Last month, Josh Bersin delivered a keynote speech at Singularity University Global Summit titled “The Future of Work: The People Imperative.” Because of the rise in popularity of topics such as artificial intelligence and the “gig” economy, countless economists, journalists and other “experts”(including yours truly) have been analyzing and trying to predict the future of work. I’ve been following Josh on Twitter and Linkedin for quite some time, and even though I ignore most talking heads’ opinions on the topic, this was one talk I wanted to watch carefully.
Bersin kicks off his talk with a sentence I wish more people would understand:
“It’s not as simple as technology taking over jobs. It’s far more complex than that.”
There’s a reason Bersin feels we need to start here, and it’s because the mainstream narrative of the future of work has been too simplistic, and focused on shocking people rather than helping them prepare. Complexity is media poison; to understand it one requires patience and dedication, two things the media has trouble profiting from.
Later, Bersin mentions a statistic that surprised me at first, but “feels” right after some reflection:
“This industrial revolution, the one based on mobile and social technology, is producing the least amount of productivity of any industrial revolution that passed.”
Half-way through his talk, Bersin gives us his opinion on the impact of automation:
“Are jobs going away? I don’t believe they are. Everything I’ve read essentially says that every time automation comes, we simply do different things. […] Things like courage, empathy, listening, understanding how people react… When you’re in a meeting and somebody doesn’t understand what’s going on, that’s a human skill to try to bring somebody up to speed and align a team. There are a whole library of skills in the occupational database that are not yet, and maybe will never be, automated by a computer. I think that’s something we have to get a little bit beyond in the public press.”
To support these claims, Bersin gives many examples from history where people predicted jobs going away because of new technologies but instead created more jobs.
Now, are some jobs going to disappear? Of course. That’s always been the case with progress. But to arrive to a doomsday scenario like the media and many futurologists tend to do is usually the result of a shallow analysis by those that only observe and report, as opposed to those working on the field with the people and businesses that are dealing with the changes (like Josh does).
Another major topic in Bersin’s talk is the issue of work-life balance and how many technologies and jobs’ expectations are affecting people’s health and their poor engagement and satisfaction with their work:
“Most of the technology providers that are making a lot of money are selling addictive drugs. They would love you to get addicted to their tools. They would love you to have high leves of “engagement.” They would love to have “gamification” that’s so exciting, you can’t put it down. […] Our job as employers, as organizations, as HR people, as business leaders is to understand this and help people deal with it. And that is not simply adding more automation.”
On the last part of his talk, Bersin delivers his main point: The future of work is all about people, it’s not about technology. He brings up Starbucks, pioneer in taking care of their employees, as an example of how a business that could automate many of their current tasks and jobs, chooses not to because they understand the value that people bring to a task, a business, and a customer.
Bersin goes on to mention some of the main reasons focusing on people is crucial if we want to build thriving, adaptive business. First, he explains that healthy organizations work as a network of small teams (not a hierarchy), and that fluid organizations that help people navigate different roles, different responsibilities and different teams are seeing both growth and and higher employee satisfaction and retention (the best-seller “The Alliance” describes this trend quite well).
Second, he talks about the importance of having a strong company “culture.” As Bersin comments, few people know how to define culture – I define it as “the internalized, repeatable way of doing things in a company” – but everyone agrees that it’s important. Josh explains that culture, leadership, and putting people first, are the only constant behind companies with the highest employee engagement and satisfaction.
Third and fourth, Bersin reinforces the requirement for companies to help their employees learn and reinvent themselves over and over (I like the term “career-hacking“). Ben Casnocha suggests businesses and leaders to “develop a reputation for being a career launch pad instead of a career parking lot.” I agree with both of them; only those organizations that see their employees as “allies,” with desires and aspirations that go beyond the description of their job at any particular moment in time, will (ironically) find ways to keep collaborating with them.
Finally, Bersin talks about how to bring design thinking to work:
“The employee experience is the customer experience. When you get on an airplane and the flight attendant is unhappy because of something at work, guess who gets the brunt of it? You do! […] Thinking about the design of your work place as a holistic thing is an important part of the future of work.”
I see two big takeaways from Josh’s talk:
1) Complexity: the future of work is complex, so we should be hesitant to accept to any extreme or simplistic analysis from talking heads that show too much certainty about what’s going to happen. As a rule of thumb, the broader the strokes of the expert, the higher the odds of getting the future wrong.
2) Independent Thinking: With so much going on, the worst response is to let someone else tell you how you should run your business or career. Inform yourself and experiment with new technologies, but in the end, each person and organization should come to their own conclusions of what path they should take. Don’t let the media and talking heads, with their conflicting incentives, paint your future.