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Five things we learnt from the Economist Future Works conference

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The Economist Future Works conference discussed the future of work, and what it means for HR

Here are five things we learnt…

1. Wages do drive productivity

Received wisdom, and a reason for not raising wages, is that productivity must increase before wages rise. But actually, said Sandra Polaski, former deputy director general for policy at the International Labour Organisation, it’s the other way around – raising wages would encourage higher levels of productivity. Her simple message for governments and businesses was “invest more” in areas such as infrastructure, technology and salaries. “Salaries will attract higher productivity,” she said. “Wages are a very important part [of the productivity puzzle].” Other areas to improve the UK’s productivity include a move away from “perspiration” and working long hours for little reward, more people-focused management, and investment in training.

2. HR needs to focus on re-skilling

As more roles are automated there needs to be a significant emphasis on re-skilling people to make sure no-one falls through the gaps. This needs to focus on lower-skilled workers, said OECD director of employment, labour and social affairs Stefano Scarpetta, who added: “On the job training is biased against those who need it most: low-skilled workers.” “Equip employees to be able to deal with and benefit from all the new technology available,” he advised. This becomes even more important against a backdrop of longer working lives.

IBM CHRO Diane Gherson said one of the metrics her HR team is using is “propensity to learn”, in other words “who are the ones most likely to be successful if we upskill them?” She added IBM is aiming to create a “Netflix of learning” that will personalise skills development.

3. Be more considered around automation

Economist deputy editor Tom Standage and Scarpetta agreed there has been scaremongering about automation. Scarpetta suggested only 10% of jobs are at risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years, not the 47% often quoted. He also said automation will change job composition rather than replace roles entirely: "What people do in their jobs will change significantly. Are workers ready?” Standage asked. “We need to look at the idea that technology takes jobs away, as the ways it creates jobs is subtler and harder to see.”

HR also needs to be wary of the impact of automation on recruitment as it could lead to unforeseen discrimination. ManpowerGroup CEO Jonas Prising said some employers were putting unnecessary qualifications, such as degrees, on their online job adverts to filter out higher numbers of applicants, as the volume received is often too large to handle.

4. Embrace opensourced change

Most organisations are “overwhelmed” by change, according to Clare Moncrieff, human resources principal executive adviser at CEB. So how can HR boost success rates given that 50% of organisations polled by CEB said their last change project was a clear failure? Moncrieff advised embracing “open source change”. The three components of open source change are: co-created change strategy; employee ownership of change implementation planning; and communications that focus on talking instead of telling. “Most organisations manage change top-down,” said Moncrieff. “But a vertical approach to change management no longer makes sense. We need a change strategy that reflects the realities of the environment – the horizontal way that work gets done.”

5. Millennials aren’t that different

Turns out these strange creatures millennials aren’t really that different. Polaski, citing research around what younger people want in the workplace, said: “What do millennials want? The same as their parents – good pay and reasonable job security.” Jean Oelwang, president and trustee at Virgin Unite, added: “All workers need a different approach, not just younger ones. All workers want flexibility and respect. Are we treating people as human beings?”