Career wellness

One of the most positive developments in the workplace over the last decade is the recognition that employee wellbeing goes beyond health and safety and should include a holistic view of wellness. It has become common to see work colleagues exercising, taking part in health checks and participating in various wellness education programmes. But any wellness programme is incomplete without including “career wellness”.

We know that people who are productively occupied, including through employment, have a greater sense of wellbeing than those at a loose end. The activities that consume our days are clearly linked to our sense of purpose and self worth. Just being busy, though, isn’t enough. We are most satisified and gain the most overall benefit to our wellbeing when we feel that we are being fairly compensated for our contribution, engage in positive social interactions, have a realistic schedule and experience personal growth.

Organisational wellness programmes could be even better if they fully integrated the benefits of career wellness. This is different to the regular investment made in career development but will, undoubtably, enhance these endeavours. Where career development focuses on progression, career wellness should be focused on personal sustainability. A sustainable career is not just satisfying but also maintains the employability of the individual.

Most organisations measure employee engagement, but few ask social or schedule questions. Social questions can focus on whether the human interactions they experience are positive and meet their needs. Schedule questions can test the alignment of the pace of work with personal goals.

A career wellness view on compensation for effort is not the same as career progression on salary. It should be about fair exchange of value overall. This is much harder to test as career progression negotiations get in the way, but questions about recognition and mutual worth go much of the way there.

Where employers can be much more active is in personal growth for a sustainable career. With personal skill growth comes options to resolve any social, schedule or compensation imbalance. Without it, even the best arrangements in the short term become obsolete and redundant.

Andrew Smith wrote recently in The Australian “we must ensure that we are preparing young Australians to be confident participants in our digital future”. Smith should know, he is chief executive of Education Services Australia and draws heavily on research including the Building the Lucky Country report I had the privilege of helping develop.

We need to set people up with the right skills for the future but we also need to help them maintain their currency throughout their career. Our research into the capabilities that people bring into their jobs indicated that the average employer most values qualifications and skills that have been held less than five years, as evidenced by demand outstripping supply across the majority of skill categories. However, after five years, supply is greater than demand. This reversal of fortunes is dramatic, growing to an average of eight times the supply (people) to demand (jobs) after nine years.

I’ve already argued that we need to think about career paths and learning differently (see Navigating the future with lifelong learning) but I believe this is also an argument that aligns to the wellbeing and wellness of our people, which we know has benefits for employer and employee alike as well as society more generally.

Many people are very happy doing what they are doing and underinvest in their personal capability. This results in a gradual siege mentality and, even for the initially happy employer/employee relationship, there is a gradual mutual disenchantment. Ultimately, having the wrong skills and being stuck in a job because there is no alternative is in the interests of no-one, sapping confidence, satisfaction and the overall wellness of the individual.

The career wellness objective should be to help people at risk of being stranded by their skills to pick the right capabilities to develop. There is no shortage of opportunity in the majority of organisations with online learning now almost ubiquitous. However, the same approach that is being adopted to make wellness a priority should be used to better create the environment where learning is a natural part of the working day.

We spend such a substantial part of our lives at work that dissatisfaction with our career progress makes it almost impossible to be completely satisfied overall. All too often, skilfulness at a task leads to encouragement to stay focused on that activity. Mastery is only healthy when greater degrees of mastery provide the dopamine of progress in some way.

In the long run, this sense of achievement, sustainability and satisfaction, is only possible if we have access to broad training and we don’t let our skills, or careers, atrophy.

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Maturing the information economy

Today it costs a fraction of a fraction of a cent per megabyte to store data, but it is less than 30 years since the cost of data storage dropped below one US dollar per megabyte. It seems that one dollar was a psychologically important price point as, from then on, the world economy significantly shifted to capturing, valuing and transacting on information.

Despite the language we use, the production and trading of information is fundamentally different to producing and trading goods or even services. Physical goods are tangible, predictable and have clear rules of ownership. In contrast, information is intangible, almost infinitely reproducible at negligible cost and the rules of ownership are inconsistent and often ambiguous.

