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Episode 7: The transition to the future of work

Welcome to the seventh edition of transformation talks. My name is David Lancefield and in this series of podcasts, I speak to a diverse group of people, who have led, lived through, or studied major change in organisations. My hope is that we give you an idea or two that you can use in whatever aspect of transformation you’re involved in, whether that’s in relation to a new purpose, strategy, aspects of innovation, culture or leadership.

I am thrilled to welcome Lynda Gratton and Bhushan Sethi. Lynda is a professor of management practice at London Business School, the founder of the Hot Spots movement, which runs an innovative and a long running Future of Work Consortium, a prestigious prize winning author of eight, and soon to be nine, books, and one of the world’s leading authorities in all things management and work. I’m really looking forward to getting an exclusive on what you are going to publish in your book as we run through this.

Bhushan is the joint global leader of PwC’s People & Organisation Practice. A Brit, based in New York and one of the leading lights in the professional services world, in all things work and HR, focusing on the heady world of financial services organisations. He is a recent cover model in HR Digest and a global citizen, having lived and worked in Europe, Asia, and the US.

Lynda and Bhushan know each other very well, having worked on our flagship programme of thought leadership in PwC, the most recent report being ‘Preparing for tomorrow’s workforce today.’

Welcome to you both.

I want to talk today about the shift, the transition to the future of work, the future of the workplace. We all know, we’re moving to a more fluid, flexible, multistage, and maybe fragile life. Most execs I speak with, talk eloquently about what it looks like, but actually struggle to transform the organisation to create it. They know they need to prepare for the future right now, but many don’t or can’t.

Indeed Lynda, you said in your book, “change will be piecemeal. It will be slower, lumpier, and more tentative than many would hope for”. Gosh. Why is that, and what gets in the way?

I wanted to really start by just talking a little bit about that shift. In our last book, Andrew Scott and I said, ‘Oh, this is a bit like the industrial revolution,’ which actually was pretty brutal by the way for lots of people. Lots and lots of losers, as well as some winners. Our view now is it’s greater. The transition that we are all going through, every single one of us, is greater than the industrial revolution, and here is why. Firstly, obviously huge technological changes, and that means that every single one of us will have to either upskill; do what we do differently, better; or reskill, find something completely different to do; and this is your point, David, about transitions.

Secondly, we are going to live a lot longer, I mean, now that I am going down to gym every three days, I am going to be here until I am at least a hundred. *laughs*

Thanks for that, for giving us a nudge.

And if you live to a hundred, then the three stages of education, work, and retirement look ridiculous, and you have to think of it as being a multistage, more transitions, and then finally something really fascinating is happening in families and communities. That means that the way that you thought your family was going to work, and the way you thought your relationships with others was going to work, is beginning to change. All of those are changing, and that means we are in the midst of an extraordinary shift, and that means, and this is why your podcast is so important, David, is that all of us have to make transitions and organisations have to do that as well.

It’s a lot isn’t there, because there is the personal transitions, there is the corporate ones, there is the family ones, and all…

...Societal, governments, education…

What’s really interesting is, no one likes change. As a change practitioner of 25 years, no one likes change. This is a huge change. This is a huge change in terms of, ‘what do I do when I show up at work after 20 years of doing something, and now I have to use digital tools, I have to engage in different ways, I have to engage with chat bots, I’ve to think about ethics in a different way, I’ve to think about transparency, I’ve to think about who is using my data’. There’s many different aspects that we are all going through.

Lynda, to your point, there were winners and losers in the previous industrial revolution, if this is the fourth industrial revolution, I think what we’ve got to really be careful of as business leaders, as academics, as influencers, is what about social inequality, what about the haves and the have nots. Does it become another gilded economy, where there is huge disparity, and what’s the role of government in bringing people along?

So I think, whether you are a business leader listening to this, whether you are a father, whether you are someone entering the workforce, there is a big call to action for all of us. I think, that’s what is really missing around this topic, from my personal perspective, is the multi-stakeholder narrative and different groups coming together to address this is going to be important. It can’t just be the business community taking the lead or academics or tech firms in Silicon Valley, and that’s going to be the challenge as we go through this transition.

So, where do you start then? Because my sense is the awareness of these shifts and transitions is growing greater, but the reality of, ‘I am going to do something about it,’ in my experience in different contexts is, [it happens] typically when people have a shock in their system. ‘Oh, perhaps, I need to relook at my life, my identity, myself’. But where do you start? So, you have that awareness, [but] where do you actually start in trying to make some transitions?

Well, this issue about [it] being a multi stakeholder issue at the very highest level is absolutely right. It’s about education, which we may want to talk about, it is about governments, it is about corporations, and it is about civil society. But actually, if you look at why things change and how things change, they change because individuals change, and that’s why you are absolutely right, David, to be focusing on the individual.

