Nobody predicted this

There is nothing we like more in the world of work than a big bold prediction. Throughout my working life I’ve been bombarded with confident assertions about the future – first in print, at conferences and later online. The advent of the echo chamber of social media amplifies the latest fad, creating an almost overwhelming sense of universal confirmation and certainty.

But the reality is that most of these big changes, these bold predictions have been wrong.

One of the major reasons why, is that they tend to be incredibly insular and fail to take into account broader macro economic and societal events. Of course the defenders would say that, ceteris paribus their assertions would have come true. But the idea of all things remaining equal is theoretical nonsense and wholly paradoxical. If anyone had written an article five years ago on how businesses should handle a global pandemic, it would have had a minimal readership and been placed firmly in the “niche” classification. Or how about a global economic crisis driven by a European war? And don’t get me started about BRIC.

Which is why statements about “disruption of the workplace”, or “the future of work” are just farcical and a little bit insulting for the majority of the workforce who are entirely focused on the here and now, dealing with escalating energy prices and feel like they’ve been disrupted enough over the last two years without a bunch of consultants and guns for hire telling them that they want to artificially create more. What they want is stability, security and work that allows them to lead their life.

Far from being harmless theory, the group think that coalesces around these predictions and assertions is a dangerous distraction from the focus that we should be placing on our organisations and the way in which we look after our colleagues and our workforces. We listen to false prophets at our peril when the real source of intelligence and wisdom is all around us if only we choose to recognise it.

In reality, predictions of the future are as old as time and will continue for as long as the human race. But what we can change is our mindless repetition and augmentation of them without reference back to the living realities of the majority of the working population and a large does of pragmatism and, “it depends”. Let’s start by fixing the now, the future will come whether we like it or not and not even the brightest star can predict how that will be.

Sometimes things go wrong

It is as inevitable as night follows day, spring follows winter and England bore you at rugby that at some point in your career you’ll screw up. Most of us will push ourselves, try different things, take on new and different challenges and the result of that is that at some point something important will go wrong. And that, is absolutely ok.

Of course, it doesn’t feel it at the time and most of us will have experienced the physiological reaction as well as the emotional rollercoaster that comes with realising that you’ve done something wrong – or not done something at all! The large part of my career is littered with “oh sh*t” moments and I know from talking to others that I’m not alone. As, I say it is just the way that it is.

Whilst we might not have a choice about whether things go wrong or not, how we react when they do is the thing that can set us apart. And that starts with owning it and taking responsibility. It is amazing how reassuring and even disarming it is when someone says, “yep, I know that’s not right and that’s down to me”. We can probably all think about a situation when the opposite has occurred and someone has started to explain exactly why it isn’t their fault, “the thing is…”. And of course the more senior you get, the less opportunity there is to deflect responsibility.

Next comes a willingness to make things better or take steps to rectify the issue. Sometimes you won’t know how to sort it out and that’s ok too. A simple, “what can I do to help make this better?”. And whilst it might be seen as being neanderthal by some, that might mean pulling an extra shift, staying late, putting other stuff on hold. Showing you’re willing to take the pain and consequences goes a long way to showing your colleagues and your boss that you really mean what you say.

And finally there’s the value of showing that you want to learn and reflect on why things went wrong and how you could handle the situation differently in the future. To be honest, the right time for that isn’t in the heat of the moment, but a few days afterwards when the dust has settled. Taking a moment for self reflection and seeking feedback from others, “What would I do differently next time?”

Building the future

Rarely a week goes by without a headline or story about a particular skills shortage, last week in the UK it was the film industry but you can add to that IT skills, freight drivers and even lawyers – heaven forbid. And whilst, like most of our news stories these days, there is an element of hyperbole and “story making”, there is also a common link. That is organisations’ collective inability to properly invest in future skills.

With the exception of an extreme event – pandemic, ash cloud, insurrection to name but a few – businesses would be deemed to be negligent if they failed to build resilience into their supply chain and as a result were unable to deliver their core product or service. Supermarket supply chains were such a big story exactly because we are so used to turning up in our local shop and finding everything that we have on our shopping list. The planning and thought that goes into the supply chain far outweighs anything that organisations commit to the workforce planning. And yet “people are [their] greatest asset”.

The abundance of routes into qualification now have never been better or of a higher standard. Add to that that organisations in the UK are already paying into the apprenticeship levy, it begs the question what stands in the way of better, more thoughtful planning and resilience in the workforce planning? When HR teams (in particular) talk about wanting to be more strategic and having more influence at the “top table”, then you have to ask why they aren’t championing this more successfully? How many really understand the broader skills horizon versus just hoping that their latest recruitment campaign or family friendly policy will solve their current issues?

Our job should not only be to meet the current needs, but to anticipate and protect the supply for the future. That means we need to understand not only future needs, but likely supply, the demographic and geographical challenges of our markets and look to build the interventions now that may not serve us, but will be gratefully received by those that follow. That’s the proper work, the strategic work that we want to do and yet, when there is the opportunity, too often fail to take up. But what if we did?

Stuff and nonsense

I’ve written before about why language matters and the power of language in our workplaces, but more broadly it also matters in how seriously people think organisations are about solving the issues that matter to them. When we spout corporate nonsense about work and working lives it not only makes us sound vacuous, but more importantly it makes us sound like we don’t care. Our focus should be on making work better for all and yet our debate so often focuses on the few, because there are more soundbites to be had from fads than there are from the real work that we need to address.

So in the spirit of trying to move us on, here are some of the phrases that we need to send to the management speak Room 101.

New normal – Where to start on this one? Normally uttered by people who are trying to make a sweeping generalisation without any data or evidence and therefore needing to convince their audience that it is obvious and doesn’t need proving. And at the same time entirely alienating to people who don’t recognise the assertion, because clearly they’re not normal…

The future is now – No. It isn’t. The king of vacuous statements. Both linguistically stupid and failing to grasp the base concept of time. Anyone who says this should take a trip back to primary school to learn what it means when the big hand is on the twelve an the little hand is on the three.

Any phrase that includes “employees/job seekers won’t accept…” – Normally referring to highly privileged office workers based in London and the Home Counties and why any employer that doesn’t offer complementary Hygge and star fruit is out of touch. Have you seen the conditions that the delivery drivers that bring you your chai latte are working in?

The Great Resignation – Or indeed any “thing” that becomes quoted more than researched or thought through. Disruption was another one, remember that? Anyone want to be disrupted any more after the last two years? No I thought not. And when it comes to the Great Resignation, just jog on.

The serious point here, is that every hour spent talking about topics that really don’t matter is an hour that we aren’t discussing the real issues in organisations and the labour market. Insecure work, low paid jobs, discrimination, bullying and crap corporate cultures. Those are things that we should be spending sensible, reflective, thoughtful time on, not the guff and nonsense that matters little or not at all. Far be it from me to call it out but if we want to properly change work and society, the debate around it needs a paradigm shift.