The robots are coming…
Artificial intelligence is replacing manual work…
Business meetings will take place in an augmented reality…
We’ve all seen the headlines about what the future of work might look like. Last year, the Office for National Statistics in the UK estimated that 7.4% of jobs are at high risk of being automated in the future, and the writing has been on the wall right across industries for a while. It has left us in little doubt that our future of work will be driven by these technologies — in five years, 10 years, surely sometime within our future.
However, here we are today, somewhere in the midst of a major international pandemic. Each of us a data point on a newly familiar exponential curve, and on an altered timeline that, only a few months ago, none of us had anticipated. In the past few weeks, we have seen rapid change to all aspects of the workforce — the workplace, and the actual work itself. The Coronavirus crisis forced so many businesses — employers, employees, the self-employed — to all mobilise themselves, and to do it overnight.
The future of work has arrived sooner than we expected.
The future of work is very much here and now.
For young companies that were built in the cloud, or those that had embraced technology from the outset, the shift was more business as usual. A slight transition perhaps, but very much carry on as you were. However, for many other companies, the shift to remote working patterns was previously lethargic at best. Pre-crisis, large incumbent company expectations were likely considering moving workforces to one day a week out of the office, maybe two days, but doing this would be gradually planned over two to five year timeframes. However, nearly every company on this path found that particular time horizon accelerate and within days, not months or years, we had not only seen a tectonic shift in how and where we carry out that work, but also the type of daily work we do, and in too many unfortunate instances, it was unfairly a case of if we still get to carry out that work.
The COVID-19 crisis has not only brought the future of work to the present day, but it has changed the future of work forever.
People have been forced to make adjustments to their lives very quickly. We shifted priorities. We adjusted our work. We made changes to our lives that have lasting effects. In so many instances, we had to find a new work-life balance that overlapped more than ever. Within a few short weeks, we realised that we can do it, and perhaps we actually liked the changes. According to a survey commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts’ Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC), 85% of us want to see at least some of the changes we have felt at home, in work and in our communities continue after the Coronavirus outbreak is over. And why not? Times of crisis must have moments of good too.
Now the executive management are realising they can do it too. Nearly half (49%) of all companies are planning to make remote working a permanent option according to PWC’s recent COVID-19 Pulse report. Within financial services organisations, that number is even higher (60%), as evidenced by the moves some CEOs have been making. Jess Staley, CEO at Barclays stated that “the notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past” and Nationwide Mutual Insurance announced a shift of 30% of its workforce to remote working, keeping only four US city campuses and impacting over two million square feet of office space across five other States.
It’s not only about adapting to a change of workplace. What lessons can be learned from this moment in history, to better develop a company’s workforce to be adaptable to the new future of work? Today, if we think back to six months ago, or even just three months ago, we couldn’t imagine the whole world working this way. Can we really imagine what it will be like in two to five years? Will we be working alongside robots by 2025? We can all try to predict the future, but often we base it on what we know from the past, what we feel in this moment, but the truth is the robots are coming. It’s not just something in books and in the cinema.
But we’re not talking about robots right now. We’re talking about people and the stories surrounding them. Right now — most importantly — we are focusing on humans.
Whether existing businesses remain stuck in their ways or new businesses sprout from this period of history, they will need to recognise that we still want to work, we still need to work, but they need to appreciate and recognise the human aspect more than ever.
People were never just cogs in any machine, regardless of the inevitability of that machine working beside us one day.
For all the talk of AI-powered robots, these technologies are not currently dominating the future of work conversations. There’s an unmistakable focus on people — on us as human-beings and how we are coping in this new normal. These are modern ways of working that we are getting to grips with. We are learning fast. But whilst this change will bring many benefits, the shift is going to have far-reaching impacts on our lives and the infrastructure around us. What will it mean to us as a workforce, to our workplaces, the type of work that we need to do, and will we start to seek out new job opportunities that provide us with more flexible working arrangements either because our companies don’t allow it enough, or because other companies allow it more?
When we are on our Zoom calls, and we see another person’s pets or their kids pop in to the screen, or they go on mute to ask the family to keep the noise down, or we just notice the difference in weather through their kitchen window, we are now stepping into the shoes of other humans. They have different lives to us, but for a brief moment in time, we become a part of their life, and inextricably linked forever with previously unexpected shared memories. We feel empathy and compassion for the situation they are in. The situation we are all in.
Their mental well being may be fragile, and as founders, leaders, managers…you need different skills to be able to manage and support teams on a remote basis. If you didn’t check-in on the wellness of your team before or display empathy already (well, why ever not?), you have to overly show that you have a human side too. And for those that acted more as robots before, now is your time to change. Managers who embed the treatment of their people as people into their company culture, rather than thinking only of them as employee resources will be winners when it comes to attracting talent and retaining people for your future workforce, so you need to sharpen those soft management skills quickly.
Improving that employee experience through better management and remote working won’t be enough in the new future of work. A 2019 study by Deloitte found that whilst 84% rated an improvement in employee experience as important, and 24% rated as urgent, the concept of employee experience falls short, because people are looking for meaning through their work.
Employers need to start talking more about human experiences than employee experiences, to understand how their teams want their work not just to help the organisation, but how it can help their communities, our society and the whole of humankind. Many CEOs already have scorecards with environmental, diversity, sustainability and societal success factors, but has that ever permeated down through organisations into individual objectives? Will we see KPIs and OKRs start to include more of these? I don’t think they will have a choice.
As we start to see some recovery shoots and an end to lockdown, people have had time to take stock of what matters most to them. If there hadn’t been many people wondering whether they are already making a difference in their roles, the current crisis has surely made more people think about what’s really important in their own small piece of the future of work. It isn’t about the robots, it’s about the humans. It isn’t about A.I., it’s about empathy. It isn’t about the tasks, it’s about meaning.
The robots may be coming, and whilst companies talk about “putting the customer at the heart of everything we do,” perhaps now is a good time for a new conversation.
Let’s put humans at the heart of everything we do.
Let’s put humans at the heart of why we do everything we do.
Paul Loberman is a former global head of digital at HSBC, a widely recognized FinTech expert and thought leader and excellent craft beer bartender for only the best FinTech Festivals.