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2: Re-imagining Work


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Re-imagining Work. What will be the last profession left standing?

The way in which we work is changing at a rate never seen before. But what does this mean for how and where we work, and even the sort of work we will be doing? With a third of jobs expected to be wiped out in the next three decades, we ask what the last profession left standing will be.

In this episode Emma Nelson, freelance radio and TV presenter and reporter, hosts a conversation with Lara Potter, Workforce for the Future Director at Arcadis UK, and Julia Hobsbawm OBE, author and leading voice on the world of work. They share their theories and experiences on why everything is changing so fast and what we can all do to keep up and stay relevant.

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Lara Potter

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Director, Workforce for the Future


Emma Nelson [00:00:06]
Hello and welcome to Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis UK in which we explore what lies ahead for our cities and the people who live, move, work and play in them.

I'm Emma Nelson, and coming up in this episode...

Julia Hobsbawm [00:00:23]
I think who you are at work is index linked to how happy and productive and engaged you are.

Lara Potter [00:00:30]
The opportunity of digitisation and the changes that we're seeing, perhaps there's a coming together of some of those traditional professions.

Emma Nelson [00:00:37]
Making work work. With a third of jobs expected to be wiped out in the next three decades, what will be the last profession left standing?

Citizen [00:00:47]
There is a shift towards a more customer oriented experience. Humans will still play that part.

Citizen [00:00:53]
I do hope that they are going to give up on this technology.

Emma Nelson [00:00:56]
My guests are two women who know what to watch out for and how to stay relevant. Arcadis' Director of Workforce for the Future Lara Potter and Julia Hobsbawm author and leading voice on the world of work, will look at why everything is changing so fast and what we can all do to keep up.

Emma Nelson [00:01:15]
So stay listening and stay relevant. That's all to come on Long Story Short.

Emma Nelson [00:01:23]
And a very warm welcome to the programme. Joining me today...

Lara Potter [00:01:26]
Hi. I'm Laura Potter. I'm Director of Workforce for the Future at Arcadis.

Julia Hobsbawm [00:01:30]
And I'm Julia Hobsbawm, I'm visiting professor in something called workplace social health at the Cass Business School.

Emma Nelson [00:01:37]
Wave goodbye to lawyers, accountants and shop assistants and say hello to personal trainers, caregivers and beauticians. What will be the last job left on Earth?

Emma Nelson [00:01:47]
We asked a few people which jobs they think will survive automation...

Citizen [00:01:51]
Hairdresser! I don't want a machine cutting my hair.

Citizen [00:01:55]
You can't really replace human creativity and thought leadership that will take a very very long time.

Citizen [00:02:01]
I think the service industry will survive. If anything there's a shift towards a more customer oriented experience and I think humans will still play that part of being service leaders.

Citizen [00:02:13]
I do hope that in 30 years that they're going to give up on this technology because for me this technology's getting ridiculous.

Emma Nelson [00:02:20]
The world of work is changing faster than many of us can fathom. Two people who are keeping up with the times, however, and indeed helping us prepare for what lies ahead, are Julia and Lara. Julia let's begin with you. You've described the world of work as something in ferocious flux. We are very very used to change. But why do we need to take stock of the way we work right now?

Julia Hobsbawm [00:02:43]
Yes the phrase ferocious flux was coined by Caitlin Moran the Times journalist writing more generally about these very volatile political times that we're in. But I seised on it because I think it really very well describes the time that we're in at work. I think the world of work is undergoing more transformational disruption than at any time in the last couple of hundred years. And I think that speed and change mark out that disruption, which is why I've coined the phrase ferocious flux. In other words, those of us lucky enough to be employed, whether full time or part time, nevertheless are facing challenges that mean we are operating in something of a hostile landscape and we need to recognize that and take steps, in my view, to mitigate that.

Emma Nelson [00:03:35]
Lara what are we saying goodbye to?

