It’s impossible not to consider the future of work when you’re a leader of large teams, especially if you’re introducing transformational technology.
When we began our journey in Vodafone Group Enterprise Operations three years ago, we already had an idea of how disruptive technology like AI would change the way we work.
We were excited, of course, but there were also issues which had to be addressed.
It was inevitable that some people would begin to wonder whether the machines were coming to take over their jobs. It’s a fear which has, or will, surface in almost every industry.
And while it’s a valid concern, the reality has turned out quite differently.
People continue to be at the centre of our business, with technology reducing repetitive tasks and giving them more time back to speak to our customers, to be creative.
It’s our workplace culture which is driving the biggest improvements, and it’s this culture that most of my customers are interested in talking about.
But when considering the future of work, technology is only one part of the big picture; there are three key factors which I believe will change the ecosystem as we know it.
Increasingly, more multi-nationals are making a conscious effort at board level to be purpose led, Vodafone included.
As digital gathers pace, consumers are faced with more choice than ever, and even in my world 58% of all B2B decision makers now use social media as a research tool.
This means that organisations need to look for new ways to stand out.
We’re already very proud of the Vodafone Foundation, which has done some truly amazing things since its launch in 1991, present in each of the countries we operate in. But it’s unusual to hear our corporate responsibility being discussed in the same meeting as our share price.
Today the perception is that a company’s purpose, the positive change it makes to the world, has become a real motivator for customers and recruitment alike.
And in a recent survey by PwC, 23% stated that doing a job that makes a difference is the most important part of their career.
This change in perception is now placing purpose near the top of the agenda.
For the more sceptical, a new focus on purpose might just seem like an exercise to drive a greater shareholder return. For others, it’s just the right thing to do, and this additional recognition and investment is long overdue. It seems to me that each view supports the other.
Of course, it has to be said that this idea of shared value isn’t new, and a few leaders have been living this in their organisations for some time.
Today, more and more proof continues to emerge that diverse teams perform better.
As Enterprise Executive sponsor for the LGBT+ community in Vodafone, it’s no secret that we believe in an inclusive, diverse workplace. A safe space to be yourself no matter where you come from, which gender you identify with or your socio-economic background.
First and foremost, because it’s the right thing to do.
However, to look at it from an employer perspective; If you don’t have to worry about hiding where you went at the weekend, or who you were with, you’ve got more energy to focus on the task ahead of you.
You can just be you.
Flexible workforce or temporary talent?
What has changed beyond recognition is the visibility of options now available through the internet.
Job hunters can just as easily look for a job in California as they can in their nearest city, comparing salaries, perks and bonuses in seconds; and the same applies to recruiters.
This means we have a growing pool of “talent on-demand,” skilled workers who prefer to work on a temporary basis. They could be permanent employees with a specific skill set, moving from one internal project to the next, or in the more traditional sense from one company to another.
One look at the running costs of an office building is enough to put the power of temporary talent in perspective, as well as the skills gap we see widening as technology snowballs.
But it’s important to remember that while a workforce flexing up and down depending on the demands of the business is certainly an attractive idea, if it causes a negative impact on your culture then it’s not a price worth paying.
You might be surprised that I haven’t mentioned technology yet.
The reality is that an industry like mine, you see examples almost every day which make you stop and think “wow, I can’t believe they’re able to do that.”
Just recently I saw a demonstration of an AI customer service agent, with a digital face so lifelike that it took some of my team a few minutes to realise it wasn’t a real person.
Avatars and AI have been around for a long time, but this demonstration from FaceMe, a company which only began in 2017 in New Zealand, seemed like a real step change in capability.
The machine not only looks realistic, but can respond based on the context of your conversation. By analysing your tone, facial expression and body language, it makes an assessment of your mood and a decision on the level of service you require.
And although this technology will only continue to improve, I think it’s important to remember from a customer perspective, no matter how lifelike the machine, they would probably still rather talk to you the person.
The pace may slow but developments will continue.
Block chain, AI, big data, deep learning… The names are no longer big news, but their potential hasn’t even begun to be realised.
How many industries have yet to test these tools? As cost comes down and knowledge goes up, we really are only at the beginning of utilisation.
That’s why large organisations need to be open to collaboration with start-ups, using shorter development cycles and fast moving pivots where they can, incubating new ideas instead of overpowering them.
As for the ideas themselves – soon we will be ingesting nanotechnology in the same way we drink a morning cup of coffee, with 3D printers in every home and fully immersive gaming experiences.
Work from home? Work from the driverless car between meetings.
E-mail overload? Read and delete with smart glasses on your way to the augmented reality cinema.
From Minority Report to the Jetsons, many of the sci-fi stories we’ve seen on screen have become the inspiration for today’s technology. Eye gaze control, intuitive speech recognition and a proactive home which adapts to you: sometimes it almost sounds too good to be true.
So in our story of digital disruption so far, we have our why, our who and the how.
The final piece, the what, only time will truly tell.
But for me, putting people at the centre of any plans for the future gives us the best chance of thriving in the digital world.
And when looking at the future of work, it becomes natural to look to the source of our workforce; the education which prepares them, us, for this environment ahead and the part they want to play in it.
So, how can we use all of this creativity and innovation to disrupt the way we prepare our young people for the jobs that don’t even exist yet? Now that’s an exciting thought.
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