Jeff Bezos was on stage at a press event, when a reporter asked him, “Jeff, what do you think is going to change most in the next 10 years?” Jeff replied, “That’s a good question. But a better question is: What’s not going to change in the next 10–20 years?”
As we get consumed in forecasting what is going to change in how we live, how or where we work, and other related predictions—many of which may well turn out to be true—it is equally important to not lose sight of things that may never actually change. For instance, in Human Resources (HR), which concerns itself with how people work, it is important to not get swayed by forecasts of what might be, at the cost of losing sight of what is.
Organisations globally are participating in a century-long experiment of how effectively machines could replace people at work—a transition that accelerates based on political factors, macro-economics, or new technological innovations—much like mechanisation as an effect of World War II or the impact of internet on communication. COVID-19 has been another such accelerator, compelling us to adjust to a touchless world with greater automation across all aspects of our work and lives. As we look at the future to be more technology driven, it would be good to remember that every generation before us has done the same and often panicked about how jobs will disappear at the altar of technology.
But while we keep bemoaning about machines, demand for high-quality, skilled talent is always expected to be higher than its supply. This has held true for the last 100 years. As businesses and work become more technology driven, complex, competitive, and high-quality talent is expected to be ever more in demand. Traditionally, people’s capabilities have transformed slower than technology, which is why companies will continue to retain or chase specific kind of talent.
The need for effective leaders is expected to be ever more important; good leaders define the success of an enterprise as it navigates increasingly complex challenges. Most often, leadership capabilities need to be built, as natural-born leaders are not easy to find. So, while there may be changes in how we define specific aspects of leadership competencies for the future, organisations will always need to keep investing in building capable individuals to lead businesses and people.
Further, as organisations continue to keep their focus on developing capabilities and talent, it will also be important for us to realise that people react better to interpersonal learning. A global research conducted in 2018 by Degreed 2 found that a vast majority of employees turned to their colleagues as the first port of call when they wished to learn something new, followed by asking their manager. Online tools come in much later in the hierarchy of how people learn. Also MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) programme completion rates, which have received a pandemic-induced boost, have been dropping every year for the last seven years and is down to a shade above 3 percent. Chances are that this may not change and so when we want to create efficient learning networks for employees, we have to ensure peer-to-peer learning remains at the core of whatever we do and not get lost in purely screen-delivered learning.
Navigating complex problems isn’t a one man job and as we face more complex challenges, organisations will be well-served to remember to continuously build increased levels of teamwork and collaboration. As we consider changing staffing models and creating more individual-capability-centric systems, it is crucial to not forget that the best organisations and teams are not defined by highly capable talent working individually for brief periods. Genuine transformation happens when multiplicity of skills and capabilities are brought to work together as a team with common goals and outcomes. As organisations work to solve present challenges, they would realise now more than ever that problems are best solved with a variety of skills than individual brilliance.
And finally, the obituary to offices seems a bit like the obituaries that have been written about big cities at multiple points in history. The current pandemic, like most pandemics in the past, have hit big cities purely on account of the nature of congestion, among other factors. Naturally we are going through the same cycle of new obituaries of how cities wouldn’t survive this pandemic. Cities have survived through centuries and have modified and made themselves more efficient. Offices are likely to travel the same path—much like cities, offices are important not just for people to work, but serve as a social institution as well where affiliation, motivation, and culture is built. Work from home will definitely be an option available to more employees in the future, but it would be unfortunate if organisations start replacing offices entirely.
The American singer and songwriter, Jon Bon Jovi, wrote “The more things change the more they stay the same…..The new improved tomorrow isn’t what it used to be. Yesterday keeps comin’ ’round, it’s just reality”. We love to believe that events transform, but in reality events can at best serve to accelerate changes that were already afoot. It is better to focus on the core, perhaps unexciting, truth, while being aware of change than the other way round.