Also, unlike goods and services, information behaves in unpredictable ways. Just look at the unexpected influence information improperly handled through social media has had on elections, or the ability to identify personal information from apparently anonymised medical, transport and retail data.

By the time the global financial crisis arrived in 2008, the transition to the information economy, and its implicit valuing of information, was well underway. Although the financial crisis had a horrific impact on a huge number of people across many countries, central banks. regulators and governments worldwide did an amazing job of mitigating what could have been far worse.

However, the years subsequent to the global financial crisis have been far from smooth. The economy simply doesn’t behave the way economists would have expected. It has become common to say that “uncertainty is the new normal”.

I think much of this uncertainty can be attributed to the differences between the response of information-centric products and their comparable physical products to economic settings.

Consumers have gone from buying phones to buying data plans, from buying razor blades to shaving subscriptions and increasingly from buying groceries to delivery services which are incredibly information intense. Similarly, few manufacturers rise to the lofty heights of becoming major companies in developed economies, rather that badge of honour falls to businesses focused on developing and managing intellectual property which are largely information assets.

Because our knowledge of markets was evolved during the latter half of the twentieth century, it’s also useful to look at what futurists of that same time, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s thought of the twenty-first century. You can get a great summary from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock published in 1970. The writers of the time got much of our world right, largely predicting the advances we’ve seen in computing, the internet, as well as many of the social and geopolitical moves even if not the specifics.

What futurists of the time got universally wrong was their predictions that the great challenge of our era would be what to do with all our leisure time! Although they expected mass automation to remove much of our need for work, they didn’t allow for the massive complexity that we would add to our organisations with the move to our information economy (see Why aren’t I working a four hour day?).

Rather than simple streamline a 1970s-style airline, where ticketing and check-in where simple but manual – we’ve created dozens of virtual platforms to buy our tickets and automated the check-in process through mobiles, text messages and kiosks. All of these sources of information interact in an almost infinite number of permutations.

Even more dramatically, governments and banks haven’t simply harvested the benefits of the information economy with virtual doppelgangers of their 1970s services and products, such as unemployment benefits, healthcare, mortgages and savings accounts. Rather they have leveraged the opportunity of almost infinitely flexible technology to create almost increasingly complex rules, regulations, exceptions and options.

If we find navigating today’s society hard, spare a thought for the challenge artificial intelligence faces! Today’s AI is really good at doing the things that humans do by rote. What it doesn’t do well is cope with chaos, unpredictability and unique exceptions. When today’s complex welfare services collide with our equally complex financial products the number of potential permutations make almost every circumstance unique. AI works best when each scenario is at least relatable to one it has been trained on.

Far from fearing AI will take our society away from us, perhaps our economic certainty and quality of life is aligned with the interests of making the world more predictable for our AI-assistants. The AI future might be more human friendly than we ever thought!

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Common sense has never been more important

The administration of day-to-day life seems like it has never been more complicated. We all seem to be constantly navigating new services, products, registrations, cards, identification and so much more. New requirements are being layered over the top of basic activities from financial services through to grocery shopping. I can’t help wondering sometimes whether anyone who creates these products and services actually uses them!

Many organisations know the importance of engaging with representatives of their customers through focus groups, surveys and other user forums. Unfortunately these have become tired and struggle to get more than token engagement. Most people simply decline to respond and are halfhearted when they do. Even then, the scope of this engagement is superficial at best with management being kept behind closed doors and in the arms of a few.

By comparison, democracies around the world, together with many judicial systems, make extensive use of ordinary people. Governments and courts are run by professional bureaucrats and legal professionals respectively. In government, the bureaucrats report to parliamentarians elected from the population by all of us. In courts, the judges may be in charge but they leave the biggest questions to juries of ordinary people. Despite their obvious flaws, both systems work. Winston Churchill famously said: “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”! Similarly, regardless of the challenges of the jury system, most legal experts who work with them are also their strongest advocates.

Great systems work best when they include some common sense, best served up by ordinary people. I firmly believe we should never underestimate the contribution that we can all make in the effective running of our society. Why then do few businesses take a similar approach?

