Business

The future of good work.

I recently attended two events on good work and leadership with some of the best experts in the field. At a publicity event for his new book Together is Better, author, speaker and top TED Talker-er Simon Sinek spoke about his brand of servant leadership and a few days later I was at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) to hear Chief Executive Matthew Taylor give his annual lecture, this year on the theme of ‘Good Work For All’, alongside a panel of eminent guests. This article is in the form of a report which covers the most interesting themes that stood out from the two events along with some context of my own.

The consensus was that in many ways the future of work is already here, the challenge for business and leadership is to catch up with the technology and the unequivocal evidence on working best practices from the fields of psychology and neuroscience. The benefits for businesses that are early adopters are that they will take first mover advantages in productivity, effectiveness, recruitment and retention.

Matthew Taylor outlined the starting pain point as the well-documented productivity issue in the UK relative to other major economies. In the time that a British worker makes £1, a German worker makes £1.35. Layered on top of this is the high cost to business and to society caused by stress in the workplace. According to the UK government Health and Safety Executive, stress is the number one cause of absence from work accounting for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. However things don’t need to be this way; as Simon Sinek commented, “The way we’re doing business is old fashioned and outdated.”

So what does good work look like? 

As we move from the manufacturing age into the information age, and as the 3rd industrial revolution gets underway, Matthew Taylor described good work as “fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development.” The world of work is changing fast with globalisation, de-industrialisation, automation and technology all having a disruptive effect on traditional jobs and working practices. The challenge is to improve the quality of work in this era of rapid change.

Speaking on the RSA panel Peter Cheese Chief Executive of the CIPD was bullish about the need for a radical “shift in mindset” necessary to keep up with the pace of change and in line with established research on effectiveness at work; he called for a “move towards evidence-based management.” Matthew Taylor advocated a “shift from focus on pay and conditions to meaning” while work and health researcher Professor Dame Carol Black made the point that “we should be talking about good work and good workplaces” where businesses take a holistic approach to “total worker health and not just health and safety.” Other key elements of good work were described by the panellists as engagement, community, safety, trust and autonomy.

Creating a productive environment

There’s huge scope for improving productivity by applying evidence-based insights from positive psychology and neuroscience. Speaking on the RSA panel Sandra Sands – she’s the new editor of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 – discussed “creating an environment in which people feel safe to fail” citing the evidence that a benign workplace improves productivity.

Continuing to deliver a progressive message, Peter Cheese stressed the importance of recognising the disconnect between hours worked and output. He encouraged greater use of empowered flexible working based on trust and autonomy as a response to “the scourge of presentee-ism” and the clear evidence that working long hours is not good for businesses or people. He also questioned how productivity should be defined in the knowledge economy of intellectual capital. In knowledge based and creative industries in particular, businesses need to be increasingly aware that the relationship between hours worked and productivity is not linear. This reflected Matthew Taylor’s view that a “shift away from a Protestant work ethic” will benefit productivity, mental wellbeing and the bottom line.

The future of good leadership

Matthew Taylor’s view was that bad work is the result of weak leadership and management, and the UK’s productivity issue is a result of a historic lack of investment in training. On leadership Simon Sinek had also been clear that “companies need to invest in soft skills as well as hard skills.” From a leadership perspective the general view was that there’s a huge opportunity to improve the quality of work by improving the quality of leadership; at senior level the task is to enable engagement by instilling authentic principles and purpose into corporate culture from the top down. This needs to be servant-leadership from Simon Sinek’s perspective that “real leadership does not equate to rank or authority, the real leader is in service.” Peter Cheese picked up the empowerment message with a call to shift from rules to principles; instead of controlling “bad robots” with rules, empower people with principles. Empowerment and engagement were also picked up on the RSA panel by Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the CBI who spoke in positive terms about encouraging businesses to appoint employee representatives to the board.

At management level the call was for a step-change in management training based on evidence-based best-practice to equip managers to counter under-employment (ineffective use of the workforce) and very often simply to equip people to step up into a management role. For people at all levels Simon Sinek spoke passionately on self-leadership giving the advice that “you have to be the leader you wished you had” with encouragement to mentor or teach someone as the best way to learn.

The question of measurement was tackled by Carol Black who asked “Who is paying attention and how are they measuring health and wellbeing?” Her suggestion was for a member of the board to be charged with reporting back on measures of health and wellbeing in the way that other figures are reported back to the board.

Good work for all

It was great to see the topics of good work and leadership approached from different angles with Simon Sinek coming from the millennials’ perspective and the RSA event providing insight into the latest thinking from eminent captains of industry and top government advisors. In his position as Chief Executive of the CIPD Peter Cheese stood out; I was encouraged to hear such a clear message of progressive and disruptive thinking from this organisation along with a sense of urgency that the changes are happening now and businesses need to adapt now.

How well positioned is your business for the changes that are coming down the line and what jumped out for you? How can you install a culture of “Good Work for All’ in your organisation?

You can watch a video of the RSA ‘Good Work For All’ event here and Matthew Taylor’s review into Modern Employment Practices for the UK government will be released in summer 2017.

Simon Sinek’s viral interview on Millennials in the Workplace is here and his Ted Talks on ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’ (the 3rd most viewed Ted Talk ever) and ‘Why Good Leaders Make you Feel Safe’ are here and here.

This article was first published on LinkedIn