Research

Revisiting Our Notions of Time in the Workplace

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By Nader Sleiman

Questions of Time

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has moved us into the future of work far earlier than anticipated. In the absence of physical presence in the office, we now have an opportunity to reflect on how we think of time in the workplace. Key questions we will need to ask are: Is the 9 to 5 system still working in what has become a predominantly service-based economy? Will the 4-day workweek become more prevalent following months of virtual working? How do we measure productivity without office time as a factor?

The History of Time in the Workplace

The 8-hour workday we have settled into as the standard norm was not even imaginable in the nineteenth century. The thought of reducing workhours from what used to be around 100 hours a week to a maximum of 48 hours did not become a conversation until 1890 in the United States.[1] In 1914, Ford Motor Company announced that it would cut the workday to 8 hours while simultaneously doubling wages. This move, shocking to the manufacturing industry at the time, brought in higher productivity despite the reduction in hours worked.[2] The result was a replication of the Ford employment model across the world as global economies thrived and labour laws developed in alignment with our improved understanding of human rights.

Transitioning Economy with Ancestral Practices

Following the 1980s, the world is shifting from a product-based to a predominantly service-based economy.[3] Despite this transition, the hegemonic ideology guiding our approach to people management remains ancestral. As machines have been gradually replacing the human workforce in manufacturing, more people have made career transitions into service-based work. The sector itself, however, still manages employees the same way its predecessor did in terms of measuring time and attendance. When Ford implemented the 8-hour workday, he was guided by the precise time needed to produce car parts and the subsequent time needed to assemble a car. The measurement was directly related to the cost of output, and seldom could the duration of a particular step in the process be changed by an individual worker. For instance, if a worker’s expected deliverable was a car door, and the process of producing a door required 1 hour, the expected output per worker would have been 8 doors a day. What happens, however, when the deliverable is a PowerPoint presentation, or a strategic report? When the output can vary in quality, structure and completion time in order to tailor services to clients, how can the measurement of time as it were in production lines still apply?

The reality is that the 8-hour workday may not be fit-for-purpose today and may not truly reflect productivity. Research suggests that, for a number of roles, an 8-hour workday can, in fact, discourage productivity. If a high performer completes a task in 4 hours, rather than the expected 8 hours for an average performer, what should that employee do with their additional time? An Adobe study found that people spend (on average) 6 hours a day on emails.[4] Further, a study of UK office workers’ productivity by Voucher Cloud found that the average productive time of employees was a mere 2 hours and 53 minutes out of the 8-hour workday. [5] The rest remainder of that work day is comprised of: meetings, office interruptions, and smartphone notifications.[6]

How, then, can we develop a better view on people management without the 8-hour model?

time

Output versus Attendance

For people working remotely, it is challenging to monitor their attendance. Measuring remote team productivity is no longer concerned with clocking in and clocking out; it is concerned with outputs and deliverables. When SAP Labs India, one of India’s best employers, decided to stop tracking attendance, the Head of HR noticed a change in attitude from employees. He referred to the change as a developed sense of trust between the company and its 5,000 employees. Not a single case of misuse surfaced, and morale was boosted. As we shift to remote work, it is time to rethink how we measure performance and re-examine the extent to which office time plays a role in this measurement.