When we talk about involving staff in the management of the business, it is hard to go past Semco Partners in Brazil led by Ricardo Semler. Semler has been an innovator in industrial democracy for decades with great success, making him something of a business celebrity (not harmed by his successful books). He has transformed the business he inherited from his father from a conservative manufacturer into a leading services business and successfully engaged his people at the same time. Most important in Semler’s philosophy is the principle of trusting his people’s common sense over policy manuals and involving the wider team in leadership.

Rather than seek help from ordinary people to run their business, most companies view the wider population as best leveraged to search for new ideas. Innovation is a really important part of engaging people in the future of the organisations they belong to, or engage with, but is only a very limited part of leadership. It is also important to understand that true innovation is seldom a random stand-alone idea rather it is the joining together of a group of ideas in a coordinated and novel way as part of a programme to solve complex problems.

One way that companies do support management through outside leadership is through boards. However, unlike parliament, we draw our non-executive directors from quite a narrow pool of society, usually semi-retired executives. While boards are a welcome source of common sense, their lack of diversity of perspective means they can’t adequately support management as products, services and even internal organisational needs become more complicated.

A welcome trend is to create advisory boards in more companies. These boards are typically open to a wider pool of candidates and provide support to management on issues such as technology, social expectations or specific markets. Perhaps more companies could work to leverage this type of vehicle to broaden their perspective and act to gain new insights into issues that affect all their stakeholders.

Whatever the solution, businesses have to find a way to simplify their offerings, services and internal processes. Whether it is prioritising retail staffing over marketing, simplifying product application forms or recognising that hotel websites fail to take most family combinations into account, businesses seem happy to put barriers in front of their customers. They also need better ways to understand community temperament when it comes to issues such as data handling, use of automated algorithms and the expectations of their own staff.

Few people think of the public service as the model for private enterprise, but it pays to remember that government is the most complex business there is. In a world where few businesses stay on top for many years in a row, it pays to remember that the administrators of our nations tend to stay viable for an extraordinarily long time!

In a world of more and more business rules, many of which are opaque, it would be good to know that juries of our peers were in control.

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Exponential answers or fake news

“Exponential” is one of those great words loved by the start-up community and technology investors alike. Exponential technology growth curves allow you to hide any number of early mistakes while also reaching massive audiences quickly. Exponential solutions can be the answer some of our biggest medical, health, energy and information challenges, even solving problems we didn’t know we had!

Exponentials are exciting. Whether it is transistors on a chip or users across the globe, they expand in a dramatic power curve.

But exponentials can also have a dark side. Fake news spreads because of the exponential power of social media. By comparison, Wikipedia has become the planet’s most trusted source for facts. Although errors and lies exist on Wikipedia, it hasn’t served as an effective platform to spread these falsehoods. The difference between Wikipedia and its social media counterparts is that it is linear rather than exponential.

Post a fake fact to Wikipedia and it might stick for a while, but the only people who see it are those that specifically visit the page. There is no propagation or viral sharing, making the platform much less attractive to spread controversy. Wikipedia is perhaps best described as a linear technology.

Like exponentials, linear solutions also grow in capability and reach, but only at an incremental pace.

Despite the downsides, the power of exponentials has been crucial for humanity. It wasn’t that long ago that starvation was the human norm. Populations regularly ran out of food and there were credible predictions that our era would be one where population growth would cause mass famine.

Exponential approaches to agriculture changed the game. Major crops, such as wheat, barley, and corn, have seen yields increase by a factor of five to ten over the past century. When combined with land use changes, food production technologies have been genuinely exponential.

Just as we would be seeing mass starvation today without exponential approaches to food production, so we will have a massive environmental crisis later this century if we can’t find exponential solutions to reduce and remove carbon and other pollutants from our everyday activities.

Charts showing what it would take to be a zero-carbon society by the middle of the twenty-first century make it clear that we’re kidding ourselves if we think linear reductions in our environmental footprint are going to be enough.

In energy production, we have some great linear technologies available to us which can grow their impact: predominantly solar and wind. Even combined with battery storage technology, most curves indicate incremental improvement and reach.