Because, for example, one of the things I am interested in at the moment, is paternity leave. Paternity leave will change, because dads decide to take time off to look after their kids, that’s where it will start. Then what happens, and you can see this actually in institutional change, is that enough people want to change and that builds enough momentum that organisations begin to change.

Actually sociologists have this term, institutional lag, which describes the fact that institutions tend to be slow at changing. So, if you ask, ‘who is changing the fastest right now?’ it’s individuals, and in fact all of us are, in a sense, at every age, all of us are social pioneers, because we are all having to change before our institution has changed. And actually changing on the assumption that the institution will eventually change.

It requires healthy dose of bravery in many cases. Sometimes it’s necessity. I am interested in how you scale the individual change, how do you scale it up, because yes, you have pioneers (love that term), people do in different contexts, but there is a long lag and to create a movement, is really hard. So, anything you’ve seen?

Organisations have been changing for years, and we’ve helped organisations through multiple transformation programmes. Many transformation programmes, as we know David, don’t get the benefits, because of the people, because of the adoption, because of the business case was kind of very grandiose and a promise to the street or to the board, etcetera, and it didn’t drive the benefits.

We are successful using that insurgent change, getting those radical individuals to come together as a set of advocates to drive that: multi stakeholders in an organisation, potentially with some other service providers, maybe with some of the crowd sourced customers giving input as well. That’s where we are seeing success, and I think, on a scale basis, we need to, as we go through this, whether it’s incremental in one industry or transformative in another, we’ve got to tap into the hearts and minds of those people. Those people, they are in the workforce currently, going to be exiting the workforce, clients, suppliers, even regulators - bring them into the tent, and just say, ‘How do we solve this, how do we take this business model, and how do we think about technology, and how do we think of ethical algorithms, and how do we think about fairness and equality for people, and how do we design for that for the future?’

That doesn’t mean that there is not going to be winners and losers, it doesn’t mean that we are all going to be singing ‘kumbaya’, and everyone has full employment, but people need to have a chance, and people need to have a voice, and there needs to be some inclusivity. Whereas right now, it feels like, we’ve been very skewed to a single set of stakeholders, maybe stockholders, and maybe investors, and we are seeing the pendulum swinging back a little bit now.

You actually have to listen skilfully, and actually invite participation in ways that perhaps you haven’t done before. It’s not a command and control answer back, sort of, conversation, and that’s a whole different range of skills, right?

Yeah, I would say those behaviours around empathy, and influence, and listening, and driving collaboration. I think they are the important soft skills behaviours, that when we say, ‘What does it mean to lead in this new industrial revolution?’ that’s what we are seeing, the people are bringing lots of organisations along, are doing. I mean, being a C-Suite individual right now, you are very much in the public eye.

I do agree around this, that the role of a leader will significantly change, and it’s emerging leaders, you can lead from anywhere in an organisation. You can be a 25-year-old, developing a new technology product, and be a leader, because you are going to drive a whole different consumer experience. So, leading in an organisation isn’t just having 20 people reporting to you and having an MD title.

This idea that everyone can be a leader is absolutely crucial. I gave this horrible word earlier, ‘institutional lag.’ There is another horrible word that sociologists use, which is called ‘under institutionalisation.’ And basically, the point they are making is that if you look at the institutional framing in organisations, that’s no longer fit for purpose, but in many companies, the next thing hasn’t been put in yet, so actually there is a consequence! There is quite a lot of space to swim around in, and I absolutely agree that that provides everybody potentially with an opportunity to be a leader. This is why I would use the word ‘social pioneer,’ because if you are 25 years old, you could really grab something and do something with it, if you are 40 years old, you can grab it, if you are a 60 year old you can grab it.

What I am interested in, in organisations, and I am also very fascinated in how you build collaborative conversations, and in fact the consulting practice that I lead, we can build collaboration conversations with up to 30,000 people, and we’ve done that.

And what you find if you get 30,000 people to talk together for a couple of days in a moderated environment, is you find two things: one is natural experiments. So, actually people are already pioneers, you just haven’t heard about them, so where are those natural experiments.

The other thing is, you find natural champions, because one of the problems with hierarchy, and you will know this yourself is, if you want something to happen, is the same old names that come up, isn’t it?

But actually if you get 30,000 or 20,000 or 10,000, or 4,000 people talking to each other, it’s astounding where some of these natural champions are.

In terms of getting to these situations, where you want to try and breakthrough transition to something newer, gap in the market, a new sense of purpose, you need to encourage the space where people can, whether it is on collaborative platforms, but also in day to day, they can express themselves. Is there anything you’ve seen on the diversity point that you, sort of thought, ‘Wow, that’s working well’?

I was thinking about the work of a great friend of mine, Herminia Ibarra, who is my colleague at London Business School. What Herminia found is that when people make a transition, they are basically shifting their identity, and they are also shifting their networks. It isn’t just about having different people in the room, is actually about the diversity in your own head, and the way you build that is through your diverse networks. And she found that people who are most able to make transitions, had diverse networks, because within that diverse network, there was somebody who was a possible self: the person you could become, or person you could, sort of, slightly become.