  1. Promoting effective communication: By setting clear objectives and checking in on deliverables (quality and processing time), output can be assessed, productivity can be measured, and coordination can be simplified.
  2. Developing training on quality: It is important to train your people on maximising output in minimal time without jeopardising quality. This also means on communicating their availability transparently and continuously with colleagues to ensure that coordination and teamwork are sustained.
  3. Understanding your processes and service delivery intimately: By understanding what tasks are required in each role and for each project, these task’s completion time can be measured using historical figures and assessed to identify bottlenecks and ensure that they are communicated with team members transparently. This allows leadership to create a clear direction towards productive delivery.
  4. Identifying and establishing measurable benchmarking: This requires transparent communication regarding expectations surrounding deliverables. It can be done by setting clear indicators of high quality and efficient deliverables. How much time is the task expected to require? Is the team member meeting or exceeding this target? If not, it is important to address the reason behind this delay.
  5. Revising standard protocol continuously: It is important to constantly check in and identify possible improvement areas to optimise the use of talent in high priority tasks.
  6. Empowering digital project management: Consider project management tools that allow organisations to track individual tasks, manage responsibilities and accountabilities, and identify bottlenecks and speed of delivery.
  7. Preserving cultural connection: Aside from deliverables, productivity relies on psychological and emotional wellbeing. This means that ensuring that virtual employees are connected to their organisational culture and maintaining their organisational citizenship is crucial to instilling a sense of duty towards task completion and high-quality deliverables.
  8. Rewarding productivity: Intangible rewards, particularly through recognition, can empower employees in times of turbulence and disconnection. By developing clear benchmarks, assessing individual performance in comparison to those benchmarks, and providing feedback and explicit recognition of good work, employees are encouraged to meet productivity targets and exceed those benchmarks.
  9. Preventing underperformance: Early identification of missed benchmarks is key to preventing drops in performance. This requires transparent and open performance communication to set expectations, measure performance continuously and address any concerns before they become problematic to productivity.
  10. Understanding individual narratives: Get to know your employees and their circumstances. Are they parents with children at home? Are they in remote areas with limited access to connectivity? By actively listening to employees, their narratives can be used as tools to promote virtual diversity and effective communications regarding performance and output.
  11. Building trust: Once these points are established, trust is key. Ernest Hemingway’s advice: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” If your focus is outcome-based, the concern with clocking in and out needs to be shifted to a concern with deliverables. As long as benchmarks are being met and deliverable quality is being sustained and improved, trusting employees to do what is necessary for their task completion is crucial.

Let Us Know Your Thoughts

We have been working in a virtual world for over a month. We now know that people do not need to be in the office to do their jobs. It is of surprise to no one that the world of work will not simply return to the way it was prior to this experience. How do you think our measurement of time will change? Get in touch with Anna.


[1] Owen, R. (21 Nov. 2019). The 8-Hour Workday Is a Counterproductive Lie. Wired.

[2] Curtin, M. (21 Jul. 2016). In an 8-Hour Day, the Average Worker Is Productive for This Many Hours. INC.

[3] Bellos, I. & Ferguson, M. (2016). Moving from a Product-Based Economy to a Service-Based Economy for a More Sustainable Future. Springer Series in Supply Chain Management book series (SSSCM, volume 4)

[4] Naragon, K. (8 Aug. 2015). Subject: Email, We Just Can’t Get Enough. Adobe Blog.

[5] Foo, E.N. (24 Apr. 2019). The White-Collar Struggle: Productivity in the Information Age. The Economics Review.

[6] Glaveski, S. (11 Dec. 2018). The Case for the 6-Hour Workday. Harvard Business Review

Virtual Engagement during Covid-19 – how can we redesign our ways of working to be better than before?

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{:name}By Sally McNamara, Asia Pacific Director 

Companies have been grappling with declining employee engagement for several decades. Research has suggested that up to 85% of people are not engaged or actively disengaged at work[i]. The interesting point is that the same research also suggests that it might not be the actual work that is the problem, but rather the outdated management styles that are still very much at play. In particular, the industrial era ‘command and control’ approach is proving a difficult habit to break at every level of organisational design: strategy, structure, processes, rewards and people.[ii]

Humans rarely adapt at scale unless there is a forced trigger to do so. Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman has explored this idea deeply in his work, demonstrating that in most cases, we would much rather avoid a loss than achieve a gain, unless the circumstances are very bad.[iii]

What if this pandemic is not just a test of survival and making do, but a greater call to much needed workplace adaptation? A chance to develop new principles that actually align with the challenges we face in this digital age? All too often we have been trying to implement new processes and practices without understanding the real issues, as anyone who has attempted to implement a new technology solution on top of an outdated structure and process will readily attest to.

As Professor Lynda Gratton reinforced in her recent webinar on “Working Virtually”[iv], one of the major blockers to the previous success of virtual working was due to the fact that leaders themselves were not working virtually. This promoted a lingering suspicion that people working virtually must surely be “Netflix and chilling” all day long, rather than working. Such an insidious lack of trust is a key factor in driving disengagement, and we know that organisations who are high-trust outperform those who are low-trust, with research suggesting by as much as 2.5 times.[v]

Now that the majority of our global population are synchronised in virtual working, it is an opportunity to build better ways of working that are based on trust, both for now and into the future. However, if we are not careful, we may simply replicate old principles and assumptions to bring our bad habits with us into the virtual world of work. Here are a few ideas for how we can avoid doing so:

1. Build a Narrative – A narrative provides a way to make sense of events and communicate experience, knowledge and emotions. Creating a strong narrative does not rely upon the leaders having all the answers (now more than ever – this is clearly impossible). However, it does rely on creating an ongoing thread of communication that recognises the deep uncertainty whilst also visioning the future, to help people connect with a sense of direction and purpose. This could be an opportunity to fundamentally shift some of the ways you work for the better. Why not involve your people in co-creating new ways of working? It could also be an opportunity to create new solutions for your clients and customers – as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”.