It is particularly in transport that we see the limitations of linear approaches. Many things can store energy, but what has made oil so attractive is its high energy to weight ratio which is still two orders of magnitude greater in density than the best batteries. This wouldn’t be an issue if battery technology was exponential and following something like Moore’s Law, but it isn’t.

The car makers are battling this out at the front line with one group, largely led out of the US, pushing for battery powered electric cars. The other, largely led out of Japan, are arguing for a hydrogen economy.

The debate matters because transport requires infrastructure. If there aren’t points to refuel or recharge available, people won’t take-up either technology. It’s unlikely that any country can leave it to the market to get to scale in time, meaning we need to decide as a society on the technology to back and scale the supporting infrastructure.

There are arguments in favour and against both batteries and hydrogen, but it is important the discussion is framed in terms of the linear versus exponential nature of the technologies. Where battery technology is inherently linear in its improving efficiency, hydrogen starts with an energy density that is roughly triple that of oil. While extraction of that energy is inefficient, its improvement more closely matches that of the exponentials we are familiar with.

The power of exponentials can be easily squandered. Whether is our low digital productivity benefit on the back of digital disruption (see Where is the digital-fuelled growth), or some of the food quality and health challenges we face after a century of the agricultural revolution, we need to make sure we understand the trade-offs. Anyone who relied on their iPhone alarm to wake-up in 2010 understands this after they slept through on the first day after daylight savings. Because the iPhone was exponential, the reach of the glitch was massive.

Understanding the trade-offs of exponential and linear solutions matters as we can only navigate our century’s greatest challenges if we find the right answers quickly.

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Today’s flying through tomorrow’s eyes

Sir David Attenborough gave powerful testimony to a UK parliamentary committee recently, arguing that we need to reduce the amount of global air travel to cut our carbon footprint. The irony that he has spent his career flying the world isn’t lost on anyone, but that really isn’t the point. A better challenge for those of us in the corporate world is to think about the changes we are all going to have to make and how they will shape the future of business.

What happens if, all of a sudden, it isn’t cool to fly? Until now to be a high flying executive with frequent flyer programme status and pampered by the airlines was something to aspire to. In the space of months it feels like there is a movement against this lofty ambition. At the same time as carbon emission initiatives are working their way across sectors, this is one challenge that touches almost all of us.

Airlines have been one of the most powerful forces for global understanding and business. Without them, we wouldn’t have the level of cooperation and trade across our globe that we do today. Also, by and large, airlines have been a force for good on social causes. But air travel has a big carbon footprint and we need to bridge this conflict.

The time to think about this is now. Our decisions today will be judged by society in the future by the standards they use of the time. Imagine a world where our personal carbon footprint is as visible as our LinkedIn profile and our Facebook activity. Maybe there will be a traffic light symbol against our name, with a total tons of carbon numerically displayed, for everyone to see. Imagine if this were to be created in 2022 and made retrospective to today!

We can assume that increasing pressure is going to drive the airline industry, and travel more broadly, to accelerate change. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines are going to move even faster to lower and hopefully one day eliminate their emissions.

While it’s likely that travel will get to these low, or even zero, emissions with the same convenience as today, it is going to be some time before that happens. In the meantime, the way we travel for business seems likely to change. We will prioritise flying on more efficient aircraft and purchase more carbon offsets but this may not be enough.

We may even be prepared to compromise on some of the comforts of flying for some further marginal reduction in our footprint. But these are at the edges and, at the very least, further growth in global trade will need to hold or even reduce our current business flying to be sustainable and leverage the industries efforts to reduce our impact.

All of this means the way we do business will change. My own sector of professional services in particular has grown our use of air travel even faster than we have grown as a proportion of the economy. In countries such as my own home of Australia, professional services, as part of the broader business services sector, has been a huge driver of productivity growth and has outgrown the economy (For example see Structural Change in Australian Industry: The Role of Business Services).

Despite having the means, we largely choose to work in-person. We are casual rather than deliberate about how we travel and will have to share more of our expertise and information electronically in the future. This will challenge us to treat remote participants to meetings as being equal citizens (see Sometimes it’s lonely being a robot).