Lara Potter [00:03:37]
In the world of construction, we've had these very distinctive professions and perhaps there's a coming together of some of those professions, in fact we ran a survey and in Arcadis asking people what they felt the changes are and there's an acceleration of the changes that we're seeing. So whilst people have seen changes around the ways they work in terms of agile working, people are talking about flexible working and collaborative working, actually what people are starting to say is the platforms they're working on really open up a wealth of possibilities but then that's a challenge also to the ways in which they're working.

Emma Nelson [00:04:13]
What are we saying goodbye to in terms of things that we might actually miss, Julia? I mean the job for life has gone, the office is going, working full time is going. Are any of those things still absolutely necessary or are we embracing an absolutely agile world here?

Julia Hobsbawm [00:04:30]
Digital has ushered in something that Frances Cairncross, the management writer, called the death of distance. In other words, if you think about all digital technology and communications technology it used to be sort of over there in a faraway place. And then the computer became the desktop, and as recently as 25 years ago we worked in a fixed place with a fixed terminal, and then that became the laptop. And now what you've got is the triple revolution of the internet, social and mobile. And that smartphone has created a new demographic across the five generations that are currently working from the Baby Boomers through to Gen Z and that is an entirely new generation called Gen mobile. And what that means is, as long as you are connected, you can work. But of course what's lost is the human connection and the flow and the predictability and the pattern and all the things that if you like make up society. Work and the world of work for the best part of a hundred years has really been a community of sorts and that's what's at risk.

Lara Potter [00:05:40]
Maybe, with new ways of connecting actually perhaps we can bring some better collaboration across the generations bringing together expertise, people who've been in the world of work for some time, actually with people who really understand how to deploy digital technologies in a different way. And certainly in the construction sector right now, we're absolutely having to understand how to really promote that intergenerational collaboration to bring the best to society.

Emma Nelson [00:06:10]
How Gen Mobile though is your average builder?

Lara Potter [00:06:13]
So if you look at construction as a whole, of course there are numerous different professions and skills and these technologies offer a different opportunity really for much more community engagement in these early stages of the project all the way through the lifecycle, through design, implementation and construction as well. So I think many of the different skills in the industry will be affected at different levels. The opportunity I think is when you take a step back and look at the whole and as to what the industry is delivering for the citizens.

Julia Hobsbawm [00:06:44]
Well I would agree with you Lara. I'm a sort of optimist but with pessimistic tinges. I mean I do think that the challenges are considerable because we are being forced actually to coexist with technology as a third person in the room with us, there's not really any choice anymore. However, it is exciting and the possibilities are opening up for securing future jobs and future new industries, and it's why I think construction in itself is particularly interesting. I write a lot about design principles, about architecture, about what I call pattern management that the shape and the construction and the actual doing of work is really important. I caution against something I call the CAT syndrome which is complexity, anxiety and time poverty. One of the things that your industry I think suffers from and any industry very dependent on technology, is that it brings in new complexity. New skills are required for, new machinery, or new computer aided design, or new uploading and you know the little old human brain has only got 10 billion neurones and they haven't changed in 200,000 years. The complexity has got to be balanced I believe with simplicity, the anxiety and the stress which is endemic in the world of work which costs fifteen million working days a year lost in the UK alone, ahem, and the time poverty. I think as long as you can recognize those risks, there's all to play for.

Emma Nelson [00:08:22]
You're listening to Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis UK. I'm Emma Nelson, and joining me today are Arcadis' Director of Workforce for the Future Lara Potter and Julia Hobsbawm author, commentator and leading voice on the working world.

Emma Nelson [00:08:39]
We can also hear now from Jochen Menges. He's a professor of leadership at the University of Zurich and a lecturer in organizational behaviour at Cambridge University. He says that in Julia's world of being surrounded by technology we can enjoy its freedoms, but we do have to be careful.