2. Be Outcomes Focused – What if we were to measure productivity by outcomes rather than hours or time online? As schools continue to shut down around the world and global teams need to shift their working patterns to fit current shifts in demand, we will need to think more creatively than ever about how well our concept of “standard days” actually work in practice, both now and into the future.

3. Examining Unwritten Rules – An example of an unwritten rule is that the official work start time is 09:00 but once you become part of the team, you realise your colleagues have all been there since 07:30 as standard. This is a chance to re-evaluate your unwritten rules and how they may be impacting wellbeing and engagement, rather than just replicating them in the virtual world. As Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan recently said in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to “create clarity for teams and trust them without micromanaging”[vi]. We may need to be even more careful of where the lines between our personal and work lives become ever more blurred, and that the pressure to be “online” may actually increase.

 4. Extending Empathy – The one thing we need now, more than ever, is empathy. The definition of empathy is being able to sit beside someone and feel with them. We need to accept and welcome that everyone will be having good days and bad days. If a team member has been in isolation or unable to see their family, it is unlikely they will be able to perform at their usual level. I have had more than one friend share with me that they are pretending their video function does not work because their anxiety levels are high, and they feel more comfortable with voice calls. An unintended consequence of our desire to communicate may be that in some cases, we are creating more stress through enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach.

If you would like to discuss this topic in greater depth, please reach out to me on email or comment below.


[i] “What is employee engagement and how to you improve it?”, Gallup, accessed March 20, 2020, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/285674/improve-employee-engagement-workplace.asp

[ii] Jay Galbraith’s Star Model, https://www.jaygalbraith.com/services/star-model

[iii] “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahnemann, 2011

[iv] “Working Virtually”, London Business School, March 18 2020 – https://www.london.edu/campaigns/executive-education/pandemic-webinars#previouswebinars

[v] The Connection Between Employee Trust and Financial Performance, HBR, July 18 2016,  https://hbr.org/2016/07/the-connection-between-employee-trust-and-financial-performance

[vi] “Strong Leadership for Uncertain Times”, Financial Times,   March 22, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/e4aec0cc-6849-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75

 

Globotics – how will the next stage in the evolution of globalisation impact the white collar middle class?

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By James Boggan, Consultant

{:name}A term coined by Professor Richard Burton, globotics, is the slightly awkward sounding amalgamation of globalisation and robotics[i]. Professor Burton predicts that developed countries’ appetite for outsourcing work to developing countries will shift to include tasks previously undertaken by local, highly-skilled white-collar workers. This shift will be made possible by advancements in technology, which will allow easy communication between people speaking different languages. What would be the benefit of this? Quite simply, cost savings. Organisations in developed countries can pay highly-skilled telemigrants – people who are based in one country but work in another, a fraction of what they would pay people based in developed countries to do the same task.

Varian’s Law dictates that emerging concepts can become a reality very quickly when several enabling technologies work together[ii]. Applied to this context, this means that, to be fully realised, globotics will rely on the interaction of technologies, notably; ultra-fast connectivity, holographics, robotics, AI and machine learning – specifically translation technology. Some of these technologies are still in their nascent phase and some are just not widely commercially available – particularly in developing countries. Therefore, globotics will likely be a gradual process, its direction dictated by where the application of breakthrough technologies can lead to the greatest cost savings. It is also important to note that while the focus of globotics is on the white-collar middle class, it does not mean that people in lower-skilled jobs will not continue to be impacted.

What are the barriers?

