The Great Work Reset

5 minute read

Circumstances are right for meaningful and fundamental change in the world of work. But what will that change look like – and what role will HR play in it? The People Space and The Open University Business School are partnering throughout 2021 to highlight the issues and suggest how HR can help work to become radically better. Siân Harrington and Katie Jacobs report

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The Great Work Reset ©The People SpaceImage ©The People Space

When historians look back on 2020, it’s not hard to imagine them defining it as the year that pressed the reset button on how we live and work. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned many of our ideas about work upside down. From homeworking becoming the norm for millions overnight – and converting many a sceptical manager – to moral debates over those jobs we need the most being those we value the least in terms of status and pay (cleaners, healthcare and other care workers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers and so on), many aspects of work are now up for grabs.

The question is, however, will any of this change stick? And will the trends that do stick turn out to be the positive ones that empower people or those that shore up pre-crisis patterns, such as precarious work. For, as Owain Smolović Jones, director of academic centre of excellence REEF (Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures) and senior lecturer in people management and organisation at The Open University Business School notes, crises normally result in a return to an intensified normal or an intensification of previous trends.

“Crises disrupt the dominant ways of practice and working in organisations, societies, politics and economics, but the tendency is to return to normal,” he says.

Take the 2007/8 global financial crisis, fueled by the widespread commodification of debt and lax control over mortgage debt. At the time there was talk it may herald a fundamental shift within business and in capitalism as a whole after decades of wage stagnation, growing inequality and holes in social welfare provision. But 10 years later little had changed. Bankers appeared to be ‘off-the-hook’, big bonuses were back and government bailouts had only reinforced the status quo. If anything, the trends the financial crisis did accelerate were towards more monopoly of ownership in business and more wealth in fewer hands – a trend accelerated by the growth of the tech titans in recent years.

So can things be different this time? Smolović Jones certainly thinks so. “It feels different from the global financial crisis in that there has been a shift in public consciousness this time where people have started to see their position in the economy and in society in a slightly different way. My sense is that when coming out of this crisis people's tolerance for accepting the way things have been in the past will be a lot lower. People are realising that a different way of doing things is possible.”

Work is one area where this ‘different way of doing things’ is already in evidence. Businesses finally seem to have woken up to the fact that the hackneyed phrase ‘people are an organisation’s most valuable asset’ isn’t just rhetoric but reality.

“We’ve got evidence that people can find really creative and ingenious ways of improvising, collaborating, innovating and delivering – from the speedy development of vaccines to the fact that goods and services have pretty much kept flowing. If ever there was proof that people should be at the heart of any organisation strategy, this crisis has demonstrated it,” believes Smolović Jones.

So how can business and HR professionals ensure The Great Work Reset is about changing things for the better and intensifying the positive trends that were happening pre-pandemic? The People Space and The Open University Business School see the answer in moving towards a more empowering workplace and have partnered to examine the many facets of this agenda: how we tackle inequality, the impact on trust and reputation, what this means for income and work models, how we ‘reset’ the workplace itself, and what the future looks like for ‘human work’. During 2021 we will be discussing these issues in a series of articles, videos and webinars with input from HR leaders and academics from The Open University Business School to offer some practical ways in which HR can help make sure the empowering workplace becomes reality rather than rhetoric.

“As a leadership academic I hear a lot about collaborative leadership being the most salient, most appropriate form of leadership for the future, except the future never really seems to arrive. Perhaps now it has arrived,” says Smolović Jones.

“We’ve undergone an incredible stress test. And I think now there's enough empirical evidence to show that collaborative workplaces that are less hierarchical and more empowering are the way forward, not only after this crisis but into the future as well. It's a return to a more familial way of thinking of organisation in some senses. And the reason why this is powerful now is that people have experienced and seen a different way of working and it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle.”

Certainly, when discussing COVID-induced new ways of working, the word that crops up repeatedly is ‘accelerant’. As Toby Peyton-Jones, former HR director at Siemens and now non-executive director at the Department for Education, puts it: “The pandemic has been an accelerant for the future of work.”

Anna Thomas, co-founder and director of the Institute for the Future of Work, adds: “COVID has pressed a fast-forward button. It’s forced us to think about our business models, ways of working, what we can automate, and when human connection is vital. It has forced us to re-examine and change – our tasks, processes, priorities and how we value work.”

This ‘fast-forward’ button effect can clearly be seen through the swift advancements in technology that many businesses have made over the past year. Investment in technology has been sped up by the pandemic, as organisations rushed to make remote working a reality or looked for ways to minimise person-to-person contact through automation.

