Preparing for the Future of Work

Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash

by Matthew Grollnek

“Let’s just pack up and go! The office is closed, and nothing is keeping us here.”

This realisation led my wife and I to sell our bed, sofa and dining table and join the growing digital nomad community, working wherever in the world we choose. Taking COVID safety precautions, we uprooted ourselves — together with our two kids — and have spent the past year working while on the move, visiting family and friends in Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Spain, Mexico and the USA.

And it’s not just us. Whether they’re enjoying the freedom to work from home and avoid the morning traffic on Thika Road in Nairobi, or taking the opportunity to move across borders to be closer to family, freelancers and employees are forcing companies to rethink how they manage talent.

The COVID pandemic and remote work, however, are not the only factors affecting how companies manage their workforce and talent needs. We are entering an age of massive technological disruption far greater than we have seen in our lifetimes, where the emergence and convergence of new technologies will change the way we live and work. At the heart of this technological transformation is artificial intelligence (AI) coupled with big data sets, which will soon affect nearly all workers. Those performing repetitive jobs will, unfortunately, be increasingly replaced by technology as the cost of AI software decreases. The total number of jobs, however, will increase as new high-skilled roles are created.

Photo by Maximalfocus on Unsplash

The roles of high-skilled workers will also change. AI will provide insights into our operations and markets that we have never had before. High-skilled workers will, therefore, spend less time on repetitive tasks that generate insights (like cleaning datasets or writing reports) and spend more time problem solving and coordinating teams to implement new solutions.

As remote work and new technologies continue to disrupt our work life, companies must ensure they attract and retain the talent they will need to succeed for both the short and long-term.

Flexibility and strong company culture will help sustain productivity and retain talent in the short run.

As companies reopen their offices, their ways of working will be crucial in retaining and recruiting talent. The pandemic has led workers around the world to question their motives and values for work, leading to what we’ve come to call “The Great Resignation”. Globally, 41% of all workers are considering leaving their jobs. While across Africa the structure of the labor market is unique, these same trends will certainly apply to talented middle managers and high-performing young talent in the knowledge economy. Over time, they will leave jobs that do not suit their individual needs as they gain more access to remote jobs across the globe. Flexible work structures that allow employees to work around personal circumstances will help recruit and retain talent, especially middle managers, often with small children that require more parental involvement.

With increased flexibility and some level of remote work, companies often worry about productivity. However, a strong company culture will help retain productivity levels. Measuring productivity by looking over an employee’s shoulder or seeing how often they are online is a model of the past; it is increasingly unfeasible and leads to employee burnout. Companies will need to rely on their company culture to intrinsically motivate their employees. This means incorporating values discussions into all key touchpoints, such as regular team meetings, newsletters and performance reviews. Companies will also have to manage burnout by fighting a martyrdom culture, where working long hours into the night is a badge of dedication and commitment. To be effective, senior management must lead the charge by practising these values.

So, what can companies do now?

  1. Create workforce models that allow for flexibility and empower HR to have individualised conversations.
  2. Strengthen legal capacities and structures to accommodate various cross-border working models.
  3. Revisit corporate values and integrate values discussions into most employee touchpoints.

In the long-run, companies will need a strong pipeline for soft skills and the ability to manage technical freelancers

Over the next 5 to 10 years, increased digitisation will mean companies will have many more technical needs. At the same time, remote work will commoditise technical skills. AI will progressively automate technical tasks, and companies will have access to a global market of freelancers and technology consulting companies. While core functions and management are likely to stay in-house, African companies will need the ability to contract and manage a wide range of freelancers to cost-effectively supplement their capacities in niche technical areas.

Photo by Kevin Bhagat on Unsplash

Counterintuitively, as advanced technologies become more ubiquitous, more value will be placed on soft skills. Companies will need high-level problem-solving skills to determine how to apply and leverage new technologies and insights throughout their business. They will continue to need people with strong interpersonal skills who can influence others and find mutually beneficial partnerships and solutions. They will also need people with strong self-management skills that have grit and emotional resilience in increasingly unstructured and ambiguous working environments.

To get your company ready for these incoming workforce trends, your company should:

  1. Build the systems for an ongoing pipeline of young employees with strong soft skills. This means collaborating with universities to provide students with real-world project opportunities, building internship programs and nurturing internal young talent.
  2. Create the capabilities and experience needed to contract, evaluate and manage technical freelancing experts
  3. Intentionally expose lower-skilled workers to technology to limit the disruption of digitisation on their jobs

The short and long-term future of work will see many disruptions from the old ways of working. To be successful, companies need to think beyond “how do I get my employees back in the office?” and start viewing their approach to work as a competitive advantage, both now and in the future.

Learn more about the effects of technology on your workforce at Matthew’s Masterclass for The Room: “Preparing Your Company for the Immediate and Long-term Future of Work” on January 20th.

Matthew Grollnek is passionate about how emerging technologies, including blockchain, affect African companies and the future of work. He is a management consultant currently designing new programming strategies for the Mastercard Foundation around access to labor markets and early-stage venture financing. Matt has an M.A. from Stanford University and an M.B.A. from the African Leadership University.

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