As I talked about last month, our recent report on the future of work shows that many of the assumptions we made about working trends have not yet materialised. One of the most significant surprises is that people aren’t working remotely. While our report focused on big cities and commuting into the office, the same can be said for how specialised knowledge is distributed in-person rather than from the home location of the expert.

The upside of seamless electronic collaboration is obvious, travel eats time and is also a distraction. It is easy to feel like you have achieved a massive amount when what you really have done is cover thousands of kilometres. I’m not alone in having George Clooney‘s portrayal of business in “Up in the Air” as one of my favourite movies simply for the familiar sense of comfort we get as road warriors from the routine of travel.

In an era when productivity gains have been hard to come by, the confluence of reducing our impact on the planet with the need to squeeze more from less could lead the best of us to do more by plugging-in rather than checking-in. The ultimate irony is that I’m writing these words from ten kilometres in the air as I prepare for a new week in different city to my own.

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The future of work beyond the headlines

This month I had the privilege of being part of the team that launched Deloitte Australia’s major thought leadership piece, under the banner of “Building the Lucky Country”, investigating the future of work. Although thousands of words have been written on this topic, I think the vast majority have been based on opinion rather than hard evidence. That’s why, despite the crowded commentary space, we decided to take this topic on for one of our most comprehensive reports.

Australia’s “lucky country” nickname comes from Donald Horne’s 1964 book of the same name. Although Horne meant the term negatively, believing that Australians take our good fortune for granted, we believe that the country can continue to be “lucky” if we set ourselves up for success, starting with honest conversations about topics that matter for our future. Our Building the Lucky Country series is one vehicle for these conversations.

The result is The path to prosperity: Why the future of work is human. We are really proud of this report because it meets our objectives of challenging established assumptions, has relevance to policy decisions and is actionable by business. Some of our findings are uncomfortable and have left many of us, including me, reassessing some of our own assumptions about the future of work.

The report is unashamedly Australian, looking at local data. However, the outcomes can be equally extrapolated around the world.

Overall our report finds that the trend is toward creating more not less jobs. My colleague, John O’Mahony, says it best: “where there is a problem, there is a job” and, after all, we aren’t running out of problems!

When you have a problem trusting financial institutions, you create more regulations, regulators and compliance officers. When you have a problem with complex government services, you add people to the call centres and provide more hands-on support. When you have a problem with an aging population, you create more aged care workers. Not only will we need more care, we’ll also need more support as more of us seek to be active in society for longer.

There has long been a trend to reduce the floorspace needed per person for work. This has led some to think the idea of offices is coming to an end. In reality only 1 in 25 Australians works from home on any given day. Probably akin to many people working half a day a fortnight from home. In fact, collaboration in the office is becoming more important and floorspace is now increasing with growth in employment. People are working more flexibly, but still predominately from an office rather than home.

The idea that people aren’t loyal to an employer also isn’t backed-up by the numbers. There is a popular view that new entrants to the workforce need to assume they’ll have dozens of jobs in their lifetimes. In fact, the average worker has been with their current employer for about six years and nearly half (45%) have been with their employer for over five years.

Work is continuing to be through a traditional employer/employee relationship. We aren’t all going to be part of the gig economy. In fact, the number of people categorised as self-employed (including users of the gig economy platforms) has dropped over the last decade.

While our analysis shows that available employment is going to continue to grow, the shortage of skills to fill those jobs is growing even faster. We identify that Australia is going to have a gap of thousands of programmers, which is no surprise, but it is digital literacy that dwarfs programming being counted in the millions. But the largest gap of all is in customer service where Australia is projected to be short five million people. This finding alone warrants major attention as the assumption that the offshoring of customer service call centre jobs was cost-based alone may turn out to be incorrect.

Not only are employers looking for skills that their people lack, they are valuing those skills for only a relatively short period of time. Specifically, the data shows that the greatest gap between demand and supply is for people with three to five years of experience. Those who have obtained their skills over five years ago find that supply outstrips demand.

