… Businesses need to create a different experience of work, which will drive better outcomes for their bottom line and for their employees. They need to look afresh at every aspect of their organisation and aim to ‘fix the system’, instead of trying to fix the individual. This means changing the way they structure their organizations, take decisions, collaborate, manage work, lead teams and attend to interpersonal relationships.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Helen Beedham.
Helen Beedham is the author of the Amazon bestseller The Future of Time: how ‘re-working’ time can help you boost productivity, diversity and wellbeing, in which she sets out how organisations urgently need to embrace a new way of managing time at work. A former management consultant then chair of a professional network, Helen holds an MA from Cambridge University and as writer, speaker and adviser, she draws on over 25 years of expertise in shaping organisational cultures and nurturing professionals’ careers. In her podcast ‘The Business of Being Brilliant’ she explores the human side of work, talking with business and HR leaders and academics about what helps us, and the businesses we work in, to flourish.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.
Probably the most defining life experience was losing my father very suddenly to heart disease when he was just 59, as I was in my late 20’s. He’d shown no outward signs of illness and we were — and still are — are very close family, so it was a devastating shock to us all. That was 22 years ago now. One of the things that experience taught me was how we often assume we will have all the time in the world to do the things we dream of, but in actuality, we may not. So I’ve learnt to appreciate life’s fragility and to make the most of the here and now.
As an example of that, I ran the London Marathon in 2018 with my younger brother. I’d run 5–10k distances regularly for many years but never saw myself as a marathon runner. But cheering my brother on in the 2017 London Marathon inspired me to get training too — put it down to a healthy dose of sibling rivalry! The 2018 Marathon turned out to be the hottest on record; I ran it without stopping and the experience was incredible: I’ll never forget the roar of 40,000 people cheering us on — or the welcome sight of the finish line. The experience reminded me that I can do ‘big things’ when I put my mind to it and gave me courage to follow other ambitions such as to set up my own business and to write a book. (And no, I have no plans to run another marathon).
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
What will not change, in my view, is our need for a sense of purpose in our work lives, for personal growth and for meaningful interpersonal relationships. Wherever we work from, and however we do our work, we will still want to feel part of a community that genuinely values what we each bring — our skills, our knowledge, our life experiences and our ways of thinking. Increasingly we will gravitate towards employers and businesses that can offer us this, along with sustainable workloads that allow us to thrive, progress in our careers and enjoy our lives outside of work.
In terms of what will be different, I’d like to say that we will have abandoned the cult of busyness that characterises our world of work — the frenzied urgency, short-term deadlines and horizons and the greater value that is placed on our being present, visible and available rather than on what we actually achieve. I predict that businesses will be judged much more sharply on the kind of work culture they promote and on whether they nurture healthy, inclusive workplace behaviours and working patterns. Today 20–30% of a business’ market capitalisation (if they are a publicly listed company) is determined by their reputation; in the future, I believe that a corporate reputation will be made or broken by the way the business treats its employees and shapes its workplace culture.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
One of the biggest challenges facing employers today is how they attract, develop and retain the people and skills they need for their business to succeed in the future. This is at a time when we are adopting and integrating new technology into our workplace at an astonishing pace with automation, cloud computing, digital platforms, data analytics and of course virtual and hybrid working.
The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, time spent on existing work activities globally by humans and machines will be equal; 85 million jobs will be ‘displaced’ and 97 million new roles will emerge. Some of the more worrying consequences of this digitization of work include the fragmentation of our working time, unproductive multi-tasking, long working hours on screens without sufficient breaks and a reported rise in loneliness and joylessness in our daily work lives.
It’s well recognised that employers who want to future-proof their organizations will need to devote more time to training, developing and reskilling employees to help displaced workers find new roles and succeed in these. Those that do this successfully will not just solve their talent sourcing conundrums but also reap financial rewards — this study by the consulting firm BCG in March 2020 found that the top 5% of companies investing in people development increase their revenue twice as fast as the bottom 5%, and their profits 1.4 times as fast. But alongside learning and development programmes, employers need to focus on fostering humanity at work and enabling longer-term careers in this era of automation, big data and algorithms. If they really want to future-proof their organizations, employers need to invest in ‘humanizing’ their workplaces as much as they invest in digitizing them. They can do this by offering flexibility over the short and long term and prioritizing time during the working week for people to think, create, connect and socialise with colleagues in a more rewarding way.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
Most knowledge-based businesses have impressive statements and policies around welcoming diversity but the majority are still clinging onto a ‘one size fits all’ way of working that simply doesn’t work for everyone and I see scant signs of change. For proof, just look at our homogenous leadership teams, our UK national gender pay gap that is stuck at around 14% and the continued under-representation and slower career progression of people of colour in the workforce. Increasingly, employees are expecting action and evidence from employers about how they are tackling this, rather than polished words. People want to feel genuinely welcomed, valued and included; if this doesn’t happen, they end up marginalized and over time they disengage, fail to reach their full potential and/or move on to a more enlightened employer.