In certain cases, the technology is already available for globotics to infiltrate industries and jobs – it is human nature and socialisation that are proving the barrier, particularly in industries where emotions play a bigger role. Take the role of a surgeon for example. As long ago as 2001, the first transatlantic patient was operated on in Paris by surgeons in New York[iii]. However, in the 19 years since then, despite the technology being available, remote operations still only account for a tiny fraction of overall operations. It is likely that this is because people are still not comfortable having surgery performed by a someone they have never met, operating from a completely different country. The same applies to driverless planes, despite the technology being available, the thought of being in an airborne plane while the pilot is on the ground is terrifying for many people[iv]. Research conducted by UBS in 2017 found only 17% of people surveyed would board a driverless plane. Interestingly though, that figure rose to 27% for those surveyed aged 18 – 24, suggesting socialisation is increasing for the use of AI and robotics among the younger population.[v]

As hypothetical examples, these examples of the surgeon and the pilot ignore some legal, regulatory and logistical issues that will arise with globotics. If the proliferation of telemigrancy does occur at the speed predicted by Professor Burton, developed countries’ governments may have to regulate and impose limits in order to protect their own economies. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out from both the economic and sociological perspective.

Future-proofing your career

Whether through automation, or outsourcing to telemigrants, tasks within low- to highly-skilled jobs may be irrevocably changed. It is impossible to say in what industries this will occur first, but it will likely be a gradual process and dictated by the socialisation of artificial intelligence and the rate of technological advancements. Although the change will be gradual, we can safely predict that the human-centric, face-to-face, relationship-focussed tasks will be the last to be impacted by globotics. The power of the reassuring smile of a surgeon and calming tone of a pilot, should not be underestimated.

If you are looking to future-proof your career, you may want to consider your job in terms of its individual tasks. Of these individual tasks, consider what ones require your specific human-centric skills and tacit knowledge. These are the tasks that are likely to be the most future-proofed, and so you should focus on developing your ability and performance in these tasks.

If you would like to discuss this in more depth, please comment below or reach out to me over email.

References

[i] https://www.ft.com/content/892c6c1e-1d8f-11e9-a46f-08f9738d6b2b

[ii] Varian, H., Farrell, J., & Shapiro, C. The Economics of Information Technology: An Introduction

[iii] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20140516-i-operate-on-people-400km-away

[iv] https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/pilotless-plane-remote-controlled-flight-drone-aircraft-2025-aviation-technology-a7884911.html

[v] https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/ubs-releases-report-showing-airplanes-could-be-pilotless-by-2025

Your job is designed to stress you out

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By Tom Goulding, Analyst

TomIt has been widely reported that stress is the “health epidemic of the 21st Century”. The latest statistics for the UK suggest that 12.8 million workdays were lost in 2018/19 to work-related stress, depression, and anxiety.1 The most commonly-cited reason was workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility. Evidence strongly suggests that stress impacts employee health2, job satisfaction3, turnover4, as well as productivity and profits.5

The resulting costs of a stressed workforce are significant, and employers have taken note. The Organisational Health and Wellbeing industry that seeks to reduce workplace stress was worth an estimated £526 million in the UK last year.6 However, the effectiveness of programmes in improving wellbeing is questionable. One study examined over 30,000 U.S. warehouse workers, finding those in wellbeing programmes reported no difference in absenteeism, healthcare spending, or job performance.7 Another study implies corporate wellbeing programmes are overwhelmingly taken up by healthy employees, and may even alienate those dealing with existing issues, meaning that programmes can screen out the employees that need help the most.8

The corporate approach to wellbeing evidently needs to be re-examined. W. Edwards Deming argued that “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”, and it seems clear that many organisations are currently designed to produce stressed workers. It seems tautological to say that people are stressed because work is stressful, but it is an important point to make. While theory and evidence both suggest some level of stress is beneficial for performance, too much stress is undoubtedly harmful, as shown in the graph below. If most people are more stressed than is optimal, this is because their roles are more stressful than is optimal.

tom blog

Wellbeing initiatives often focus on individuals, aiming to improve their resilience or boost the sense of satisfaction employees get from their work. While there is a growing ‘job crafting’ movement9 in the Human Resources world, the power to redesign roles generally belongs to organisations rather than employees. Individual resilience is just one half of the picture. The focus on individuals is particularly convenient for employers, as it precludes any scrutiny into how they are contributing to the problem. This oversight likely underlies the previously discussed ineffectiveness of many wellbeing initiatives.

