By Jason Schloetzer, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Georgetown University and Director of the Future of Work Initiative: Technology, Leadership and the Common Good
The world’s leading boards are deeply engaged in assessing the opportunities and risks associated with technology’s constant and extraordinary advances. Machine learning and other artificial intelligence tools are transforming how employees conduct their daily work.
Research shows that these technologies will accelerate workplace transformation irrespective of employees’ skill levels and job functions. And global surveys indicate that most leaders expect significant change to their organisations – changes that affect employees’ technical acumen and their ability to engage in intensive collaboration and thrive in organisations that routinely reorganise employees into different cross-functional teams. Welcome to the future of work.
Much of the boardroom dialogue around workplace transformation focusses on how their organisations can reap the financial and operational benefits new technologies have to offer. For instance, boards are reviewing an increasing number of pilot- and large-scale technology-driven change programmes, from developing new product offerings that boost revenue growth to implementing customised yet scalable customer service support and enhancing back-office operational excellence to deliver cost efficiencies. For many boards and leaders, technology’s advances are just another opportunity to boost shareholder value.
But progressive boards recognise that technological transformation necessitates a change in how boards and top management teams fulfil their leadership responsibilities, too. In particular, there is growing awareness that organisations must significantly shift their leadership philosophy to transform the workplace successfully. The next generation of leaders is becoming attuned to how technology impacts employees in both visible and subtle ways that manifest inside and outside the organisation.
Boards should be acutely aware of these employee-focussed issues for two reasons. First, the type of work that leaders engage in can insulate them from fully appreciating the significant changes that technological transformation brings to many employees’ daily life. Second, boards and leaders alike face the ever-so-present pressure to achieve performance targets.
This pressure can lead boards and top management to emphasise shareholder value creation over stakeholder value issues, such as long-term employee welfare. Perhaps due to these two reasons, many boards and leaders fail to discern that these technological advancements meaningfully affect employees’ day-to-day routines. This situation is a board-level issue, as it requires strategic considerations. Employees will continue to experience rapid transformation over the coming decades as what the World Economic Forum refers to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution advances.
Boards and leaders should be deeply aware of what employees are experiencing as this unprecedented technological transition occurs. And this awareness needs to happen right now, not down the line.
Human-centred leaders help prepare employees for the future of work
Organisations play a critical role in equipping employees with the knowledge they need to make informed and principled decisions in this increasingly dynamic workplace environment. The next generation of leaders should understand that the future of work must balance technology and leadership. The biggest challenges will be human challenges, both in terms of what it takes to lead successful organisations and to ensure that society does not leave behind large groups of employees in the global economy. Technology is driving the need for human-centred leadership. “The next generation of leaders is becoming attuned to how technology impacts employees in both visible and subtle ways that manifest inside and outside the organisation.”
“The next generation of leaders is becoming attuned to how technology impacts employees in both visible and subtle ways that manifest inside and outside the organisation.”
Human-centred leadership requires boards and top management to clarify their role in preparing employees for the future of work. The following three actions will help leaders develop this clarity.
1. Help your employees identify, cultivate and pursue their purpose
One unintended consequence of rapid technological change is reducing an employee’s sense of purpose in the organisation. Leaders often highlight the benefits of technology transformation as an advancement that will transform an employee’s work into a collection of highly valued tasks that require creativity and imagination. Leave the mundane, routine work to an algorithm, leaders say! But employees can hold an opposing view that boards and leaders might not consider: when job functions routinely change and are increasingly augmented by technology-driven tools, employees come to see their role as serving technology rather than viewing themselves as partners in helping the organisation achieve critical strategic objectives.
An increasing number of organisations recognise this viewpoint and are taking action by developing processes that motivate employees to identify, cultivate and pursue their purpose. For instance, one of the world’s largest financial services companies has launched an innovative programme titled, ‘It starts with purpose. It starts with you.’ The programme recognises that each employee’s unique passions and strengths help the organisation achieve its mission.