Businesses which are serious about offering rewarding careers need to realize that until they re-evaluate the way they value and invest time at work, broad swathes of their workforces will continue to feel disadvantaged and demotivated. Instead of favouring presenteeism, speed and task accomplishment, businesses need to:
- Define in straightforward terms what ‘productive’ looks like
- Manage performance more transparently, addressing how work is delivered as well as what is delivered.
- Take time to invite contributions from different perspectives to help avoid group think and organizational blindspots.
- Dig into their organizational data for evidence of ‘time bias’ — how different groups of people are advantaged or disadvantaged by the way time spent at work is valued and rewarded.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
Mass enforced remote-working proved to business leaders everywhere that their employees could be trusted to work from home, as employee productivity remained at least as high as, and often higher than, when people worked from offices. However, we already had a long hours culture and during the pandemic, working hours extended and blurred still further into non-working time. In future, working hours and practices will increasingly come under greater scrutiny in the media and in the law courts, as employers like Uber and Goldman Sachs have already experienced. The mountains of unpaid time that we effectively spend at our employer’s disposal will be questioned and leaders will be forced to address the damaging workloads and time pressure that many employees struggle with.
In future, we will need to become more ‘time-aware’ as individuals, managers, teams and organizations: we will have to learn how to collectively focus on the priorities, minimize distractions, manage boundaries and adopt healthier, more productive working habits day-to-day and over the longer term. We need to get better at collective time management. One way to do this is to foster ‘time-savvy teams’ through facilited team discussions and negotiations; another way is to role model ‘time-intelligent’ leadership whereby leaders visibly set positive examples around switching off, avoiding false urgency, valuing downtime and social time and coaching others in doing the same.
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
Two of the biggest changes that we need to see in societal terms are 1) accepting that men can be equal partners with women in terms of care giving and domestic responsibilities and 2) offering more affordable child care. Only once these are addressed will we begin to see better progress towards real gender equality and balance in the workplace. A third change is already gathering pace: greater calls and campaigns to address social injustices, which is being mirrored in our workplaces. Employees, investors and customers are increasingly calling businesses out on unacceptable practices and exclusive attitudes and behaviours.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Our potential to think creatively and collaboratively. We will always be confronted by issues and challenges to resolve in our world of work, but we have also demonstrated in the past couple of years just how adaptable and innovative we can be, in the face of daunting circumstances. I feel confident that with the right tools, healthy workplaces and foresighted leadership we can harness the abilities of employees to experiment and come up with solutions that will enrich our working lives. I also believe that the best ideas come from all sorts of different people — older workers nearing the end of their careers, younger employees starting out, and people from different backgrounds and cultures. So the more we welcome diversity of thought into our organizations, the more likely it is we’ll design a future of work that will work better for everyone.
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
Many employers have been investing in wellbeing strategies and targeted solutions such as mindfulness sessions, social activities and talks by wellbeing experts. The more innovative employers are steering clear of piecemeal offerings and adopting a more strategic approach to wellbeing; in particular, they are looking at ‘flex wellbeing’ where employees can adapt their working arrangements and personalise their employee benefits to best suit their own wellbeing needs.
Employees are increasingly valuing time-centric benefits, such as meeting-free days and weeks, an annual corporate day off for wellbeing purposes (often billed as a thank you to employees for their hard work and an encouragement to rest), and additional wellbeing days off added to existing annual leave entitlements. Some employers are introducing a minimum number of days’ leave that employees are required to take and then offering unlimited paid leave once this threshold is met, as this People Management article describes. Working parent and carer employees at family-friendly employers have gained additional paid leave entitlements too, a practice introduced during the pandemic that looks set to stay. And longer stretches of paid and unpaid leave are being offered to employees for a far wider range of reasons than before.