Furthermore, shifting responsibility from the least powerful part of the system (individuals) to the most powerful (the organisation) magnifies the potential impact of interventions. To take an example that has likely impacted your own life, consider plastic straws. You can choose to personally avoid plastic straws, but it would be impossible for an individual to match the impact of Tesco’s recent decision10 to remove one billion pieces of single-use plastic from their stores by end of 2020, or many retailers’ decision to remove plastic straws altogether.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach but, ultimately, a large portion of the responsibility must lie with the organisation to listen to their people and act to make changes to the system. Some situations can be remedied by increased flexibility of working hours or location, while others require more clearly-defined boundaries between ‘work time’ and ‘home time’. Some companies would benefit from having wellbeing sessions during the workday, while others would generate yet more stress as employees try to find the time to fit these in among their schedules. Offering free gym classes or fresh fruit and calling it a day simply are not enough, and often miss the mark entirely. Organisations must develop a signature approach to wellbeing that is tailored specifically for their people and environment.

Of course, it is still up to employees to engage with wellbeing initiatives once they are deployed, but deployment of genuinely effective initiatives is only possible once organisations accept their responsibility and start making systematic changes to address their specific issues.

If you’re interested in developing a clear picture of where to begin within your own organisation, or want to discuss your own experience with health and wellbeing initiatives, please feel free to get in touch with me.


  1. Health and Safety Executive. (2019). Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain; https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2019). Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behaviour;
  3. Ismail et al. (2015). The Relationship between Stress and Job Satisfaction: Evidence from a Malaysian Peacekeeping Mission.
  4. Lu Y, Hu X, Huang X, et al. (2017). The relationship between job satisfaction, work stress, work–family conflict, and turnover intention among physicians in Guangdong, China: a cross-sectional study.
  5. Denning, Stephanie. (2018). How Stress Is The Business World’s Silent Killer; https://www.forbes.com/sites/stephaniedenning/2018/05/04/what-is-the-cost-of-stress-how-stress-is-the-business-worlds-silent-killer/#706b6546e061
  6. IbisWorld. (2019). Corporate Wellness Services in the UK – Market Research Report; https://www.ibisworld.com/united-kingdom/market-research-reports/corporate-wellness-services-industry/
  7. Song, Baicker. (2019). Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes: A Randomized Clinical Trial
  8. Jones, Molitor, Reif. (2018). What Do Workplace Wellness Programs Do? Evidence from the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study.
  9. Lee, Louise. (2016). Should Employees Design Their Own Jobs? https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/should-employees-design-their-own-jobs
  10. Tesco news bulletin. (2019); https://www.tescoplc.com/news/2019/tesco-to-remove-one-billion-pieces-of-plastic-from-products-by-the-end-of-2020/?category=packaging

Technology in HR: Taking a Step Back

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By Nader Sleiman, Analyst

nader‘Could AI decide your job fate?’ recently led my LinkedIn homepage in the News and Views section. The storyline included a link to an article in The Telegraph entitled ‘AI used for first time in job interviews in UK to find best applicants’. As the article went into detail on how AI would be introduced into recruitment practices, and the positive and negative impacts it might have, the ethics behind introducing this technology in selection were put in question. Despite our fascination with introducing technology to the workplace, there are points when one must pause and reflect on when and how technology is used and whether this use is adding value. I hope that what follows serves as an eye-opener regarding what AI means for recruitment today, and why it is still too early for this tool to be adopted for the purpose of assessing people’s candidacy.

Is AI in recruitment simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

The Telegraph article introduced both sides of the argument: the side presenting a positive view of AI in recruitment, and the side that saw the flaws AI demonstrated in this area only in 2018 when Amazon shut down their recruitment AI project for racial and gender bias.[1] Technology has grown to play a crucial role for HR processes. Information systems such as Workday, Oracle’s Taleo, and SAP’s SuccessFactors have facilitated the automated side of HR, paving the way for a focus on process improvement. Even AI offers recruiters great benefits, such as facial recognition that detects candidates’ emotional state and body language during recorded interviews to identify personal characteristics and quality of information delivery. Similarly to its simpler predecessors, AI reduces time spent on HR procedures and allows recruitment professionals more time to focus on developing the process. This technology also could contribute to reducing subjectivity, as well, but it is yet to achieve this level of advancement.

Adopting AI remains a questionable approach to recruitment, largely because of its history of bias. Dr. Muneera Bano of Swinburne University of Technology points out that AI’s gender bias is the result of historical gender discrepancy in cyber content. As AI gathers information, the biases expressed by human beings are integrated into AI’s assessments, threatening the chances of women being fairly assessed. Joy Buolamwini’s research found that IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon’s AI recruitment systems failed to even identify the gender of famous African American women, such as Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, and Oprah Winfrey. The result, therefore, is an AI preference for male candidates over female candidates in the assessment, which could lead to dismissing qualified female candidates of colour solely on the basis of race or gender.

