While it still seems a long way off - despite the denialist nonsense pushed out by the Oval Office - at some point there will be an end to the COVID crisis and society will have to think about how to reboot and what form the future economy will take. At that point, the future of work will be one of the topics that needs to be taken into consideration. The recent BlackTechFest event took a look at that topic, inviting three panelists to contemplate what we will need to do to make a post-pandemic world of work…well, work.
Gabriela Hersham is CEO of Huckletree, a workspace accelerator based in the UK. She argues:
I think it's obvious to us right now, but something that we couldn't have predicted 12 months ago, is that we are all going to have much more flexibility in where we choose to work from, which I think is great, especially for us parents who need that time at home, who are missing out on precious times. As with so many other people, this flexibility brings such a greater work life balance. I really see people choosing to spend more time working from home more than working from the workspace and for that not to be seen as a negative anymore. I also see enterprise and big corporates moving into more flexible workspace offerings, which is great for my industry, and really buying into the added value that workspace operators can can bring them with innovation endeavours.
For his part, Julian Hall, CEO of Ultra Education, which defines itself as a BAME-led organization that focuses on teaching entrepreneurship to underrepresented communities and those for whom the existing education system does not deliver, sees encouraging such entrepreneurship as the key:
When we are talking to kids about entrepreneurship, really we kind of unpack the term and introduce them to some of the nuggets and the cornerstones of entrepreneurship in in this regard. We know that disruption provides opportunity and that there's always a learning and there is always a way to present your ability to perhaps do things better. We're in a very different space currently and that will only project itself into the future. We're all gazing into our own individual crystal balls to work out what that could be, but I think for us, it's about what trends do we see? Some of them have been ongoing and are pointing towards the future of work through the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report. So we do understand some of the skill sets that were touted, whether it's critical thinking, teamwork skills, stuff around data, being a digital professional. COVID has accelerated those. So where the World Economic Forum may have said, 'That's coming in 2013', it's probably come this year. So for us it's just about the acceleration of what has already been researched and tying those in with entrepreneurship in the fact that it presents an opportunity.
Fostering entrepreneurs tackles a host of issues, he attests:
I know young people who have applied for literally a hundred jobs and can't find anything. I've always said if you can't find the job of your dreams, you should be able to create the job of your dreams. It's not that I want everyone to be an entrepreneur, but I do want everyone to be happy in employment. We've been far too comfortable with hating Monday mornings and loving Friday evenings. For me, that isn't the ambition of the next generation. In working with communities who don't often have access to a brilliant work pipeline, the schools are often better pivoted towards creating their own employment and creating their own dream job because many of them simply don't have the networks to get them into the types of work that they would love. You have Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups who are having to change their identity when they go into the corporate workplace. When you are an entrepreneur and you're doing your own thing, it actually reinforces who you are. You have to dial up your own identity, dial up your communication because you've got to be authentic. So are were lots of things that entrepreneurship solves in regards to an employment pathway.
For Euan Blair, CEO of WhiteHat, the future of work lies in large part in overturning the traditional educational approach:
We are on a mission to create a diverse group of future leaders by building an outstanding alternative to university through apprenticeships. WhiteHat really exists because we feel universities are broken as a one-size-fits-all model. They're still teaching people the way they were decades ago, despite all the changes we're seeing in the labor market and actually they're failing to meet the challenge of improving social mobility. We have apprentices at some of the world's top companies - Google, Facebook, Sky, Bloomberg Omnicon, Visa - all there without university degrees and we're increasingly re-skilling people who were looking to change careers. I think probably the biggest impact this is having for us is really on priorities for business. So diversity and access to opportunity are firmly at the top of the agenda for every CEO, every board of every major organization, and they're going to have to take these issues seriously and demonstrate the steps they're taking in this area. The other thing we've witnessed is this rapid acceleration of the need for digital skills. Every major global company is in some stage of undergoing the transformation they'll need to be successful. Over the next decade, digital skills will be at the heart of that.
