The World of Work is Changing – Again!

February 16, 2017

Caroline Waters, OBE, Deputy Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and Vice President of Carers UK

We’ve talked about the changing nature of work for what seems like eons. That’s because work; what we do, where we do it and who we do it with has never really been static. Sure the pace of change and the threats and opportunities are greater than ever but there always has, and always will be, a constant drum beat of change in the world of work.

Nowadays change can be a quite individual thing. No surprise really given the advent of flexible working and the greater autonomy that it brings, not to mention that some 40% of all UK workers are now self employed. So what are the themes that could fundamentally change work as we currently experience it? Well I could talk about the macro ecomomic, societal, cultural or demographic dynamics that drive change, and there are plenty, but you’ve heard all that before so here’s a more tangible perspective on the very real changes we might see in the next five to ten years.

There’s no doubt that the globalisation of work and economies will continue to create a more unstable and reactive context for work. It seems that the theory of chaos is routinely acted out on our screens and stock markets. A butterfly flaps it’s wings in the US housing market and we see years of global downturn! Seriously though, BREXIT, AI, automisation, human rights and technological advances that enable new ways of working will continue to shape our future experience of life and work.

Already it’s estimated that the UK has some five million people working in the so called Gig Economy. Many of the companies they work with desiginate ‘Gigsters’ as self employed. Yet they still dictate working patterns and apply tight controls to the rates these workers may charge. Holding some below minimum wage levels. Not classifying these workers as employees seems to have encouraged some organisations to set aside any reason to consider that they may have a responsibility for the wellbeing or rights of these workers. The resultant lack of virtually any job security, payment for holidays or sickness and investment in training and personal development is deeply worrying and has led to revolt in the form of employment suits and demonstrations. I hope that 2017 will see the emergence of a new, more responsible and accountable form of working that offers flexibility without the potential for exploitation.

To a certain extent the problem lies in how we define and measure organisational success. When success becomes too narrowly focused on the search for the economic holy grail organisations become obsessed by cost. Ensuring that anything that is critical to business success can be acquired as cheaply as possible becomes a business critical mission. We will, for the foreseeable future, continue to live in a world where by and large the skill of an organisations’ workforce is the greatest determinant of its success. For now, people are the main source of skill and controlling, even supressing, pay and charging rates becomes a stand out deliverable for most Boards. Disastrously this one act of organisational survival has started to break the link between the attainment of skill and greater life choices.  Even skilled graduates are seeing the gap between their and blue collar worker salaries decrease. We have yet to see how this might affect the future labour pool. After all, if it doesn’t enhance life choices why would we expect young people to learn, graduate or develop themselves for the workplace?

We know that skill will remain a critical source of competitive advantage in the future. The skills agenda represents another fast moving part of the employment cycle and there are compelling reasons why it is a critical issue for all organisations. Austerity and Brexit are just a couple of examples of how contextual change is transforming sector skills requirements. A recent National Audit Office report suggested that the biggest threat to successfully delivering challenging targets on service provision and cost reduction is a shortage of commercial, digital and high level negotiating skills within the public sector. Of course this is true right across the UK workforce with an estimated 7 million people needing to be retrained or upskilled in the next 5 years alone. This is in addition to the skill requirements presented by the 13.5 million new jobs predicted to arise over the next 10 years. It is increasingly difficult to see how this skill gap will be filled. Over the same period our schools and universities will produce some 7m people leaving a 47% gap.

Clearly we need to forge much closer links between employers and educationalists. Firstly, we are asking our beleaguered education system to tackle an almost impossible task. Technological and contextual change is happening an unprecedented pace. One likelihood is that soon, what is taught on the first year of a four-year course will be out of date by the time the student reaches the final year. Effectively we are asking the system to prepare people for jobs that don’t yet exist and to use technology that isn’t yet invented. Secondly, as markets globalise further UK business will need to consider newly emerging markets. I don’t mean the BRIC countries. Now that they are all leading economies I think we can safely consider them as emerged! The real emerging markets are in sub Saharan Africa and Latin America. Many are in countries that are politically and economically unstable and subject to sporadic natural disasters. Many have no infrastructure or governance. Doing business there will require new skills and approaches. The skills needed are still emerging but a deep sense of values, cultural sensitivity, languages, the ability to innovate responsibly and design products and services for lean fuel economies are certainly amongst them. A recent survey of global CEO’s indicated that 80% were worried about this skill gap and felt that their learning and development leads were not responding quickly or deeply enough to the challenge.

Another way to obtain skill at lower cost is to increase productivity and efficiency. There has been much gnashing of teeth about the low rate of productivity achieved in the UK, especially since Brexit. Cue automisation. We’ve heard lots about robots or AI stealing our jobs or providing us with the boon of constant leisure depending on your perspective! That possibility is increasing quickly and estimates predict that 40% of all jobs, including in the service sector, could be automated in the next 25 years. Previously we’ve scoffed that robots will never be dexterous enough to replace the miracle that is the human hand but 2016 saw AI, such as Da Vinci, performing operations with hitherto unimaginable levels of accuracy. The on going Southern Rail dispute offers just a glimpse of the perceived threat to job security that even basic level automisation can create.

It’s impossible to predict the true scale of Brexit’s impact with most leaders still unsure about what it actually means for their organisation. The threat of employers leaving the UK and the resultant increase in unemployment is real however. There are 3.5 million EU nationals in the UK. 2.3 million qualified for permanent residence in the first quarter of 2016. We have seen despicable increases in hate crime and feedback from some of these workers is that they no longer feel that the UK is either welcoming or safe. It is essential that employers communicate openly with their migrant workers or we will lose their skill and the huge contribution they make to the UK economy.

2016 saw parts of the UK reach record-breaking employment rates. A deeper look at the stats however, reveal one of the great injustices of our society. The bottom line is that difference is still a penalty in the UK. Disabled people, especially those with mental ill health conditions, women especially those who dare to have children, ethnic minority groups such as Somali or Pakistani workers, carers, those who transgender and even people who simply need some flexibility to manage work and family are less likely to be employed, more likely to experience discrimination and to be paid less. Many have highly desirable skills but are forced to work below their skill and earnings potential by a poor transport infrastructure, inflexible employers and out dated attitudes and behaviours. The EHRC has found that as many as 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers lose, or are forced to leave, their jobs every year. All this costs our economy billions and wastes the talent and skills of thousands of people. If we take action now, examine our recruitment and progression policies and the working environments that we create, this ‘invisible’ workforce is the answer to the skills gap. Claims to want the best employees are simply not true if the only people we recruit are the convenient, easy to reach ones. Reaching out to those currently furthest from the labour market to, for example, embrace the talent of disabled people, ethnic minority graduates and highly trained ex-service people has to be a key priority for all progressive employers in 2017. Another priority is creating the policies and flexibility that will keep them in the labour market whatever life throws at them.

Balance all this against rapid demographic change and the need to expand working life to match life expectancy and what do we have? The perfect storm of course!A storm in which we can innovate to ‘normalise’ a new way of living and working that creates harmony, deals with the reality of everyday lives and expectations and the complexity of business and service provision. It will be uncomfortable; we’ll see things that have been distant voices such as the universal basic income move to centre stage. We’ll have to challenge our view of mankind as the indisputable top of the food chain and we’ll have to stop talking about creating new way to work and put them into practice. Perhaps the greatest challenge however, is in accepting that the new norm for people and work is that there is no longer a norm.