Reflecting on Interviews as a Selection Tool

Although automation is without doubt a key part of the future of work, the automation of HR professionals’ selection practices, particularly the practice of interviewing itself, must be re-evaluated.

The predictive validity of interviews, in their various types, has been discussed and questioned by HR researchers for decades.[2] This is only partly because of the possible subjectivity of the interviewer, but it is also because of the differences that may appear in performance from the same person under varying circumstances. Numerous circumstantial variables can affect a candidate’s performance in interviews, making this selection technique less representative of candidates’ skills. For that reason, businesses need to focus on more than just the technological aspect of the future of work, as the process itself could be flawed to begin with. In other words, introducing technology to a flawed process, whose flaw has little to do with its use of technology or lack thereof, cannot improve it.

As automation and technological changes make their way further into the way we operate as organisations, we must never forget to question and improve the core of how we do things. The most important element will always be the human resource. If you would like to discuss recruitment practices and how technology can currently contribute to selection practices, please feel free to send me an email.


[1] Dastin, Jeffrey (Oct 10, 2018). Amazon scraps secret AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women. Reuters.

[2] Burbeck, E. (1988). Predictive Validity of the Recruit Selection Interview. The Police Journal61(4), 304–311.

3 Unexpected Insights on Dynamic Workforce Planning

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By Ellen Kwan, Analyst

3 Unexpected Insights on Dynamic Workforce Planning

At the end of last year, Future of Work Research Consortium delegates came together for HSM’s Dynamic Workforce Planning Masterclass, which was full of insights, activities and cross-industry collaboration. Through conversations and live polling with consortium members, we have gained some new perspectives on Dynamic Workforce Planning. As it is often the case, learning was a two-way street at the Masterclass – we have also walked away with unexpected perspectives on Dynamic Workforce Planning.

Upskill and Reskill for Social Mobility

“Automation presents an interesting counterintuition in shifting people whose skills are in decline into higher paying jobs.”

While the advent of the digital revolution presents an opportunity to overcome challenges in social mobility, the same opportunities could instead be barriers to those without existing digital skills.

As noted by the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2018-19 report, “being born privileged in Britain means that you are likely to remain privileged. Being born disadvantaged, however, means that you may have to overcome a series of barriers to ensure that your children are not stuck in the same trap”[1].  The UK’s social mobility has been reported to have remained “virtually stagnant” since 2014. This phenomenon can, in part, be attributed to the “virtuous cycle of work training and pay rises” available to high-skilled workers. While almost a third of employees in managerial and professional occupations took part in training over the past three months, only 18% in routine and manual jobs had the same opportunity. According to Dr. Lunchinskaya from the Institute for Employment Research, these findings show a vicious cycle of learning “whereby those with low or no qualifications are much less likely to access education and training after leaving school than those with high qualification.”[2] As a result, the low-skilled are unable to upskill to meet the needs of the digital future, continuously preserving low-skilled employees at lower paid roles.

Automation presents organisations and governments with the opportunity to shape how their workforce and social landscape looks. When CEOs were asked to list the most important measures of success in 2019, the number one measure was “impact on society, including income inequality and diversity.”[3] Rather than upskilling or reskilling employees to similar roles which would be future-proofed, organisations could play a key role in displaced employees’ social mobility by identifying roles with the most skill and task adjacencies that offer higher pay. Therefore, as automation and digitisation become an increasingly prevalent phenomenon across different types of work, organisations can either become active shapers of the social landscape, or lose part of their workforce to the increasing digital divide.

Reframe the Language of the Future

“The way we speak about the future can bring joy to encourage people to embrace those ideas of the future.”

What immediately comes to mind when you hear terms like “automation”, “Artificial Intelligence”, or “human-machine collaboration”? With thoughts of Skynet and Elon Musk’s warnings on humankind’s future enslavement to machines, it comes as no surprise that over 65% of Americans fear automation[4].

