What the future of work means for directors

Staying on top of emerging developments and issues is a continuing challenge for directors. With 2019 about to kick into top gear Kirsten Patterson offers some thoughts about the future of work from a governance perspective.

In boardrooms across New Zealand last year, two thirds (66 percent) of directors were discussing the impact of technology on their organisation.

They were talking about the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on their companies and wondering what new workforce skills and capabilities would be needed in their businesses. 

Those workforce and capability concerns, along with worries about New Zealand’s tight labour market, were considered the top barriers to performance by directors and board members, who set the strategic direction of many of this country’s businesses. Some 936 people responded to the ASB/IoD Director Sentiment Survey with findings released last November.

Looking at changing workforce trends in modern organisations, the Institute of Directors is assessing what the future of work means for boards, and what New Zealand directors should be doing.

When the World Economic Forum released its latest iteration of The Future of Jobs Report last September, it predicted the current “fourth industrial revolution” was creating “a perfect storm of business model change in all industries”.

As technology develops at pace, exponentially, new jobs are forecast to emerge that will displace existing ones, transforming how and where people work and what they do.  

There’s unlikely to be a shortage of jobs in future, more a shortage of skills to fill the technology jobs emerging, and these will vary across industries. The government set up the Future of Work Forum in response to increasing automation and job fluidity. 

Over the next four years, globally, the World Economic Forum predicts that 133 million new jobs may emerge. They’ll displace 75 million job roles that will become technologically obsolescent. New roles include data analysts, e-commerce and social media specialists, software and applications developers. Distinctively people-oriented roles will grow, including those for customer service people, specialists in sales and marketing, people and culture, organisational specialists, and innovation managers. 

Blockchain, artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality are some of the trends that will change everything. AI technologies that rapidly mimic brain function are already being used at speed in healthcare, transport, logistics, financial services, risk management, education, and defence systems. 

But humans are still needed. The work of the future will not turn AI robots into people. 

For example, car maker Tesla found at its Californian plant that full automation powered by AI didn’t work well. Robots slowed production, rather than made it go faster, leading Elon Musk to famously say: “Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. Humans are underrated.”  

Greatest gains, research has found, come when machines complement the human workforce and the two work collaboratively together. Work will still involve people, their human capital and emotional intelligence.

Curiosity, creativity, empathy, the ability to solve problems, self-manage, and work autonomously – those are the attributes identified by New Zealanders Jo Cribb and David Glover in their book, Don’t Worry About the Robots: How to Survive and Thrive in the New World of Work.

Most people are more worried about their jobs than new technology, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. 

Having a growth mindset and being open to acquiring the skills and knowledge needed to work the new jobs will be key for people to thrive in modern work environments, when manual routine tasks reduce and some jobs disappear. 

The role of boards in governing the future of work will be to direct strategies that look to grow talent, capability, flexibility, productivity and revenues.  

Many of us are no longer restricted to historical industrial-era work conventions tying us to a workplace and work hours. The past decade has seen more people working in a mobile way on tablets and phones away from the office or from home, facilitated by technology innovations and software in the cloud.  

Technology has seen our work and personal lives converge on online platforms. The future of work will see the freelancing gig economy growing; and the gig economy will overtake traditional work patterns over the next five years, bringing with it a freelance mindset and more competition to secure in-demand skills and talent. 

In preparing for the future of work, it’s now more important than ever for directors to think strategically and longer term, continually learn, and stay up-to-date on training. Innovate. Value people. Create quality work environments and workforce strategies that are flexible, just, equitable and socially responsible. 


Kirsten Patterson is the chief executive of the Institute of Directors. 

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