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Farrer & Co | Meet the future of work head on

It was our Knowledge Week last week and one of the themes on the agenda was 'the future of work'. We even discussed whether Farrers would survive the next 30 years (I'm pleased to say we concluded it would, though as with most organisations there will undoubtedly be challenges along the way). All of this got me thinking about what HR professionals could and should be doing now to prepare for the things the future will throw at us.

The reality is that we are in a period of flux. Consider just a few recent news stories:

  • In yet another employment status case, a group of Addison Lee drivers have been found to be workers (and so entitled to the associated rights and benefits), rather than self-employed. Uber is also back in court, again on the question of status and the employment relationship.
  • Uber was stripped of its London licence "due to lack of corporate responsibility" (and in part poor working practices). Commentators have asked whether this is a "blow to the gig economy".
  • There has been a "surge in the number of working mothers with dependent children" in the last two decades, now up to 74%.
  • Jeremy Corbyn plans to "tax robots" because automation is a "threat" to workers.
  • And, of course, who could forget about Brexit....

Combined with unprecedented technological innovation, all these changes have the potential to impact significantly on current working practices. And those are just stories from the last week. Imagine what the next 20 years will bring.

But therein lies the problem. Apart from an innovative few, us humans have a tendency to quite like the status quo and to find it hard to think outside our rather comfortable box. And when you look back at the dramatic changes there have been over the last 20 years, it's not surprising we find it hard to predict what will happen in the next 20.

The full force of this was brought home to me at a university reunion I attended last week. I started university just before the turn of the century. At that point practically no one had a mobile phone (and those in existence were genuinely "bricks"), I didn't have an email address, and my college had a computer room with only four computers in it for 300 people. It's hard to believe, but social media did not exist. In my Saturday job at a supermarket we were a little more advanced - we had one of those computers with a black screen and a flashing green cursor. Today's world could not be more different. And we need to accept (and try to embrace) the fact that the world of the future will be totally different again. A few predictions I've seen include: there will be fundamental changes in the nature of work; the concept of "the employer" will fragment; long-term, permanent employment will be a thing of the past; jobs will exist which we simply cannot fathom today; automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will be common place; I could go on...

Not surprisingly, I cannot give you any conclusive advice about preparing for a world 20 years from now (I wish I could, since then maybe I'd be able to steer my children in the direction of roles which will actually still exist!). However, it seems to me that there is a great opportunity for HR professionals (and hopefully employment lawyers) to take a proactive role in shaping the workplace evolution, and so here are just a few of my musings on the sort of things we could be doing now:

1. Celebrate rather than fear artificial intelligence.

Coming from me, a confirmed technophobe, this is saying something. However, there is no denying that automation and AI are advancing rapidly and will affect every level of every organisation before we know it (and indeed in many places already are). It is all too easy to get swept along by the fear mongers that this will spell the end of jobs and indeed life as we know it. The other side of the coin though is to focus on the good it can do – the way it can assist us to do things we are already doing but better, or to do things we could not otherwise do, or its ability to free people up to use their time in more productive or inspirational ways.

As I see it, there are several practical things we could all be doing now to get ready for the AI revolution. First, don't just leave it to IT; spend time understanding the different facets of AI and how it can be used – focus on its potential. Second, look for ways it could be used to enhance aspects of your role or your business, and in doing so, try to be realistic about the risks and opportunities that will bring. The better prepared you are for AI, the more you will benefit from its coming.

2. Focus on people rather than jobs.

We cannot deny that some jobs will disappear as a result of technology. This trend has already started (in the age of digital photos, how many people are still employed to print photographs?). That doesn't mean, however, that organisations should simply shed the people too. Research seems to suggest that the work of the future will be dependent on greater 'soft' skills (ie that computers cannot replicate), such as problem-solving, emotional intelligence, empathy and adaptability. Perhaps employers should start to focus on the people they employ, rather than the roles they do, and help them adapt to change, for example, by encouraging and incentivising training and retraining or by developing new career-paths which keep pace with change.

3. Start conversations now.

Although it's easy to park some of what I'm saying as 'future concerns', the reality is that much of this change is happening already and so actions need to happen now too. However, preparing for an undefined uncertain future is not something which one person in an organisation can do alone. Instead, think about involving employees in a dialogue about what the future of your organisation will look like and what part they can play. You never know where the next bright idea might come from.
It is also worth bearing in mind that surveys indicate at least a third of workers are worried that their roles will disappear due to automation. Since this sort of anxiety can have a negative impact on current staff morale and productivity, having open conversations now about the future can help avoid a downward spiral going unchecked.

4. Embrace flexibility.

I don't just mean try to embed the statutory flexible working procedure. Instead, it feels to me that this is an area where there is scope (and a need) for some pretty radical thinking. The demand is certainly there: millennials apparently value greater flexibility; older workers are seeking more phased routes into retirement; people will need more time off to retrain or develop new skills etc. This is one area which technology has the potential to set alight, with the concept of "virtual offices", or smartphones enabling people to work when and where they want, as the line between home and work becomes increasingly blurred. Yes, it will require some pretty significant thinking in order to manage a truly flexible workforce but doing that now will get you ahead of the curve, and that can only be a good thing.

Realistically, these thoughts are only the tip of the iceberg and I do not profess to be an expert in this star-gazing business. However, even if all my predictions turn out to be wrong (and if you happen to stumble across this blog in 20 years' time and find that's the case, then please just quietly delete it), what you can be sure is that change of some sort will happen and those that plan for that and are ready to adapt to it will be the best prepared to take advantage of the new opportunities when they come.

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