Consider Daniel Kahneman’s research on thinking fast and slow. While thinking fast (system 1 thinking) relies on first impressions and ‘gut-reactions’ to make decisions, thinking slow (system 2) relies on reflection and logical analysis. Our tendency to make gut-reactions first can be attributed to the fact that when we have capacity for rational information processing, we have little authority to use that information for making decisions. In the deeper part of our brain where system 1 thinking takes place (the Vagus nerve), we have no rational processing capacity, but more authority in using system 1 to make decisions[5]. Therefore, when employees are told that technological change is coming, system 1 could already be operating before employees can consider benefits of the change. Instead, fast thinking relies on heuristics and mental biases to create conclusions about the technological change – fear and anxiety.

An example of a mental bias that fast thinking falls victim to is availability heuristic. The availability heuristic leads people to assume that information that is readily available is valid. A study in 2010 found that people who watch violent media gave higher estimates of crime in the real world than those not exposed to violent media[6]. In the context of automation and digitisation, the barrage of media reports on job losses from automation, film adaptations of robotic overlords taking over humanity, and stories or anecdotes about others whose jobs have been displaced can cause employees to overestimate the threat of automation.

While thinking fast can lead us to conclusions of doom and gloom around automation in the future of work, organisations and leaders can work to shift emotions of fear into excitement. Research has found that certain fearful situations can activate the reward centre in the brain[7] under specific conditions. Klucken (2009) recommends creating situations for predictable fear, rather than unanticipated fear. When we can anticipate the fearful situation, humans are able to activate the limbic system, allowing us to feel alert and excited without concern over actual threats.

In summary, when framing language of the future, leaders should ensure that their message fulfils the following three requirements:

  1. Widespread and readily available in a number of different formats for employees (e.g. videos, learning journeys, blog posts)
  2. Positive and focused on potential gains for employees
  3. Transparent about next steps and implications on employees’ roles

Renaissance of Work

“Let’s start calling the future of work ‘The Renaissance of Work.’”

As technological ingenuity has grown exponentially prevalent in the workplace, we now need to put a human focus back into work. With technology’s growing potential, leaders are now starting to see the role that humans can play alongside technology. From creating new jobs to manage and regulate technology (e.g. AI ethics engineers) to shifting focus from technical skills to uniquely human skills (e.g. creativity), the human focus is beginning to catch up to the digital boom.

Moving beyond human-machine collaboration, organisations will need to employ social ingenuity to truly thrive in the future of work. Demographic and societal changes, such as longer working lives and shifting family dynamics, requires organisations to reinvent the way we think about work and its role in identity and life. Organisations must begin thinking about what it means to put humans at the centre, understanding what the future landscape of work may look like, and identifying avenues to enable humans to thrive, rather than to be held a victim of the future landscape.

An example of social ingenuity needed now is the concept of retirement. Traditionally, people are recruited into an entry-level position after completing their full-time education. Throughout their careers, they climb up the promotional ladder, making occasional jumps across organisations. This eventually stops as people reach their late 50s or early 60s, as they prepare for retirement. However, as longevity increases, so does people’s desire to lengthen their working lives. While governments play a key role in mandating official retirement age, organisations play an active part in how retirement can be implemented. Too often, employees are offered a binary choice between full-time work or retirement. By doing so, organisations fail to tap into the crystalline intelligence typically held in experienced employees, which refers to the tacit knowledge of how to perform tasks. The renaissance of work calls for a mindset shift in how retirement is perceived, whether it continues to remain as a binary choice, or a flexible combination of work embedded within retirement. If the future of retirement does call for flexibility, what would it look like? These are questions that organisations should begin considering to leverage the skills and potential offered by retiring employees.

By redefining the concept of retirement, organisations can utilise the full potential of their workforce. In turn, employees can also craft the retirement lifestyle that best suits them according to their financial, emotional, and social needs.

As we reach the Renaissance of Work, leaders must put humans back at the forefront of work. Taking a human-focused lens moves beyond thinking about skills or jobs, but considers how to leverage changing human needs to craft a mutually beneficial future of work.

 

If you would like to find out more about Dynamic Workforce Planning, or how you can join Prof. Lynda Gratton’s Future of Work Research Consortium, get in touch with Anna.


[1] State of the Nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain

[2] Social Mobility Commission report warns of ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’ cycle of adult learning

[3] Introduction: Leading the social enterprise – Reinvent with a human focus

[4] How Americans see automation and the workplace in 7 charts

[5] Kahneman, Daniel, 1934- author. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York :Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

[6] Riddle, Karen (2010). “Always on My Mind: Exploring How Frequent, Recent, and Vivid Television Portrayals Are Used in the Formation of Social Reality Judgments”. Media Psychology. 13 (2): 155–179.

