If we’re smart, the business and societal landscape we create emerging from COVID will be markedly different. The way we think, the decisions we make, and the actions we take need to set us on a trajectory to shape a different future 10 to 20 years down the road and a different outcome for humanity.
In the last few years, it has become alarmingly apparent to me that business leaders, founders and investors are not necessarily aware of the issues they have to consider, think through and take the lead on. They are not cognizant of the consequences of their actions and inactions (or they are, and they don’t care, which is a bigger problem).
I’ll share three examples highlighting glitches in our thinking, with suggestions on how to course-correct.
In November 2020, Gartner made some predictions, including one that by 2025, 75 per cent of conversations in companies could be recorded and assessed to improve work . Having sat through hundreds of start-up pitches, one can see how this could fuel founders developing technology to capture this supposed opportunity. There’s also a likelihood that some investors will follow the hype without asking or thinking through what they’re helping set in motion.
I respect Gartner, but we must challenge this and similar predictions and the trajectory they put us on. Since the start of the pandemic, we saw an uptick in surveillance tech deployed to monitor employees working from home. How can a company say they value elements like respect and trust but monitor their people under the guise of ‘for their improvement’? Are we treating people like human beings or automata, all the while investing billions for technology to think and act more human? The mind boggles.
So, when we hear predictions, we need to understand the context and challenge whether they reflect the business and societal norms we want to live in. Then adjust to shape a better, more just and equitable future. We need to quieten noise and hype and create the calmness to think and navigate with wisdom.
A few years ago, I conducted a series of talks at different universities – in reality, more conversations than talks – asking students about the future they wanted and their place in it. Employment was a key issue raised, with the majority aspiring to join companies where they can learn and add value. Some students weren’t aware of the term ‘gig economy’ – a term I have noticed people love to bandy around like it’s a panacea to create a better way to work. The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable these workers are and how the power still lies squarely with the company, so a rethink is needed.
To create a better way of working, we need to shift the mindset and dynamic of the employer-employee. Currently, there is a subtle attitude that companies’ own’ their employees and employees behave like they’re owned by companies (think back to the last time someone had to ask permission to go for a doctor’s appointment or a child’s prize day).
In reality, it’s a symbiotic relationship, where employers and employees engage with each other because each is getting something out of the association. For some, it will be more transactional. For others, it’s more like the exchange present in meaningful relationships, where each is committed to the other. One can see how the former is more in line with what we see in the gig economy, which is simply temp work rebranded.
While the gig economy may have a role to play, I think the real opportunity lies in companies that become platforms for people to expand their horizons and develop their skills while adding value to the company. Companies whose purpose, promises and practices align with individuals’ aspirations and beliefs.
In this potential reality, individuals can chart a trajectory of their aspirations and the skills needed to get there. They can use these insights to plug into best-fit assignments and projects available at the company, and proactively put their hand up to participate. Managers leading projects will need to understand how to build a great team and get the best out of people. Hint: empathy is critical and is not to be subcontracted to technology.
The purpose of diversity is breadth of thought, to look at things from different angles and perspectives, and help us do our best to find solutions that leave no one behind. It is the antidote to groupthink and today’s world of social media and echo chambers. In other words, it goes beyond gender. To demonstrate, imagine two teams. One comprised of men and women of the same nationality, culture and religion who have only ever worked and lived in their country versus another team consisting of people from different countries and experiences. Which is more diverse?
Having diverse people on board is step one. The next is enabling these diverse voices and opinions to be heard and taken seriously. If you are driving diversity as a checkbox exercise, save your (and importantly, other people’s) time. Only pursue diversity if you’re genuinely committed and see the value in it. (Hint: This is a leadership and strategic issue not to be relegated to HR). But if you don’t, the pool of thinking at your disposal could impact your business’s longevity.
How does all this fit in with disruptors like climate change and the fourth industrial revolution? Einstein described insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. Our past thinking led us to the blatant disregard of the risk posed by pandemics and then feigned surprise as COVID decimated economies, people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. As we emerge from COVID-19, we must set our sights on upgrading our thinking.
With an increasing number of tools and algorithms used to direct our attention and decision-making, we should avoid becoming lazy thinkers: doing something because others are or an algo’s diktat. The role and responsibility of decision-making lie with us. It is time to lead, not follow. It is time to examine critically how we think, what drives our thinking and challenge ourselves and others out of groupthink. It is time to think anew and do anew. Go bravely and along the way remember – we are all stewards for a future in the making. Let’s create that future consciously and conscientiously.
 Sources: Gartner Top 10 Strategic Predictions for 2021 and Beyond, November 2020
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