Clearly, we need to think differently about work if we’re to maximise our human talent. That means continual refreshing of our skills rather than trying to educate everyone for a lifelong career before they get their first job. For universities, it means thinking about continuous education and micro-credentials. For governments it means new training and industry policies.

Using the data to get a better insight into the future matters. When politicians are misdirected to believe all jobs are at risk, they assume that robots need to be taxed (as some have proposed) which would be a tax on productivity in a world where jobs are still being created. When they think that entire communities will be permanently underemployed, they look to solutions like a universal basic income (UBI). While a UBI might be appropriate for some societies, it should be based on the values and wealth of the country, not on a false assumption of permanent mass unemployment in the coming decades.

Navigating change isn’t easy for anyone and there will be disruption. The way to help people to adapt is to use the data we have to prepare rather than make uninformed assumptions. Let’s hope our report helps us all to move beyond the headlines and embrace the opportunity presented by the future of work.

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The metaphor-driven strategy trap

The problem with strategy is that it implies predictions about the future. Urban strategies at the turn of the twentieth century were dominated by horses and yet just 30 years later many of the same organisations were seriously expecting flying cars in their near future. How wrong both assumptions were shows how strategy and prediction is a fraught business!

This can be solved, to an extent, by creating scenarios for the future and analysing how a business strategy will align with each of these. But even then, each scenario is, necessarily, little more than a context for business. Real events will quickly make these scenarios seem naïve.

Arguably, the biggest uncertainty is technology. Like the predictions on the future of horses and flying cars, it is hard to know what will be developed or when. What isn’t so obvious is that the design and form factor of technology is often just as important in making strategic decisions. Time and time again, solutions with nearly the same features and functions can produce dramatically different business outcomes.

It is too easy to think of business strategy as only a set of objectives together with a credible set of activities to deliver on those goals. While the vision might be clear, it is almost impossible to fully take into account the opportunity of technology when much is yet to be invented and what there is could be applied in a myriad of different ways.

The business strategist might describe the opportunity to better compete through the automation of existing mortgage processes, streamlining phone orders or removing manual expense claim processing. These assumptions have encouraged leadership teams to ask the Chief Information Officer to follow-up the business strategy with a supporting technology strategy. The result is usually incremental and is responsible for “metaphor-based” solutions.

A metaphor-based solution implements technology in a way that tries to emulate the physical world. It is why we still refer to “books” on e-readers, “signatures” on electronic documents and workflows largely operate as if a single record was moving around the organisation. When strategists define the future in terms of existing business models, technologists respond by simply digitising real world objects.

There are better ways than a digital signature to confirm a client’s agreement through continuous engagement, terms and conditions don’t need to be a one-off legal document and increasingly we don’t want to consume media, including books, in traditional forms. People respond to great design and useful solutions iteratively. It took a while for social media to take-off, but even from the start, the idea of new communication forms was popular. The key is constant experimentation.

I’ve lost count of the number of times we talk about experimenting and “failing fast” but it is true, the best organisations learn by doing. To avoid the metaphor trap, strategy has to be iterative with business and technology strategies being developed in tandem. The CIO has to be as much a strategist as the Chief Strategy Officer needs to be a technologist.

While both the business and technology strategies can propose engaging with customers and staff using solutions that are emerging, subtle design innovation in their implementation will substantially change the outcome. This is why leading retailers and banks, for example, jealously guard, sometimes through patents, even quite simple innovations in the way customers click on their websites.

A technology strategy that is developed as an afterthought can deliver on the features requested by the business strategy but will seldom do much to really move the organisation forward. Even worse, in realising the needs as envisioned by the business strategy it will have to force fit available solutions to their parameters when, with a few changes to approach, the business needs and technology could lead to a design breakthrough.

The cost of almost every solution from public transport ticketing through to warehousing would be an order of magnitude less if the requirements were designed around the technology rather than contorting data models and digital interfaces to replicate fares and business rules that were originally created for paper and pen.

Perhaps it is time to turn things on their head and start with the vision for technology and develop a business strategy that maximises its impact. At the very least business and technology strategies are inseparable.

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