[7] Klucken, T. et al 2009. “Contingency Learning in Human Fear Conditioning Involves the Ventral Striatum.” Human Brain Mapping 30:3636–3644

The Unintended Consequences of Agile Working

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IzzyWebsiteThe advancements in technology, paired with globalisation have promoted a trend towards agile working, with workers free to work at a time and location which suits them. In the changing world of work, there is a growing trend for employees to work flexibly and not be required to be tied to their desks in traditional working patterns, with 70% of people globally working remotely at least once a week [1]. There are multiple organisational benefits to agile working, including increased productivity, autonomy and the promotion of work-life balance for employees.

Recently, Microsoft Japan implemented a 4 day working week to much success. Offering its 2,300 employees a variety of agile working styles, Microsoft Japan launched a pilot programme aiming to increase productivity and morale, with a goal to realise the same results with 20% fewer weekly hours[2]. The results appeared to be highly positive: a 40% rise in productivity, happier workers and a decline in days taken off. However, there are often unintended consequences of agile working which organisations should consider in their approach. The introduction of the shorter week came with the introduction of ‘strict new rules’, with managers being ‘heavy handed’ in their implementation, including employees being fined for taking too long on work-related matters.

Taking these dynamics into consideration, the pressure to output the same amount, or the resulting 40% rise in productivity in Microsoft’s case, in a shorter amount of time could have a detrimental effect upon employees wellbeing and long term efficiency.

Organisations such as Tiggertrap and the Los Angeles Times have also suffered unintended consequences when introducing an unlimited vacation policy. On the face of it, this seems like a positive idea which promotes high levels of rejuvenation, empowerment and autonomy. However, in practice often these policies push people to always be ‘on’ and connected, with a Glassdoor survey showing that 61% of workers admit to working despite being on vacation[3].

In many cases, one of the main disadvantages associated with unlimited vacation policies is that often employees end up taking less time off. Tiggertrap scrapped their unlimited vacation policy after results found that employees had reduced their average number of holiday taken from 28 days to 15. Factors such as unspoken expectations and nobody wanting to be the person who takes the most time off, contribute to spiralling behaviour in which employees take even less holiday than before. Adding to this, the advancement in technology has enabled new ways of working, but has also promoted the growth of an ‘always on’ culture, in which there are potential stresses of constantly being connected to work and never truly switching off.

So, after this reflection of the disadvantages of a more agile approach to working arrangements, why should organisations still consider this strategy as their most future-proofed option?

In the changing world of work, organisations need to adapt their traditional approaches to ways of working in order to attract and retain the best talent. By offering a wider menu of options of working hours, organisations should be able to attract a broader range of people and maintain a stronger talent pipeline. In confronting the unintended consequences, it is crucial that organisations develop policies that will not just allow employees to work flexibly or have time off, but encourage them to do so. If the aim of the policy is to enhance a less frenzied working environment, with reduced burnout and higher productivity, organisations need to tackle the culture in which these policies sit and support individual behaviour that does not promote employees to be ‘always on’ and constantly connected. To approach this, organisations could benefit from considering a more tailored approach, aiming to promote a culture which empowers their employees ‘to communicate when they need time to disconnect’, rather than rolling out a one-size-fits-all policy[4].


[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/30/70-percent-of-people-globally-work-remotely-at-least-once-a-week-iwg-study.html

2 Kelly, J. (2019). Microsoft Japan Launched A Four-Day Workweek To Much Success: Is This The Key To Attracting Talent In The Tight U.S. Job Market?. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2019/11/05/microsoft-japan-launched-a-four-day-week-work-to-much-success-is-this-the-answer-to-attract-talent-in-the-tight-us-job-market/#4863cf6759ff  [Accessed 21 Nov. 2019].

3 Unlimited Vacation Time Policy (2016), Hot Spots Movement. Available at: http://hotspotscdn.blob.core.windows.net/files/1247/unlimited-vacation-time-case-study-160915.pdf [Accessed 21st. Nov. 2019]

4 Future of HR Report (2016), Hot Spots Movement, Available at http://hotspotscdn.blob.core.windows.net/files/1267/future-of-hr-report-final.pdf