Josh Squires: Brexit, the bots and the bottoming out of company culture

The world of employment is on the cusp of a period of dramatic shifts, particularly in the UK. A perfect storm of political uncertainty and upheaval, and exponentially accelerating technology that will automate significant portions of people’s jobs, means that the nature of the workforce in the UK will change. There are three key drivers here to consider and to mitigate.

Firstly, the commercial disruption possible in a no deal Brexit aside, any future relationship with the EU with more restricted movement will reduce the talent pool for British companies. Even if more visas are opened up for foreign workers from abroad, the process will be more convoluted than the status quo and create bottlenecks for skills needs.

Secondly, while AI, robotics and other forms of automation may reduce labour needs in certain areas, for many companies digital transformation will mean a step change in how quickly the skills and competencies required by a business change. Different, high-demand skills will be needed, and they may be difficult to find on the open market.

Finally, as the nature of skills needed by a business changes at an accelerating pace, many companies will respond reactively by reducing headcount in “defunct” areas and hiring quickly. That could mean more short-term contracts and freelance employees, but that might also mean a depressing hollowing out of company culture and water down the mission distinctly. People will know they are not there for the long haul and may not have long enough to build relationships and become invested in what the company is trying to achieve – a recipe for low morale.

Admittedly, this is a very bleak prognosis, but I think a more optimistic picture emerges when you consider how we as a society – including government, employees and HR teams – will respond to these challenges:

    1. Government intervention and investment

There needs to be political will to drive organisations to support skills programmes, legislation and investment from the Government to support employers and employees in this new era.

The stand out initiative so far is the National Retraining Scheme, with the Government investing £100 million in it this time last year for the continued testing of the scheme. Which is designed to help adults retrain into better jobs and be ready for future changes to the economy, including those brought about by automation.

Government could give tax breaks to companies that are able to demonstrate a dedication to upskilling and retooling under threat workers. If it is not a carrot, then maybe it is a stick.

Alternatively, could companies have better links into universities and schools so the process can begin at that stage of someone’s development?

    2. Employer commitment to retraining and employee growth

For companies to meet these challenges, it is about fostering a sticky environment that enables employees to evolve with the company’s needs. There are two key elements in supporting that from an HR point of view – adopting cutting-edge technology and establishing the right mindset amongst the leadership.

In terms of technology, it is critical to obsessively optimise the impact of L&D programmes. Classroom-style learning has long been too cumbersome, but gone also are the days where having a Learning Management System for online, self-directed training was enough (and I say that even as an executive at an LMS provider!). There are three key areas for early focus:

    1. A) Immersive learning

Learning experiences will become more realistic using augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), enabling the replication of new critical tasks and step-by-step guidance. The quality of VR headsets and immersive experiences has skyrocketed as the cost has plummeted, yet how many organisations have even trialed the technology within their L&D programmes today? This is something that needs to be considered urgently as the technology offers a step change in the quality of training programmes.

    1. B) Social learning

The chances are that the skills businesses need are apparent, if not abundant, within the organisation already. Evidently cloning is not possible, but more companies, inspired by the rise of collaboration working tools, are realising that they can benefit the more employees share with each other. Not only is social learning a vibrant learning tool, it also fosters greater connections and enhances the company culture. Ensure that the right systems are in place to properly connect employees and capture the best video trainings and task or leadership expertise that they have.

    1. C) AI-powered learning

Fundamentally, the shifting sands of skills needs across an organisation become too difficult to estimate at a glance. HR teams often rely on the individual departments to understand skills needs. But there’s something here to the old adage of Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse”. Systems are needed that can provide a holistic view of the organisation’s skills profile. Further, being able to respond to gaps in this skills profile can be assisted with AI. Machine learning algorithms can assess skills gaps, find good candidates to fill them and then push the right course content to those team members to ensure they adapt these skills rapidly.

AI is potentially both the poison and the antidote for maintaining career relevance in the age of automation!

Beyond technology, companies also need a leadership team that is committed to its people. As Simon Sinek defines it, “good leaders make people feel safe.”

No organisation can protect all employees from the impacts that automation will bring, but we can make our people feel safe by giving people opportunities, education and the chances to try, fail and learn.

When big cost savings are on the table because an AI voice recognition system can replace swathes of employees, it is a brave decision to invest those savings in retooling employees. However, it is pennywise and pound foolish to let go adaptable workers when you have a talent shortage in another area of your business. It also creates an environment of fear with all other employees that is not productive.

It may require a mindshift to think more in the way of companies of yore and consider people as potentially company lifers. The role is no longer a 30-year job doing the same thing at various levels of seniority. It might be a new role every two to three years, or even shorter intervals, but we should think again of career-long employees – lifelong learners.

    1. 3) Early education focused on adaptability

The other challenge is that, as is so often the case, we educate our youngsters today for the skills of yesterday. The school curriculum hasn’t even caught up with what is needed today, i.e. we don’t have enough computer science graduates to fill software development jobs. However, in five years time, AI potentially could automate a large amount of the programming needs and the skills required then from workers will again be different.

We need an education policy that tries to think about how future technology shifts will impact skills needs and is more predictive, and less reactive. We also need to prioritise learning experiences and subjects that engender adaptability in children. Teaching the skill of learning and the character traits that support it is far more important than any specific subject or course content.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s only mildly hyperbolic to say that it will save the human race.

Josh Squires is director of enterprise solutions for EMEA at Docebo, an innovative learning technology company. Josh has worked in learning and development technology for over 20 years and holds advanced Degrees in Learning and Technology.