According to Blair, apprenticeships are to ‘future proof’ your career:
We're actually spending a lot of time re-skilling people who are transitioning into more data-focused roles, more technical roles or moving into leadership and management positions. Everyone's going to have to get comfortable with the fact that we'll have multiple careers, often spanning different disciplines. We will need to be constantly retraining and learning in order to take advantage of the opportunities that are going to come our way. If you were classifying skills in broad sets, on the technical skills front, data analytics is the one I'd hone in on. It's in huge demand. Clearly software engineering is an important growing area too.
But in terms of core need across the workforce, organizations will need more people who are confident and conversant with data than they are with actual coding, so I think from a technical skills perspective that's probably the most critical. Then on the business skills front, prioritization and massively improved ability to triage often quite complex problems rapidly and focus your efforts in the right areas. Then things like taking people with you. You've got to coach and develop them. Those skills will remain acute. And we're spending a long time focusing on those currently.
On softer skills, I prefer to think of them as human skills that will be essential - and they can't easily be automated. Empathy is definitely one of the most important. If you can't empathise with with co-workers, customers, suppliers, you'll come to a stop quite quickly, especially at the moment we're living through right now. That ability to build relationships, either remotely or in person, is still something everyone's going to have to work out. I think a lot of people express frustrations at the remote nature of communication at the moment when it's not as easy to go and meet people. We're all going to have to turn remote communication into a bit of a superpower, because that is the way many, many things, in both the business world, and in our personal lives, are going to happen over the next few months, regardless of when we have a vaccine or when the world starts to recover from from the pandemic.
One thing all three panelists agree on is the need to build a more diverse workforce for the future, but this needs to stem from genuine actions, not ticking the box. Herhsam says:
There are a lot of companies that are genuinely trying [to work harder on diversity], but there are also a lot of companies who did what they needed to do. With the George Floyd killing and when Black Lives Matter (BLM) resurfaced, they kind of touched on it very loosely and didn't really follow it through and I think that they've been pulling away from it. We need to help companies to know what to do and get back to it. There are some basics that we all should know by now that are the best ways to attract diverse talent. You want to make sure that your job descriptions don't have any problematic language; you want to make sure that your website shows a really diverse workforce and is a place where people can see themselves represented and where they can see themselves working; and you want to make sure that you are speaking to recruiters who focus on attracting diverse talent, that you're really showing up in the right places where people of color and other diverse talent will be and that you're investing time and finding them.
I actually was on a roundtable discussion last night where a friend of mine said, 'This concept that diverse talent is hard to find is not true. It's not the talent that's hard to find; it's the company that's hard to find. What if you're not finding the talent because you're only showing up in a few places where they aren't?' That really resonated with me. To look at it more holistically, I think that diverse talent can afford to be selective about the businesses that they go to. It's not just about going to the start-ups; it's about them wanting to work for start-ups that genuinely show that they are committed to creating a fully inclusive community. That is really the benchmark for all of us. We can undertake all of these mechanisms and we can go out there, but if we're not genuinely showing that commitment internally, I think it's going to be very hard to attract diverse talent.
Hall agrees that deeds need to match words and not just at conferences and public events:
Action should follow empathy. Lots of these forums create empathy to the challenges, but not necessarily the action, But also I think that actually comes from board level. You can have a great Diversity & Inclusion leads, but I've spoken to many of them who don't feel empowered to be able to move the needle on some of the issues that they face because it comes, ultimately, with the need for resource and that resource is often signed for at board level. So if we if we create more diverse boards or boards who are constantly educated, not just through a month, not just because you know there's been a massive issue in BLM, but it's part of the fabric of organizations to have these discussions and to take a long term approach to the strategy.
And Blair concludes:
Let's turn the talk into action. Companies actually have the power to change who gets access to opportunities. It's one of the reasons we're such an advocate for apprenticeships. Don't rely on existing mechanisms or systems to actually find your diverse talent or somehow hope they're going to make their way through what is an archaic and outdated process. Be incredibly open, reach communities that source and use things like apprenticeships, both to attract really diverse talent from a variety of backgrounds, but also to go and re-skill people and make sure you're distributing those opportunities much more evenly than they are currently.