The most innovative employers are not shying away from the underlying question of job design, an issue which is often disregarded or overlooked, yet unsustainable workloads tend to lie at the heart of work-related stress and overwork. These employers are considering the full range of time-flexibility options including part-time, job-sharing, hybrid or term-time roles, annualized or compressed hours and importantly, they are reviewing and updating job responsibilities to make sure the workload is ‘human-sized’ and regularly pruned to address scope creep.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
The loudest message for leaders from these headlines is that the balance of power is shifting between employer and employee. So many employees are feeling burnt out, disengaged and unwilling to continue making such significant sacrifices in terms of their wellbeing and home lives. They are also judging their employer’s actions and practices more carefully and asking themselves: do I agree with the way business is conducted here? They are speaking up more, negotiating harder for an employment deal that works better for them, and voting with their feet. Leaders who insist on reverting to pre-pandemic work policies and practices will see their talented people ebb away to more enlightened competitors who are offering greater autonomy, flexibility and choice in terms of working arrangements, development and career paths.
Businesses need to create a different experience of work, which will drive better outcomes for their bottom line and for their employees. They need to look afresh at every aspect of their organisation and aim to ‘fix the system’, instead of trying to fix the individual. This means changing the way they structure their organizations, take decisions, collaborate, manage work, lead teams and attend to interpersonal relationships. By adopting the following 6 organisational traits, leaders can foster a healthier, more productive and inclusive work cultures:
The six traits are:
- Outcome obsessed: they have a laser-sharp focus on outcomes and leaders role model ‘time intelligence’
- Deliberately designed: is on a permanent quest to minimize distractions and help people focus on the important work
- Actively aware: they foster healthy habits and environments that enable people to do their best work
- Career committed: they invest in long-term careers with tailored ‘time deals’
- Community cultivators: they value humanity, social cohesion and wellbeing
- Expertly evolving: they prize experimentation, learning and open-mindedness.
To bring these traits to life, there are a whole raft of practical solutions that organisations can implement, from establishing principles for working patters, harnessing technology thoughtfully to free up time and boost performance and rewarding contributions in a timely, fair and personalized way.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
You can watch my ‘Top 5 Trends’ video on YouTube here:.
Trend #1. Creating distraction-free environments, by:
- Setting up quiet spaces online and in offices to allow people to concentrate or to switch off;
- Focusing on a few clear priorities, keep asking ‘why are we doing this?’
- Checking assumptions when work is commissioned, and explicitly confirming the deadlines and the required output.
Trend #2. Offering longer term careers, by:
- Providing greater job security by minimizing redundancies, reskilling and redeploying people wherever possible.
- Acknowledging that people’s ambitions vary by life stage, background and personal circumstances
- Helping employees to be ‘the CEO of their career’, with the manager acting as coach and HR providing the tools, data and technology platform.
Trend #3. Rethinking business working hours, by:
- Moving away from specifying formal business hours or fixed office hours
- Introducing principles guiding working time, giving teams the freedom to decide when and how they work.
- Different solutions include offering core working hours with flexibility either side of these; recognising time worked at weekends as at Arup; and experimenting with a four-day working week like Atom Bank and 30 other UK organisations.
Trend #4. Abandoning time as a measure of performance, by:
- Shifting away from using billable hours/time as your primary performance metric, as some innovative law firms are looking to do.
- Focus instead on outcomes and what has been delivered
- Rewarding non-financial contributions as well — ‘how’ people have delivered as well as ‘what’ they have delivered.
Trend #5. Nudging users into better digital choices, by:
- Adding pre-designed meeting options to reduce time spent online on video calls
- Giving people 10–15 minutes ‘switching’ time between calls and meetings to aid better cognitive functioning and physical and mental health
- Analysing your employees’ online habits to spot early signs of overwork, excessive presenteeism and insufficient breaks.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
A favourite quote is: ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined’ by Henry David Thoreau the American poet and philosopher. My colleague, mentor and friend Margaret gave me a card with this quote on when she left our consulting firm and it has often reminded me to believe in my goals and and my ability to achieve them.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
I would love the opportunity to meet and talk with the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman, whose book Thinking Fast and Slow has transformed our understanding of how our brains work. I drew on some of his ground-breaking research in my own business book.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.