How are responsible companies preparing for the future of work?

Sep 2, 2019 | Monthly Briefing

The world of work is changing rapidly, and businesses that aren’t proactive about addressing critical workplace trends, risk being left behind. In January we highlighted the future of work and employee wellbeing as one of 10 Actions for Business in 2019. This month we provide an update on the latest developments in how leading companies are meeting rising expectations to support and protect employees. We take a look at how companies are changing their approach to flexible working, digital upskilling, diversity & inclusion, and employee financial wellbeing, in order to remain at the top of the leader board of good corporate citizenship.

Flexible working

What it’s all about: While many companies have been embracing flexible work arrangements to meet growing business needs and the demands of the labour force, bucking the trend are companies including IBM, Yahoo, Honeywell and Bank of America, who in recent years have scaled back their telecommuting policies. IBM’s own employee surveys, for example, have shown that remote workers are less engaged and motivated, but the bigger driver for scaling back these policies stems from a need to collaborate in person in real-time, as the pace of work picks up due to improvements in digital technology.

There are clear business benefits to flexible work, including reduced costs and employee satisfaction, and with millennial job seekers even willing to take a pay cut to work for a company that offers flexible hours.

Example: Through its Connected Workplace programme, Dell offers multiple opportunities for flexible work, which include flexible schedules, remote work, job-sharing, part-time work and compressed workweeks. The company has reported saving millions in real estate costs since implementing the programme and estimates that US employees avoid 136 million miles of travel per year, saving over $12m in fuel costs and avoiding over 35,000 metric tons of CO2e per year.

Dell has already exceeded its 2020 goal to have 50% of eligible team members leverage flexible work options, with 60% of its team members leveraging work flexibility in their jobs.

Critical question: For flexibility to work, companies need to develop an approach that makes sense for their business and their employees. Is your company culture built on accountability and trust, and do your official policies match up with the culture?

Skills for a more digital workplace

What it’s all about: Much research has been published recently, analysing and predicting the impact of AI adoption on different industries. According to PWC, 3% of jobs are already at potential risk of automation in the next several years, and 30% will be at risk by mid-2030s. Also, according to this research, females would be affected most immediately (due to being the dominant gender in clerical roles), with males being affected by a significant disruption a decade later. As workers begin to be affected by operational shifts due to AI in the coming years, employers risk facing increasing scrutiny, employee activism and conflicts with labour unions.

As the integration of Artificial Intelligence technologies into core business functions gains ground up to 2030 and beyond, what should responsible employers do to address the very real concerns of tasks or entire job functions becoming irrelevant?

Some experts, of the 8,000 queried by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center in 2016 as part of their ‘Future of the Internet’ study, believe that companies will play a significant role in reskilling the workforce for AI, alongside traditional educators such as universities.

Example: In June, Unilever announced a new internal online talent marketplace – FLEX Experiences – which helps employees identify ‘personalised open opportunities across the business, in real time’. Unilever says that by accessing the platform, employees can work on projects for a small or large proportion of time, increase the depth of their expertise of a current skill, or build new skills and experiences. This facilitates the development of new skills and positions employees to be more agile and successful in the future workplace.

Critical questions: Have you conducted scenario analysis of how your company will be affected by AI, identified skills gaps and resulting training requirements? What role does your company wish to play in reskilling?

Diversity & inclusion

What it’s all about: Repeated studies have linked company performance to diversity & inclusion, with highly diverse businesses more likely to be innovative and to outperform peers in profitability.

The traditional definition of D&I is also being expanded beyond gender, ethnicity, ability, age and sexual orientation, to now include differences in thought, experiences and perspectives, as well as fostering a sense of belonging and creating psychological safety in the workplace. This expansion is also focusing on equity, promoting fairness and equal opportunity.

Examples: Accenture, top of the Thomson Reuters’ Diversity and Inclusion Index, has set a goal to achieve total gender equality by 2025; while Capita, the global outsourcing firm, has put two employees on the board.

Critical questions: Do you need to create tailored programmes, or could existing strategic partnerships be leveraged, that promote new ways of recruiting, developing and retaining diverse talent? What specific initiatives for your business could minimise day-to-day bias and create an environment where all employees can thrive? Are you able to report on your D&I performance and accountability, and if not, why?

Employee financial wellbeing

What it’s all about: Trailblazing companies are recognising that financial debt can be stressful and have a negative impact on employees’ mental and physical health, and ultimately their ability to stay engaged and perform their jobs well. In 2019, US consumer debt hit an all-time high of $13.67trn. This includes mortgages, car loans, credit cards, student loans and personal loans, with the average credit card balance being over $6,000. The debt burden is not unique to the US, as globally consumer debt has been rising with growing access to credit cards, in both developed and developing markets. For example, consumer debt in China has grown from 8% of total household debt in 2008, to 25% in 2018.

Examples: Innovative employers are beginning to implement initiatives to assist employees in tackling their financial worries. For example, Abbott, a global health technology company, launched its Freedom 2 Save Plan targeted at US employees in student loan debt. The programme eliminates the common dilemma of whether to save for retirement or pay down student loans, by depositing a 5% ‘match’ of employees’ salary into their retirement pots for free, as long as the employee is using at least 2% of their salary to pay off student loans. Abbott estimates that if the employees currently enrolled in the programme stick with it for ten years, they will on average accumulate $54,000 in their retirement accounts, without making any contributions on their own.

Anglo American’s Nkululeko (‘freedom’) programme tackles the stress from informal loans in South Africa, following a five-month unpaid strike in 2012. Nkululeko helps employees to reduce their debt, delivers financial awareness training, and takes action against institutions exploiting mineworkers. In 2018, Anglo American reported that the number of employees scoring ‘unhealthy’ on their financial health status outlook, as compared to 2014, has reduced from 54% to 39%, and employees have saved over $30m through reduced interest over five years.

And companies are not on their own to figure out solutions. Providers such as Hatch (based in the UK) and FinFit (based in the US) work with employers to design financial wellbeing solutions for employees. Hatch, for example, has received praise from Moneysupermarket Group and Octopus Energy.

Critical question: What measures could your business implement to help mitigate your workforce’s financial stress?

In conclusion, the workplace is increasingly expected to support employees in non-work life matters and empower employees to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work. Understanding the issues that are important to your employees, along with identifying key areas to take your workplace into the future of work is crucial to remaining competitive.