Future of work provides real opportunities for CHROs

HR brings unique set of perspectives to dialogue on changing nature of work

Future of work provides real opportunities for CHROs

By Brian Daly

Across the developed world, academics, government leaders, educators, union officials and business leaders are engaged in active dialogue and conversation about the changing nature of work.  Reports and prognostications about the future of work are commonplace in both popular media and academic research publications.  

In Canada, organizations such as the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum (PPF) are playing lead roles in championing research and discussion in this important area. 

Last month, I attended the Brave New Work Conference on the future of work, held in Toronto by the PPF and attended by a wide variety of government leaders, educators and others. The conference provided a diverse set of perspectives on the changing world of work; perspectives that are not typically discussed among groups of C-suite or HR leaders. 

I left with a firm conclusion that there is a real opportunity, and a real need, for CHROs to become more engaged in these discussions. CHROs bring a unique and important set of perspectives to the dialogue on the changing nature of work, borne out of real-life organizational experiences. 

As I listened to the speakers, I gleaned a number of key insights that are particularly relevant from a CHRO perspective. In many cases, they contradict some popularly held views on the changing nature of work. 

First, as we already know, jobs are not going away due to AI or automation. If anything, more new jobs are being created than are being eliminated. But, there is still real cause for concern, because while jobs are not being eliminated, they are in many cases being fundamentally and radically altered. 

Automation typically occurs at the task level, not the whole-job level. According to University of Toronto professor and PPF Fellow Peter Loewen, over 90 per cent of jobs have one or more tasks that can be automated. Most significantly, lower-paid jobs often have more tasks that can be automated than higher-paying jobs, magnifying the social impact of automation on lower-income and marginalized groups.    

Put another way, we sometimes over-fixate on job loss and focus too little attention on job quality and the loss of meaningful work. Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute has written extensively about the importance of meaningful work for an individual’s self-esteem and sense of well-being, and as a source of social capital for communities. Meaningful, sustainable work is the lifeblood of individuals, families and communities in our society. 

We have seen too many examples, across the industrialized world, of communities disrupted and sometimes destroyed by the loss of meaningful, sustainable work due to factory closures and other changes.

Increasingly, researchers and academics are pointing to the absence of meaningful work as a major factor in the expansion of populist, and sometimes nativist, views in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. According to an upcoming PPF report, there is a strong correlation between fears of job loss, and populist and nativist views. 

One only needs to look south of the border to see the loss of meaningful work and the associated rise of populism across a wide swath of the traditional U.S. industrial base. Increasingly, displaced workers in many communities see little reason for hope or optimism, and feel disenfranchised and left behind by society. History provides us with too many examples of the consequences of such circumstances. 

So, how is all this relevant to our work as CHROs? From my perspective, in many ways. 

First, are we prepared for the workplace employee and labour relations implications of the dissatisfaction and disengagement that will result from rapid job change and the loss of meaningful work? What role should we play in preparing individuals for this level of change?   Is it feasible for organizations to take on the responsibility of retraining individuals in lower-paying jobs where a high proportion of tasks are being automated? 

John Hagel, co-chair of Deloitte's Centre for the Edge, asserts that we need to redefine work itself. Many of the traditional standardized, transactional tasks that workers do across many sectors are ripe for automation. In that context, what’s left for humans to do?  

Hagel argues that it’s higher-value work that machines cannot readily replicate. In other words, meaningful work that truly engages human capabilities. Hagel asks why employers aren’t accelerating the automation of transactional work and engaging employees in work that creates more value for individuals and organizations. 

He suggests that our institutional structures reinforce and amplify our long-held view of what constitutes work, and act as impediments to a fundamental redefinition of work. I would also suggest that, in some cases, adoption of automation solutions is slowed down by business leaders’ conservatism and wariness about investing in new technology.

Harvard's Thomas Davenport made a similar point about the slow pace of adoption of data analytics in his Harvard Business Review February 2019 article. 

From my perspective, the push for the creation of meaningful work aligns well with the work that many of us are doing as HR leaders to foster a more engaging and respectful employee experience. In a recent speech to a group of senior HR executives in Toronto, veteran HR trend-watcher John Bersin indicated that improving the employee experience is the top priority in many HR organizations today, with a proliferation of platforms and tools coming onstream to support the migration to a more personalized, employee-led work experience. 

At its core, this focus on employee experience is aligned and consistent with the broader social need to create more meaningful work as routine, transactional tasks are increasingly automated.  

Clearly, we need an active dialogue among all parties, about what work humans will perform in the future, and what we need to do to prepare ourselves, our organizations and our communities for that future. Hagel emphasized that redefining work requires redefining learning, with the key to organizational learning being the cultivation of creative friction inside organizations.  

Hagel makes a powerful point here. Based on my experience, such creative friction is too often hidden and buried, rather than used as a source for creativity and innovation. Hagel advocates for the greater application of design thinking in this context, asking the question: "If the goal of the work environment is to accelerate learning, what would it look like?"

Undoubtedly, these are powerful questions for us as future-facing HR leaders to ponder. There is a clear and unequivocal need to redesign our training, education and other systems to align with workplace changes. 

As we look forward, education and training need to focus on developing capabilities, not developing narrow technical skills. As Hagel states, we need workers with the passion of the explorer and the drive to learn, which are attributes exhibited by less than 20 per cent of the current U.S. workforce in his view.  

Our post-secondary education system is arguably too rigid and ill-equipped to meet the needs of tomorrow's society. According to Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, the U.S. college education system only serves the needs of one-third of the U.S. population. Increasingly, educators and others are coming to the realization that the general design of our educational system stifles and eliminates creativity and passion, which are exactly the capabilities that we need in the future workplace. 

We should ask ourselves, as HR leaders, what we are doing to encourage, or to discourage, changes in how we educate and train our current and future workforce. 

I left the PPF Conference with a wealth of ideas and insights. I also left with a firm conclusion that CHROs must be deeply engaged in the broader discussion on the changing nature of work and the impacts of those changes on our communities’ social and economic well-being. 

We are at an important juncture in deciding what approach we will take to automation and the changing nature of work. CHROs, CIOs and other business leaders bring important, on-the-ground perspectives on these topics. It is only through collaboration and dialogue among all parties that we will achieve the goal of fostering meaningful, productive work in our organizations and communities. 

Brian Daly is vice-president, treasurer and a member of the board of the Strategic Capability Network. He has more than 25 years of senior HR leadership experience and held the role of CHRO for Toronto Star Media Group from 2008 to 2018.

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