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The Evolution of Work in the New Economy

An Advance Connect Roundtable with Michael Priddis, CEO of Faethm.ai and Mark Rigotti, most recent global CEO of Herbert Smith Freehills.


Yasmin Allen, Chair of Advance.org, opened the digital roundtable asking “What is the future of work in the new economy and specifically, how will we transition today’s workforces.” These questions were critical just three months ago with stagnation of many Australian industries, the existing pressures around the number and quality of graduates, and the availability of training and re-training for today’s workers. The Covid19 environment raises urgent new questions about the nation’s priorities to protect the health of Australians and ensure the transformation of the economy in the recovery from this pandemic. 

Analytical Tools

Michael Priddis shared the analytical framework developed by Faethm.ai to underpin projects with governments around the world and corporations looking to predict workforce changes resulting from new technologies and automation of processes. From the early days in 2013/14, automation has been portrayed (particularly by the media) as causing a “jobs apocalypse”, yet Faethm has created a more nuanced and proactive understanding of the human consequences from workforce changes with governments such as Luxembourg, Canada and Singapore using this data to create practical workforce planning tools – which may serve to help the Australian response.

The Evolution of Work

In parallel, many corporations are developing their own strategies to predict changing workforce needs. Motivated internally by the commercial rationale to identify and retrain existing staff for jobs of the future, the external reality is that talent is mobile and there is a driving need to invest in it. Corporations have recognised that workforce strategies are not the exclusive domain of the human resources functions, nor is this a one-off project, or an edge case – the evolution of work requires collaboration and engagement from senior management focused on strategy, operations, people and technology.

A team sport

Mark Rigotti shared the experience of a global professional services firm, Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), navigating the concurrent trends of acceleration of technology; rising complexity especially from regulation; increasing client expectations around responsiveness, cost and quality; increased competition and the rise of the Big 4; and the new force of workforce activism around purpose, skills development and job movement. The cross-cutting nature of these trends means that, by definition, the evolution of work in organisations is a team sport. And while some adoption of new processes (such as a document automation and predictive code in document discovery) has taken place, the evolution of the organisation required better data to inform change, new models of work (particularly away from the Master/Apprentice model) and broad permission for experimental projects, with minimal rules.

Experience from the frontline

The evolution of work at Herbert Smith Freehills provides four lessons for other organisations to consider:

LESSON 1

The evolution of work is much more than revising talent strategies, but people do have a core role in the process, including who you recruit, what skills are needed, and how performance is recognised and rewarded

LESSON 2

Flexibility is key, which means allowing the workforce to determine where, when and how they work to best meet the needs of the client and business. This also challenges the trend toward micro-specialisation and the need for greater fungibility – to work within small teams, do more with less, and augment human skills with AI

LESSON 3

The importance of tech and data, particularly the need for new sources of data to enable insightful judgments to serve clients and run the business. Organisations can buy, build, borrow or ‘bot’ data, but data capabilities are needed to make the right data choices.

LESSON 4

Organisations need the capacity internally to keep evolving. Rather than trying to scope the future state, or define the ‘new normal’, organisations and leadership need the ability to respond quickly, and as a team, to changing circumstances.

The impact of Covid19 across sectors

Michael Priddis shared research (released in late April) around the impact of Covid19 on different jobs and sectors in the US. This research allows policy-makers to identify essential workers, assess the tradeoffs of lifting lockdown restrictions, and balance consideration for the livelihood versus the lives of frontline workers. 

Other observations from experts around the table:

  • Retail and hospitality are essential signals of the recovery but ending the lockdown and restrictions are only the beginning of the recovery – it will take some time for footfall to return and consumer spending to rise again. Many businesses will not survive. 
  • The lockdowns have normalised once improbable behaviour such as working from home in certain countries / cultures. 
  • The pandemic has exposed the geographic inequities of working from home, and the occupation and socio-economic categories for whom it is not possible. 
  • Operating in this crisis has exposed the inadequacy of official, reputable data sets, due to time lags and a focus on large trends, while private data sets are proving valuable to assist in monitoring change and forecasting impacts of policies and trends.
  • Covid19 has demonstrated the ongoing need of organisations to transform and adapt to circumstances and raises the visibility of the digital transformation and the remote work agenda.
  • The development of technology solutions to cope with Covid19 provides opportunities for better public-private collaboration in the digital transformation process.
  • It’s cheaper and faster to reskill and deploy existing staff than it is to recruit and train new staff. 
  • The pandemic has impacted:
    • Consumer behaviour – such as increased comfort with telehealth and online shopping
    • Work behaviour – such as remote working and remote conferencing
    • Decision processes – making them ‘agile by accident’ as organisations have to balance risk, regulations, talent and financial considerations quickly to respond to the crisis.

Continuing the conversation

  • Where to from here? Once consensus is built around the need for a proactive approach to industry transformation, workforce transition and skills development. How quickly and decisively can we accelerate the development of the sectors, companies and jobs?
  • How do we lock in digital transformation and agile processes? We have been slingshotted to around 2023 in use of technology, and decision-making processes have been forced to be more agile. How can we make this stick?
  • What is the best way for organisations to transform? Through decisive and quick changes, or through gradual and deliberate change?
  • What is the role of leadership? How can it be hopeful, positive, and enable longer-term thinking while delivering short-term efficiency?
  • What is the role of collaboration? Particularly in traditionally adversarial sectors, what can be learnt from organisations where collaboration is critical to their success?
  • What will be the role of learning and development? How can it shift from a compliance mindset, to a tool to develop the skills of employees that drive transformation of established organisations, scaling high growth organisations and launch of new enterprises?
  • What are the key skills needed? How will the importance of specialisation change? How will creativity feature in the skills required for insightful judgment? How are universities positioned to evolve? How can a new form of leadership be taught? What are the new platforms for learning & development?

Resources