes and have been on a technological continuum for the past 50 years.

When you look at the High Street and the changes that have happened there, there’s a huge amount of transformation taking place with an increasing number of large retailers going out of business because shoppers are moving online.

But, on the flip side, consumers are also buying more, wanting more choice and are choosing instant gratification – same day / next day delivery. Consumerism is on the rise and that provides a real opportunity for the right retailers; those with a flexible business and entrepreneurial vision. The old models are not working.

Does this come down to planning?

Does this come down to HR?

I’m not sure that it really does.

It comes down to having a flexible mindset and an ability to be realistic about the world around you, to clearly evaluate what is happening, to understand the reasons for the change and to react quickly to those changes.

It is far easier to turn a dingy than an oil tanker.

The shifts that we’re seeing now are no different to the shifts that we’ve seen over the last twenty or thirty years, but we’re perhaps more aware of them because of social media; because of the role that mainstream media is playing, because every change, every success and every failure is amplified in a way that it never has been before.

To say that businesses aren’t ready and that HR is not prepared for what is coming is naïve and feels like a lamb being prepared for sacrifice.

Change can never be orchestrated by one department, nor is it achievable with a magic wand.

No one has a crystal ball and with Brexit on the horizon and changes to the ‘gig’ economy, businesses have a number of equally significant changes to contend with over the next few years.

Technology may well be the lifeline needed to survive the turbulent times ahead.

However, HR is just one cog in the leadership wheel and as HR professionals working at the coal face, we know that in many businesses, we are trusted advisors and subject matter experts supporting the business operations.

All business leaders, whether HR specialists or not, need to be open to change, to embrace new ways of working, to meet new employee expectations and work together to capitalise on opportunities while managing the threats.

However, businesses are not the only stakeholders able to make a difference. Both Government and our education system have vital roles to play in supporting businesses and our economy in the future.

There is currently huge focus for the Government on the Gig economy with the crackdown on zero hour contracts, self-employment, freelancing and contractors.

The issue is that this is almost diametrically opposite to what businesses need and many employees are demanding.

The right to choose and be supported in that choice is essential for both the employer and the employee.

At the moment, we have an employment law system (including the employment tribunals) which is sticking plasters over every crack that appears.

One of the biggest reasons people voted leave in the Brexit referendum was linked, in some way, to business and worker rights (be it employment legislation from Europe or the migrating workforce).

In terms of growing our own workforce, we again have two situations:

1) The abolition of the retirement age and low pension rates mean that older workers are staying in the workplace for longer.

These workers are often resistant to change and unable to adapt with the pace required as new technology is introduced.

At the moment, the only way to safely remove these workers is to performance management them out of the business – and that is no way to treat someone with 20 or 30 years loyal service!

Even then, with the changes to access to the tribunal system, the employer is likely to end up with an age discrimination case on their hands – the older worker, perhaps aged 70, just couldn’t adapt to the work they were being asked to do. Does the business back off and delay change? Or do they press on knowing they will have an unlimited fine age discrimination case against them?

2) Balanced against our older workers are the Millennials who are currently trying to enter the workplace.

A huge proportion of this demographic fear they will never be able to earn enough to own their own homes. These youngsters have skills that businesses can capitalise on, but their work ethic and expectations are different.

Not wrong, just different.

Millennials do not want a job for life. They want challenges, they need variation, they need emotional intelligence and support from their managers and they live a connected life, which many current managers just don’t understand.

Motivating these employees is different because their drivers are different from previous generations. They don’t live to work, they work to live and expect to be treated fairly no matter their background, gender or education.

The employees entering the workplace now are also much better educated and aware of their rights. We are moving increasingly to a US model where litigation is a first option for resolving issues rather than a last resort; and yet our employment legal system has not been significantly shaken up for years.

In the US, if an employer needs someone to leave (for almost any reason) they know they have to pay to make it happen.

What would that kind of system do to the mind-set of employers and employees here in the UK?

Would people work/behave differently? If an employer could write a truthful reference for a dismissed employee without the fear of a claim against them, would that change the way employees behave at work? Would employers be more willing to take on permanent staff rather than wanting a transient workforce or freelancers and contractors?

Our children are being educated in a system that was designed for the Victorian age.

Schools are slowly embracing modern learning techniques and technology, but very few schools are teaching children what they are going to need to enter the modern workplace as fully contributing employees.

Employers are continually complaining that they can’t recruit people with the skills they need.

School leavers aren’t prepared for the world of work and with low retention figures why should employers invest in young workers?

Add to this the fact that many of the jobs our children will be doing in the future don’t even exist yet, the fact that with Brexit we are probably going to lose lower-skilled workers from Eastern Europe, the issue that we already have jobs that people in the UK don’t want to do and the world of work is going to become a more fractious, unpredictable place to be.

There is no certainty in business.

The only certainty we have is that change has always and will continue to happen.

Managing change effectively is the responsibility of everyone within a business and ensuring that the organisation’s vision and goals are defined, documented and communicated is going to be even more important in the future.

The way in which that vision and those goals are achieved will vary over time and the goals themselves may need to be updated, but in essence, for a business to survive, it must be able to offer something that people want to buy. It must be able to compete for customers, staff and resources. It must be able to embrace and evolve with technology.

From the invention of the washing machine to the latest robotics assisting brain surgeons, technology is designed to make life easier for the user.

Watch any sci-fi movie from the 1980s and some of those imagined creations are today’s realities and technology advancement is only limited by our own imaginations.

Why the results of the Global Future of Work survey come as a shock is a surprise to me.

25 years ago very few businesses had websites or apps, very few job boards existed, people didn’t buy their houses or do their weekly shop online, but today Uber, Totaljobs, PurpleBricks, Amazon and Ocado are all changing the way in which we live.

So why wouldn’t technology have the same impact on the way in which we work?

We are going to need technology.

We don’t have enough people to care for our elderly; we don’t have enough people willing to do the repetitive low paid jobs and we have too many mistakes made due to human error. Technology and the advancement of AI and robotics will help us to fill necessary gaps in the workplace and planning for such change lies with every single person in the workplace.

In their analysis of the Global Future of Work Survey, Willis Towers Watson have developed ‘Five myths about the future of work – busted’ [3] which identifies a ‘clear course of action’ which can be summarised as:

  • Change job descriptions based on how automation impacts work
  • Define retraining needs of the workforce, including management
  • Manage employees and workers effectively based on the new job roles

Whether you work for a private or public business, whether the organisation is micro, small or large, whether you currently use technology or not, change is inevitable and those who understand that and are able to adapt to embrace the advantages that technology brings, will be the businesses which not only survive, but thrive in the future.






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