The Optimist’s View of the Coronavirus – Solving the Future of Work

March 19, 2020 Peter Bentley

When you work on the nebulous subject of ‘future of work’, you spend your days trying to explain a concept so ridiculously broad it is almost incomprehensible. You strive to make the different facets of disruption, transformation, ‘digital’ workforce planning and future skills tangible. Some try murmuring statements such as: “We need to be a tech firm” or, worse: “A tech firm with a banking licence” - as if technology firms are some futuristic entity void of their own impending form of disruption.

In my role as CCO at Aon, I often say things like: “The problem with the future of work is it requires you to predict the future.” I believe a lot of the content on the subject is wrong - or at least it focuses on the wrong agenda. This is because trying to guess what an industry might look like in 15 years’ time is irrelevant. It is procrastination. The academic modelling and authors of such pieces take the vitally important subject of workforce change and make it so theoretical and esoteric that it excludes 99% of market participants.

By its very nature, the future of work has no end date. You do not achieve it. You are on a never-ending journey. The important thing is to be on the right path. Yes - you can understand the potential risks and opportunities of the known disrupters and factor these into plans, but there are also a plethora of unknown things that impact that journey.

Two obvious things that will impact your business more than anything else are:

  • Your clients: how they consume, the demographics within your client base, the amount of choice they have; and
  • Your people: their existing skills and capabilities, their propensity to change and willingness to acquire new skills, the demographics of your workforce.

These are just two categories - but they are major ones. Both should be considered along a spectrum. However, when you place these alongside 15 years of workforce change, technology evolution, adoption, behaviour change, regulation, demographics and new and old client bases etc you start to realise that trying to predict the future of work is like trying to predict chaos theory.

The most tangible example of this is happening right now. Who would have predicted that a virus would result in the working world being stuck at home, not being able to travel, not being able to socialise, not being able to connect with clients in traditional ways?

We can hypothesise what an entire industry might look like in the future but that can be completely derailed by the unpredictable - and possibly the journey will change completely because of it.
Immediate questions arise: what is the exposure and how social do roles need to be? How do companies manage cashflow and the expense base through (an assumed) decline in revenues? How can we achieve more with less?

However, in the mid-to-longer term, and after a period of time to digest and learn from the immediate impact, considerations and opportunities will arise on how companies can flexibly manage the workforce and cost base. And also consider what to do with the new-found resilience within the workforce.
Therefore, predicting the future is a redundant exercise. Instead, we should focus on the three things that all companies, small and large, need to consider. I believe that, if you do these three things, then you will effectively ‘solve’ the future of work.

1.    Manage people risk.
2.    Empower workforce agility and resilience.
3.    Build employee value.

Each of these subjects has its own journey, but at least the objective is more tangible than the nebulous concept of the ‘future’.
Maybe, if we focus on the above, we can turn a truly horrible event, such as a global pandemic, into something positive and with much longer-term upshots.

  1. Manage people risk: Aon is a professional services firm. We quantify risk, insure and mitigate it. Over the years, we have seen significant movement in where the risks lie. Firms’ people risk is significant and much of it can only be mitigated - not insured. The financial crisis showed us how people and their poor behaviour have extreme consequences, particularly if they are not incentivised appropriately.

    Coronavirus means people are both at risk and a risk. Despite all the digital interventions, people are still the driver of productivity, client engagement, service, delivery etc. Firms need to have an appreciation of those risks impacting the workforce. They need to understand their pivotal talent and how they are exposed, allowing them to consider the known risks, such as digital disruption, cyber, reputational etc. Understanding these risks helps. However, as coronavirus is now proven companies need to have a workforce that can adapt to circumstances as they arise.
  2. Empower workforce agility and resilience: to be able to adapt, we need to understand our workforce’s innate capability and appreciate how that changes over time. When we hire people, they do not stay fixed at that point. People acquire new skills through their job, they may even educate themselves outside of the work environment. This is often hidden until it results in an opportunity in another role (normally in a different company).

    Therefore, companies should ask: what skills and capabilities exist within our workforce? What is the workforce capable and, importantly in circumstances such as the current work environment, what could it do if required? How likely would it respond to adverse stimuli and can it adapt? Collecting this information as a matter of course, efficiently, effectively and if need be, virtually, should be core to anyone considering workforce change or the future of work.

    Coronavirus is the biggest disruptor to the way we work in the modern era. The world is in lockdown. The irony is that technology is there to enable us, but only if our people and clients are agile and resilient enough to embrace it.
  3. Build employee value: a healthy workforce is a happy workforce, yet an employee value proposition is about how businesses attract, retain and retrain people - enabling them. This includes giving people ownership of their careers to drive mobility and help people understand where their skills and capabilities can take them - and what else they can do.

    While this empowers employees, importantly it also allows employers to understand what their workforce can do.

    Employee value also involves incentivising people appropriately – encouraging the right (and mitigating the wrong) behaviour, but incentives go beyond monetary benefit. Technology firms are good at considering people risk, agility, resilience and employee value.

    Technology firms use ‘benefits’ to build employee value. They think beyond healthcare and include opportunities to invest in staff and empower them to adapt. They have become creative due to the speed of change in their industry.

    Working from home is seen a benefit by some, and clearly, it’s now part of business continuity. However, it’s also a challenge for some. In some cases, it’s a logistical or technical issue. In some instances, the role requires face-to-face interaction. The challenges can also be driven by capability: the discipline, the different distractions and the logistical challenges of working from home can massively dent productivity. Unfortunately, firms are finding this out the hard way.

Coronavirus is just another event that emphasises the need for organisations to consider how they respond and adapt to challenges - just as it was with the global financial crisis over a decade ago. That resulted in significant shifts in regulatory change, how people were paid, the trust held in banks and how graduates shifted their ambitions to technology firms because of perceived employee value.

Yes, we can get caught up with the exciting concept of the future of work, but understanding people risk, empowering workforce agility and resilience and building employee value are tangible areas where successful outcomes can be achieved. They happen to be core to how Aon helps its clients.

If you are interested in learning about talent assessment in light of COVID-19, watch our webinar.

#covid-19 #talentmanagement #futureofwork #HR #digitaltransformation #humancapital

Disclaimer: This document has been provided as an informational resource for Aon clients and business partners. It is intended to provide general guidance on potential exposures, and is not intended to provide medical advice or address medical concerns or specific risk circumstances. Due to the dynamic nature of infectious diseases, Aon cannot be held liable for the guidance provided. We strongly encourage visitors to seek additional safety, medical and epidemiologic information from credible sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization. As regards insurance coverage questions, whether coverage applies or a policy will respond to any risk or circumstance is subject to the specific terms and conditions of the insurance policies and contracts at issue and underwriter determinations.



About the Author

Peter Bentley

Peter Bentley is the global commercial officer with Aon’s Human Capital Solutions practice and focuses on building workforce agility. Peter has worked with firms on their approach to client strategy, distribution and how they leverage digital solutions to empower their workforce for the future. He has developed and built a number of data / digital platforms aimed at augmenting workflow, aiding decision making and transforming client engagement.

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