If you think about your diverse networks, those should be diverse with regard obviously to gender, nationality, and occupation, but also age. I am very, very keen that we start spending time with people of different ages, and that’s really important to our transition. It’s saddens me that so many of our institutional forms segregate ages. You spent all your time with 21 year olds, or all your time with 50 year olds, and I as a 64 year old, really celebrate the fact that I spend a lot of time with people who are much younger than me, and also time with people who are much older than me. I think that diversity of networks is so important, both for the individual, but also for the organisation.

The identity point, that identity comes in lots of different forms: personal, social, corporate, and requires, I guess, space. You talked about how you created some space in your life to be human, for reflection. You have to get out of the hamster wheel in order to reflect in your head as much as also to get stimulus from networks. I am curious, however, you know about the how you make the transition manageable, because transitions are really hard. It can bring anxiety. It can be really difficult to sort of work through, and that can be a new job role, it can be moving to a new career, or a new aspect to your life.

But as you’re are making transition, a lot of people are taking control of their lives, they are not just sleepwalking through their career, and that means that sometimes they want more flexibility, right: where to work, how to work, portfolio careers come earlier, if you’re in that world then perhaps the end of your career.

And many organisations, I guess, have less of a traditional employee base, and more contingent working of different shapes and form, but it’s pretty hard work in practice, that’s my sense. In your experience, how do you create a more flexible, fungible sort of workforce that meets the demands of the individuals and business? Anything you’ve seen that’s inspired you?

I think, flexibility, or the word I would use as people having control over their time, is actually a given now, and the most talented people want that. If you’ve built an organisation where you are not doing that, you are probably not getting the most talented people, because they are choosing not to join you.

So, you just have to do it and technology helps a lot. I’ve been writing about flexibility for 20 years, and actually there was a time when it was really difficult to do. It isn’t these days. You know, people can work wherever they want, whenever they want, and actually I think we are also getting a lot clearer about the importance of face to face.

We’ve learnt for example, through natural experiments, that actually working from home isn’t great for people who have got high “tacit knowledge”. So, therefore you build it in. So, what we are talking about is a much more sophisticated set of propositions about what it is to be a high performing person, who also has control over their time. If I look at my own life, I have control over my time, and there is no way in the world I would be prepared to let go of that.

I get that sense.

I would add to this flexibility piece, there is an ‘and’ there in terms of, organisations are social constructs, people want to be together. The phenomenon of urbanisation and what we see with things like ‘We Work’ means people want to get into spaces together and create and innovate. There are still a lot of organisations where that’s part of their culture. There is a lot of people in the workforce, regardless of age, that actually do want to go to an office. Your point around flexibility is an important one, because the best talent wants to be able to have, compressed schedules, they are going to want sabbaticals. So, I think, organisations need to think creatively around that, but I don’t think we are going to get to a situation where we are all gig economy workers, and all in our pyjamas dialling it in, because I do think that humanisation of work will still exist, even after our lifetime.

You still want an experience, you want a place, a community to be part of.

So, we talked about various concepts and angles within transitions, I want to get a little bit more personal now.

So, first, perhaps Bhushan, what has been one of your hardest transitions in your own life?

I didn’t subscribe to things like mindfulness to a great degree, until I lost both my parents a few years ago. Now, I’ve actually gone through some counselling, etcetera, and actually think it’s really important. I think, it’s really important to be present and when I am hanging out with my children and my wife, I try and be present. That means you’ve no devices, actually [being] there engaging in the play or whatever we are doing in Central Park or wherever we are. That clearing of the head, that regeneration is an important piece. I also like to run in the morning, and I realised that’s important for me, and the endorphins etcetera, and people know that who work with me, colleagues as well as family.

My transition, I’ve actually had quite a number of transitions. But I think the one that really, looking back, made the biggest change to me, was that: I was 32 years old, I was the director of one of the big consulting practices, paid a lot, big BMW, and I became a professor at the London Business School. In fact, I didn’t become a professor, I became an assistant to an assistant professor. I became the lowest rung of professorial, and there is many rungs, by the way.

I took a salary drop, where I got paid 10% of my salary. I didn’t take 10% salary drop, I actually got paid 10% of my salary, and I lost the BMW. And I did it because I realised, I mean, just as you realised, Bhusan, is that my values are about autonomy and learning, and that’s what I wanted to do. And I wanted to have a life where I could continue to learn. And that for me was a massive transition, it was a really difficult transition in many ways, but it was absolutely the right transition.

As a strategist, we talked about trade-offs all the time. You can do it a corporate level, but doing it a personal level, is often much harder.

It’s been an absolute privilege talking with you Lynda, and with you, Bhushan.

And that was another edition of transformation talks. Do subscribe to the series and if you like today’s podcast, do give us a nice rating.

Thank you.

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