2017 – The year to change the way we work?

As we set down our champagne glasses from welcoming in 2017, should we think of our glass as half empty or half full when we think about the future of work?

On the one hand, the glass is half empty and leaking. Ongoing concerns remain about the performance of the economy; productivity growth has been slow since the global financial crisis, all against a backdrop of Brexit. In recent months fewer new jobs, with anticipated higher inflation and exchange rates, places growing pressure on many companies’ ability to support future wage increases. Relatedly, this also limits public revenues, meaning times of austerity will continue to loom large.

In addition, these developments are playing out alongside longer term forces. The effects of globalisation and the increasing pace of innovation and technological advances are transforming conventional ways of working and disrupting traditional business models in ways we still don’t yet fully understand. Growing uncertainty, volatility and complexity are now common features of the world of work and place ever more increasing demands on businesses and people at work.

As we all wrestle with how best to respond, recent headlines of exploitative practices by some businesses have drawn further attention to the problems.  Modern developments around automation, the gig economy and more flexible working used to cuts costs and exploit employees, dehumanises work and enhances job losses, making new forms of work feel more precarious, with unpredictable incomes and hours.

But, in such turbulent and pressured times, is a race to the bottom an unavoidable consequence of modern working, moving us ever closer towards a dystopian future? And, if not how on earth can we see this as glass half full?

Firstly, we need to tell a more balanced story about the impact of future developments on the world of work. Machines will not completely replace people or degrade all forms of work. Whilst technology is certainly removing many jobs, it is also significantly changing others in new and complex ways. To gain the most out of technology, new operations will be created and work re-organised. In doing so many higher level skills are required. Over the past few decades, we have seen a long term shift across the UK economy to more high value, knowledge intensive work, and growing demand for more highly skilled workers at the top of the career ladder.

Secondly, technological advancement enriches work and places a greater value on the human contribution. This is often in ways that cannot be seen or touched, with an emphasis on creativity, intuitive mastery, emotional intelligence, tacit knowledge and problem solving. Indeed, the ONS estimates the value of employed human capital was estimated at £17.61 trillion – two and half times the value of ‘hard’ assets such as buildings, vehicles and machinery. The benefits derived from people combined with new technological innovations in the digital age, such as automation and robotics, sensors, and big data around the growing potential of the Internet of Things, are far-reaching. Many areas of work are affected – from factory production lines, logistic centres, retail outlets, and energy supplies to transport networks and road systems. We need to shine the spotlight on such developments so that we understand good Careers of the Future, which optimise human talent, and prepare for them.

Finally, we need to fully exploit, in uncertain times, the chance to reappraise and improve ways of working, in a way that can inspire action and guard against insecure, precarious employment. Successful businesses embracing changes are already able to push forward more efficient technologically driven operations which are also people centred and enable people to work in intelligent ways alongside technology. “Good” businesses find ways to work smarter together and to make sure people are still happy and engaged. They recognise companies don’t have ideas but people do and they seek to build the relationships, bonds and team working that delivers the commitment, trust and resilience to support creativity and deliver results.

Over the years our research with Lancaster University Management School has demonstrated how Good Work is the route to greater social capital, innovation and high performance, which unlocks the value of the human contribution.  How can we ensure that more businesses understand this and feel empowered and supported to push forward the Good Work agenda?

Clearly, there are no quick wins or silver bullets to deploy. But we do need to create the right conditions for multiple stakeholders to work together to find practical solutions to advance good work, providing benefits for all, socially as well as economically. Importantly, these need to win “hearts and minds” in workplaces and achieve more than good practice case studies and guidance.

There’s certainly a lot that Government can do to support more businesses by taking a fresh look at the legal, fiscal and policy framework, which are still based on ‘traditional’ work. It was good to see the Chancellor’s strong emphasis on improving productivity in the Autumn Statement. In addition, the development of an industrial strategy is vital to build business confidence, stability and trust in the future. It has the potential to stimulate stronger collaboration, and to unlock the sorts of a long term and sustained co-investment we need to see in innovation, industries, technology, and skills. This will help us compete globally, with rapidly growing emerging economies.

The ongoing commitment to devolution is also welcome. It will strengthen delivery on the ground, allowing more flexibility to customise support to meet the needs of local communities. Targeted investments also announced in the Statement such as How Good is Your Business Really, which are supporting the development of a business-led productivity council, are also essential to encourage more ambitious leadership and broader collaboration and action across business communities.

As Brexit has put the spotlight on persistent and potentially growing inequalities, the importance of policy priorities seeking to advance social justice and protect those at risk of greatest disadvantage cannot be underestimated. We need to exploit the promise of such developments over the coming year, with a focus on reviewing employment status and rights at work, the national living wage, health and wellbeing as well as advancing participation and progression in the labour market through skills reforms and strengthening work based career pathways and apprenticeships.

So, in my opinion, we are entitled to take a glass half full approach, the opportunities are rich as are peoples’ talents. To ensure we exploit them fully, the Work Foundation has launched a new Commission on Good Work to secure a more balanced assessment, and in turn debate, about changes in the world of work.

By taking a more confident and optimistic view, this is not to down play the scale of the challenges ahead. But if we are to realise the opportunities, we need to begin to set out some initial bold and positive steps. Working together we can make a start to make sense of what is to come, and then can take action to better prepare, rather than leaving the future of work to chance. In that way we need to ensure we secure a future of Good Work for many and not just for an elite few.

I’ll drink to that.