In a world where robots, automation and gamification become the norm, how can a workforce adjust to be future-ready? For a start, by becoming more human. Sara R Moulton, Editor of HQ Asia, along with Wong Su-Yen, CEO at Human Capital Leadership Institute, explore how technology is revolutionising the workplace
In the movie Back to the Future II (1985), Dr Emmett Brown (“Doc”), an eccentric inventor and scientist, briefly transports protagonist Marty McFly to 21 October 2015. McFly, a curious teenager, gets a glimpse into the future and sees technology that is taken for granted today. Today biometric recognition and smart pay are both incorporated into the Apple iPhone, while high-tech glasses that the movie characters use to watch TV look surprisingly similar to Google Glass and Oculus Rift. What was once considered futuristic is now our reality. As technology augments our lives and simplifies processes, we need to consider how these advances impact our jobs and the workplace.
Work, as we know it, will continue to shift towards more tasks being automated. McKinsey & Company research published in 2016 shows that after researching 800 jobs in the United States and studying 2,000 tasks for all occupations, current technologies could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform. They estimate that about 60% of all occupations could see up to 30% of their constituent activities automated. However, McKinsey & Company predicts that fewer than 5% of occupations can be fully automated by current technologies. This means that leaders need to analyse their teams’ tasks to identify what is likely to be automated and how this will change workers’ engagement with their jobs and companies.
Both high-paid occupations as well as lower-wage occupations will be impacted. “We estimate that activities consuming more than 20% of a CEO’s working time could be automated. Conversely, there are many lower-wage occupations such as home health aides, landscapers and maintenance workers where only a small percentage of their work can be automated with readily available technologies,” explains Oliver Tonby, Managing Partner, Southeast Asia at McKinsey & Company.
As robots grow evermore skilled at mimicking human tasks, the human touch will become increasingly valued. Automation of work tasks also means that some workers cycle through positions faster. “We anticipate the rise of rollercoaster career paths. As technological changes and industrial restructuring proceed at a faster pace, skills and job categories become obsolete and force more workers to undergo retraining and mid-career job changes,” explains Tan Gan Hup, Associate Director (SMU-X), Singapore Management University.
Should we be wary of these changes or is there an opportunity to harness these advances and use them to the advantage of both the individual and the company? Is it time to slip on the VR goggles, and relook at organisational culture?
The Individual’s Responsibility
According to a report published by the World Economic Forum in 2016, 65% of primary students currently in school will have jobs that don’t yet exist. How, then, can the workforce of tomorrow be adequately prepared? “If we don’t know what the jobs of the future are, it’s increasingly important that we cultivate broad foundational life skills that can be applied to many different contexts and to practice developing healthy mindsets that will support our wellbeing and ability to thrive in a world of uncertainty and change,” says Crystal Lim Leahy, Director, Centre for Future-ready Graduates at National University of Singapore.
Expectations of both employees and employers have changed. Gone are the days where characters like Michael Scott from TV sitcom The Office clock a 9-to-5 day, assume that they’ll be a lifetime employee and work towards retirement. Today, companies look for employees who can collaborate cross-culturally, work virtually or in different time zones and be flexible. As the workplace and environment changes, workers need to also adapt and grow.
Here are three key skills to develop to successfully navigate the uncertain workplace of the future.
1. EMBRACE AND ADAPT TO A NON-LINEAR CAREER PATH
“Previous notions of a linear career path are replaced by one that is versatile and diverse, open to abundant options, variability, and challenges,” says Tan. Your career progression is as much your responsibility as it is your employer’s duty to provide career development. Recognise that your career is likely to be cyclical and look for opportunities to upskill. Be agile and flexible. “The best way to deal with radical uncertainty is to be flexible and open-minded,” says Sanjeev Sanyal, an economist and urban theorist. Seek out opportunities to work on projects with transferrable skills or keep an eye out for stretch roles. Accept that the world is a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment where conditions and expectations may change quickly.
2. CULTIVATE FUTURE-PROOF FOUNDATIONAL SKILLS
“In the past, soft skills were nice to have or something that could be learned in the workplace. Now they are a must-have,” explains Lim Leahy. The ability to be empathetic, work well with teams and internalise relationship building, collaboration, networking and integrity will be essential in the future. As robots and computers overtake low-touch tasks (those characterised by a low level of contact with customers) like processing applications, predictive algorithms and gathering customer information, hightouch skills (involving more contact with customers) will become essential to career progression. For example, while machines may be better at handling money, many customers still prefer to deal with an investment banker or stockbroker. Low-touch and high-touch are one thing, but it’s likely that humans will still prefer the human touch, at least for now.
Although other necessary technical skills may vary for various job scopes, enterprise skills are becoming more important. These include critical thinking, building effective relationships, problem solving and presentation skills. Interestingly, a premium price is paid for problem solving and presentation skills. For example, according to AlphaBeta analysis in partnership with Burning Glass, presentation skills fetch a premium of S$1,993. Meanwhile, problem solving and critical thinking fetch S$1,779 whereas communication skills yield S$920. Wondering how this relates to you? Try this simple exercise. Look at the skills and tasks that encompass your current role and create a predictive list of what could be replaced in the future. What is time-intensive or easily automated? Then look at where you can enhance the ‘human touch’. What aspects of your job scope would improve if there was more time to brainstorm or interact with colleagues?
3. ACQUIRE DIGITAL KNOW-HOW
As the world moves increasingly towards automation and data, make sure you’re not left behind. Learn to understand how to utilise technology, whether that be data or social media, and look for ways to implement this new skillset into your day-to-day tasks. Here’s another place to look at your job scope and up-and-coming technologies — identify the overlaps. Then look at what new technologies you can learn and implement in side projects or firm contributions.
The Company’s Responsibility
Just as individuals need to anticipate the future, companies must also look at their current talent and predict future gaps. What rote or timeconsuming tasks will be automated in the next five years? Or in the next 10 years? HR leaders need to look forward and work with business to predict future needs. “Leaders from the C-suite to the front line will need to redefine jobs and entire business processes so that their organisations can take advantage of automation potential. The opportunities exist far beyond labour savings. The benefits typically are between three to 10 times the cost, and the magnitude suggests that the ability to staff, manage and lead increasingly automated organisations will become an important competitive differentiator,” explains Tonby.
Here are three ways that leaders can get their companies ahead of the talent curve by acting on tomorrow, today.
1. UNDERSTAND THE FUTURE OF WORK
“Many employers are taking advantage of new technologies (such as big data analysis) to help develop such training programmes in a far more targeted approach than previously,” explains Fraser Thompson, Director, AlphaBeta, a strategy advisory business. Why do people join companies? Millennials, for example, sign up where they feel they share similar values. Millennials, more so than baby boomers and Gen Xers, look for companies that give the opportunity to learn and grow. Since employees no longer join companies for life, companies must look to attract and retain through their professional training. And with the use of big data analysis, HR can discover how to raise engagement; discover what motivates, deters and inspires employees; and use data to develop and accurately measure key performance indicators (KPIs).
2. DO WHAT YOU CAN WITH YOUR EXISTING TALENT POOL
Look at your employees’ skill sets and what their current tasks are. Identify what will likely not existin the next two to five years. How can you help to upskill and re-skill your current team? What can you move around to help them cope with future tasks? For example, today people are trained how to operate a forklift. But in the near future, that same employee will likely need to know how to operate the robot that will control the forklift. “Rather than destroy jobs, technology can be expected to instead change roles, allowing workers to focus on other key areas of their work,” states a recent report from Hays Journal.
An example is self-service checkout lines in supermarkets and algorithms that can search documents for specific information. How can you begin to transition your team so that they use more technology or automation?
3. BRING IN FRESH TALENT SMARTLY
What stretch assignments can be assigned that will better align your team with their future plans, interests and prospects? How can this be done in a way that matches their personal aspirations?
How can your company better use metrics to predict performance? Let’s take Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) as an example. TCS employs over 362,000 professionals and in the financial year 2016, they hired 90,000 new employees. One way they simplified hiring is by adopting a gamified system called Campus Commune where they engage with students from their first day at university. For example, training modules and coding or design challenge help evaluate potential bright sparks among users. Over three to four years, the digital footprint yields a clear picture of likes, abilities, interests and existing competencies.
How can you implement something like this? One way is to track employees’ digital footprint from day one. Include psychometric assessments and personality tests — both personal and professional — and their feedback. Also, work towards using gamification for upskilling and as a fun alternative to e-learning for policies and HR.
Embracing the Future, aka What’s Next?
Rather than fear the future and how automation may change work, this should be looked at as an opportunity. Just think of the time-intensive and repetitive tasks that could be automated: lawyers will spend less time in prep work, hospital staff will speed up administrative tasks like patient paperwork and HR professionals will onboard new employees in far less time. The advances in technology could mean more energy dedicated to creative tasks, critical thinking and to improving humankind itself. But this is a team task. It’s the responsibility of both employees and employers to prepare for the future. While what that will look like remains uncertain, developing the skills mentioned above will prepare us for our VUCA world.
In the surrealist novel Invisible Monsters by American author Chuck Palahniuk, he posits, “When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?” The novel is a tale of a former model who reinvents herself after an accident. The unnamed protagonist deals with the realisation that her future won’t be what she always thought. Palahniuk is on to something — what if we opportunity-seek and look for promises of the advantages the future will bring? In the process, how will we respond if we get blindsided by abrupt shocks? In many ways, the future is what we make of it. If we approach it as a time of great opportunity, and choose to continually bounce forward despite temporary setbacks, it might just turn out a fulfilled promise. In other words, let’s look at the future with rose-tinted VR glasses — and power on.
This article originally appeared in HQ Asia (Issue 10) 2016.