The programme encourages employees to reflect on their lives outside of the workplace by asking questions such as ‘what do you love to talk about, learn about, or teach others about?’ and ‘when you tell the story of your life, what is the accomplishment you hope to be known for?’. The programme then guides employees to connect their purpose to the organisation by asking questions such as ‘when did you feel most connected to the organisation?’ and ‘how do your passions and strengths contribute to your work accomplishments and support you through your challenges?’. This ability for employees to have an awareness of their purpose and how they can achieve it in an organisation experiencing rapid technological transformation strengthens the employee’s bond with the organisation, helping them navigate both the high and low points of their daily work.
BOTTOM LINE: Human-centred leaders place employees at the centre of their decisions, recognising that the organisation is a system of employees, trying to achieve a strategic objective. The impact of each employee’s personal and professional development within this system will augment an interconnected organisation’s ability to change and adapt as the wave of technological advancements continues. Human-centred leaders recognise that technology does not create change and adaptation; employees do.
2 Use technology and analytics for the common good of your employees
Leaders must look beyond the use of technology as a tool to boost revenue growth or reduce cost. While the knee-jerk motivation to use technology to achieve these goals is understandable, leaders must look well beyond short-term numerical metrics to consider how technological advances can affect the organisation’s long-term wellbeing. Notably, greater analytical fluency can build high-performance organisations and solve previously intractable organisational problems.
Boards and leaders can play a critical role in using technology to improve employees’ working lives. Leaders should be in close contact with employees at all levels of the organisation on a routine basis. This close contact will ensure that leaders understand the impact a technology-driven change will have on the workforce and make necessary adjustments to account for employees’ welfare. This close contact will also help leaders understand employees’ most pressing needs, accelerating the organisation’s ability to identify technology-based solutions that improve employee wellbeing. For instance, leaders who understand the risks present in industrial settings can identify opportunities in which drones can reduce the likelihood of employee harm.
Leaders who understand customer-facing employees’ frustration when interacting with an irate customer can implement natural language processing tools to enhance the ability to provide high-quality customer service. And leaders who are aware of employees’ daily aggravations with antiquated computer systems, out-of-date processes and long working hours can find ways to use technology to help employees perform their jobs more skilfully. While these examples may not result in an immediate increase in profitability, the use of technology to enhance employees’ daily working life is valuable in its own right.
BOTTOM LINE: Human-centred leaders reorient their thinking towards using technology to serve their employees rather than holding the singular view that technology is a tool to boost shareholder value.
3 Provide numerous opportunities for your employees to skill and reskill for the future of work
Technological advancements mean an increasing need for employees to recognise there is no longer a difference between a ‘tech person’ and a ‘businessperson’ – the same person must possess both technical and business acumen. This blurring of the lines between technology and business requires leaders to provide numerous opportunities for current and potential employees to change their skills to participate and succeed in the future workplace.
Yet, while a significant number of leaders openly state that their organisations are finding it challenging to find employees who have the requisite skills, organisations have contributed to this issue through the lack of investment in employee training for the past two decades. While investments in employee training grew during the 1980s and 1990s, as computers and the internet were reshaping work, this trend ended around 2000. Moreover, existing training does not reach the populations who need it most. The primary source of employee training takes place on the job, limiting options for prospective employees to obtain the skills necessary to compete for existing roles. And on-the-job training is most prevalent among workers who are already in high-skilled positions, leaving employees in roles more prone to automation even more vulnerable to workplace changes.
BOTTOM LINE: Human-centred leaders support employees in their growth process, ensuring that a vibrant learning culture is in place and providing opportunities for employees to engage in learning activities other than on-the-job training.
Embrace human-centred leadership
Boards worldwide are witnessing a wave of technological advancement that underpins the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And this revolution will change leadership.
Human-centred leaders understand the importance of the personal and professional development of each employee. These leaders recognise that each individual’s development augments the organisation’s ability to change, adapt and succeed. Human-centred leaders inspire and equip people to achieve career success and meaningful societal impact by actively addressing the workforce disruption of new technology and the consequent importance of equitable access to lifelong learning.
Human-centred leaders balance technology and leadership to ensure the use of technology in a human-centred manner. And we will continue to need these leaders as the future of work unfolds.
About The Author
Jason Schloetzer is an associate professor of business administration at the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University. His research examines how executives collect and use information to motivate employees and evaluate firm performance. He has published in leading academic journals and is a frequent contributor to The Conference Board, for which he has authored articles on hedge fund activism, board structure, and CEO succession. Schloetzer received his doctorate from the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh.