23 Oct 2018

Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of talking to many businesses, entrepreneurs and not-for-profit organisations about the future world of work.

It has been fascinating to see how the debate has evolved and accelerated during that time. And I am proud that Taylor Vinters has been at the forefront of such discussions, responding to government consultations, contributing to the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices and engaging with our own clients about what all of this means for their organisations.

Our efforts culminated in the launch of the Taylor Vinters Zebra Project in January 2018, bringing together thought-leaders, innovators and our own people to discuss “business re-imagined”.  So far, we have tackled subjects as diverse as AI and automation, purpose-led organisations and the role of millennials in the workplace.

The Zebra discussion continues apace and I would encourage anyone with an interest in the future of work to participate. The “ZebraTalk” video interviews are particularly insightful snippets, mostly recorded at or just after Zebra events when the conversation is fresh and interviewees are most energised about what they have just heard.

This seems a good moment to step back and reflect on what I have learnt so far.

For me, it began with a focus on the rise of the gig economy and issues of employment and worker status (I am an employment lawyer, after all). Specifically, I was (and remain) troubled by the lack of clarity in our employment law system. The vast majority of employers want to do the right thing but the rules of the game are unclear. Who is an “employee”? Who is a “worker”? What rights do they have and how we can ensure that we stay on the right side of the law? How can we engage someone under a flexible, arms-length consultancy arrangement, when both parties genuinely want that? These are all very common questions.

For unscrupulous businesses, there seemed to be too much room to exploit low-paid workers engaged under zero-hours contracts or flexible working arrangements through necessity, rather than choice. In truth, the boundaries have become blurred and little has changed at the time of writing.

These topics are still hugely important and there is much work to do following Matthew Taylor’s Report. I believe firmly that our employment law system needs to be clearer, focusing its protection on vulnerable workers but otherwise allowing businesses and individuals greater freedom to contract on whatever commercial terms they choose (provided they have equal bargaining power). But as I have ruminated on that issue, I have had the opportunity to explore the “future world of work” as a much broader concept, one that goes beyond how our legal system should adapt to allow innovative business models to flourish.

There is a much wider practical question of how organisations should go about planning their long-term future workforce strategy. And it seems to me that there are five key topics to consider:

1.  Tech: The role of automation and big data

2.  Location: International footprints, remote working and the effective use of real estate

3.  People: Ensuring your workforce has the right skills (and the right incentives to use and develop those skills)

4.  Organisation: Exploring new ways of engaging with individuals and structuring your business

5.  Values: The importance of diversity and protecting your workplace culture through periods of change

I am going to spend some time looking at each of these topics in turn, in a series of “Future of Work” articles. I will be drawing on the conversations I have had and posing a set of questions that I believe should be considered by senior leaders in all organisations, regardless of sector, size or purpose.

The overriding message I want to get across about the workplace of the future is a very positive one. I do not share the concerns of those who would have us all believe that robots are taking over the workplace and are likely to drive millions of us into unemployment. But what does concern me is that for many organisations, the future of work is a peripheral topic. It is towards the back of the mind rather than where it should be, right at the front, right now.

The most important lesson I have learnt is that businesses need to be asking themselves some searching questions now, about each of the five topics I have outlined above. They may generate answers which are surprising, illuminating, or perhaps even a little challenging when set against shorter-term commercial objectives.   They may lead to some soul-searching, but that is no bad thing. The opportunities presented by the future world of work are wide-ranging, but without vigilance and vision, they will pass by just as quickly as they present themselves.

In short, the future of work is a discussion for today, not tomorrow.

Next time: Technology – the role of automation and big data