According to the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs 2020 report, more than 80% of business executives are accelerating plans to digitise work processes and deploy new technologies, and 50% of employers are expecting to accelerate the automation of some roles. This is backed up by research from the CBI and LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, which found that over 60% of businesses reported adopting digital technologies and new management practices and 38% adopting new digital capabilities during the COVID crisis.

The accelerant nature of the pandemic has had an impact on other profound drivers of change beyond technology, shining a light on them as well as speeding them up. “It’s the perfect storm,” says Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, the UK's professional body for HR. “You have all these things coming together, technological change, social change, political change, environmental change, and so on. Then along comes the pandemic: a catalyst for those changes that were happening anyway.”

“There are so many accelerants, not just COVID,” agrees Peyton-Jones. “Climate change is the biggest. Demographic change is another, and the interaction of different technologies causing a cocktail that is more potent than the one shift we saw in previous Industrial Revolutions. We have blockchain, AI, machine learning, additive manufacturing…all these things are coming together in a way that technology hasn’t done before, creating massive disruption.”

The fact is, says Thomas, that these macro shifts impacting how we work do not exist in a vacuum, independent of each other. “Think about globalisation and climate change: there’s a link with technology. These drivers are all overlapping. You need to think about them in a systems way.”

So, what is all this doing to how we work, and how we think about work? As Cheese points out, many of our dominant concepts of work have been around for decades, if not longer. The 9-5 working day, for example, was introduced by the Ford Motor Company in the 1920s and is still the norm for many of us a hundred years later. But as Smolović Jones points out, just because it has become the commonly accepted way of doing things this does not mean it’s inherently normal or indeed natural.

Peyton-Jones observes the concept of work shifting from being about place to activity. “The historical view of work is that it’s something that you go to do: it was about location, groups of people and a purpose. The new world is affecting all those things.”

Technological advancement and the gradual killing off of a ‘working from home is shirking from home’ mentality makes much work location agnostic. Investment in technology will also radically change the content of jobs, with the need for constant reskilling. “What can be automated? When is human presence needed? What does a skills audit for the next 10 years look like?” asks Smolović Jones.

As the boundaries of organisations blur and atypical forms of working, such as ‘gig work’ or portfolio careers, become more common, complex networks for collaboration become a necessity. And as for purpose, Richard Donkin, author of The History of Work, believes the pandemic has “made more people think about purpose in work” (for more on the history of work click here). Beyond the individual, Cheese sees the business world moving beyond the previously dominant Milton Friedman-esque thinking of purpose being solely to generate profit for shareholders to a more responsible, multi-stakeholder view.

The myriad issues related to The Great Work Reset are complex, systemic and – frankly – massive. So what role can HR play in helping to advance this huge, slightly intimidating, agenda? Is it too much to expect of one profession, a profession which came to the fore during 2020 but may be going into 2021 feeling burned out and overwhelmed?

“A lot of these issues are big political, economic and systemic issues that are out of the control of HR,” acknowledges Smolović Jones. “ But that doesn’t mean the profession can afford to stick its head in the sand. There are plenty of people thinking about what the future of work looks like: be part of the debate.”

Forward-thinking HR leaders have long been moving away from the role of custodian of jobs to something much more strategic and horizon-scanning. On a recent IFOW webinar, Saadia Zahidi, a managing director at the World Economic Forum, acknowledged the transformation of the chief human resources officer. “CHROs are the frontline role the business needs in place,” she said. “It’s not a back office function. It’s front office and needs to work across the business to reset the future of work agenda.”

As work continues to change at breakneck speed, HR needs to keep meaning, purpose and job quality on the agenda, Thomas fervently believes. “The concept of ‘good work’ needs to stay on the radar in 2021,” she says. “Don’t forget about that in a downturn. We need to create good jobs and keep meaning and purpose at the centre of things.” While this requires partnership across business, government and beyond, she urges HR to “hurl itself” at this agenda.

Cheese points out that “building more responsible and productive businesses through people” is hardly a new concept for the people profession. What it has now, and should be optimistic about, is “the opportunity to step up and put those ideas front and centre”.

HR leaders are not responsible for what the future of work looks like, but they can be active participants in helping to shape it. The profession has supported and led organisations and individuals through the pandemic. It has never had more credibility and a greater platform to create positive change in how we work. “Don’t view this as a sci-fi thing – a utopian or dystopian future,” says Smolović Jones. “It is already happening. The time to engage is now.”

Published 27 January 2021

What role can HR play in helping to advance this huge, slightly intimidating, agenda? Is it too much to expect of one profession, a profession which came to the fore during 2020 but may be going into 2021 feeling burned out and overwhelmed?

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