Jochen Menges [00:08:55]
That's right. I agree with that. What this connectivity allows us, is it gives us freedom when to connect and when to respond. And this is new in the sense that in the past when you were connected you had to instantly reply. Nowadays we can separate that and through these means of communication we can therefore choose to be more autonomous in the way that we engage in communication. Now the trick here is, that there has to be a norm that this is the case. If the norm is that you have to reply instantaneously at any point in the day, then of course it becomes a means of terror whereby you're forced to be on your phone all the time available at any point in time. And that's for certain not healthy. So I think we've got to leverage the freedom that is afforded to us through these modern means. But don't let these means make us behave in ways that is not conducive to our health. So I think there's going to be some balance in this but the freedom afforded by these technologies is what we have to enjoy.

Emma Nelson [00:09:59]
Jochen Menges there.

Emma Nelson [00:10:00]
Lara, how are people approaching all these changes?

Lara Potter [00:10:04]
When we ask people about how they're feeling, on the one hand people are very excited about the opportunities. They can see that some of the difficulties that our industry has faced in delivering projects, on time on budget, and it doesn't always get the greatest press, actually could be smoothed out. But when also asked, well what does that mean to you and your job, there is very definitely some anxiety and some worry about that. And what people are asking right now is please help us paint a picture of the future. What does my role look like in the future? And I think employers have a role in helping paint those pictures of future roles.

Emma Nelson [00:10:39]
So let's move on now to how we go about readying ourselves for these changes, both from the point of view of the worker and of the employer. Julia, you mentioned the skills that we need in the future; mental agility, being a self starter, and being incredibly resilient as an individual.

Julia Hobsbawm [00:10:54]
Yes, I've coined the phrase social health. If you look at what we've done around physical and mental health actually in the last 70 or 80 years, we've done really pretty well. The World Health Organization set up and the public have changed behaviours around their physical and mental health. The wellness industry globally is three times the published size at the arms trade. And so, the good news is, we know how to do something about a problem when we name the problem. My point is we haven't yet named the problem of social disconnection or social overcorrection and all of that, and therefore we can't start coming up with solutions. So for me social health hinges very simply on three factors which are knowledge, networks and time. If in your workplace you either have so much information you can't process it, or you don't know what information to trust - that's a problem. So knowledge and information should be curated. Networks have got to be diverse. You've got to know who to turn to. And finally this question about time for me, it's not just time management it's time frame and time scale. So, that's your starting point. If you want to get ahead then you've got to have knowledge, networks, and time at the heart of your social health strategy.

Emma Nelson [00:12:17]
And Lara, how do you think we can balance this knowledge, network and time management, with the fact that if we don't have jobs for life, if we are having to be agile and work all the hours that god sends, wake up check your emails to see if a new job has come in. Actually the way that the world of work is changing seems to be pulling us away from our ability to actually manage our own lives.

Lara Potter [00:12:40]
Actually, in some ways in the world of work we're still looking at dealing with mental health issues and understanding from an organisational point of view how we support people within an organisation. Many teams now are located across the world. They're not all sitting in one place. So how you create an environment around good health and well-being. In fact in Arcadis we did sign a pledge in 2017 as a commitment to full time employees and actually we want to take that further out. How does it then come into the wider organisation and what are the benefits for our clients as well.

Julia Hobsbawm [00:13:17]
I think who you are at work is index linked to how happy and productive and engaged you are. And so I feel actually that one needs to be very radical and reframe the whole discussion and I actually really welcome the steps you're taking [Lara]. I'm coming across more and more workplaces an enlightened H.R. directors, people directors, specialist divisions like yours being set up to look at the future of work, because the truth is what's worked for the last 50 years, it ain't working anymore.

Lara Potter [00:13:47]
There's also, in the construction sector, there's a massive focus around productivity, so doing more for less. If we can do things differently, so if we can use that interconnectedness around platforms in a different way, actually it takes the pressure off the human. So the human can start using the innate talent it has as a human being rather than managing a process and we can allow the automation piece to manage the process. So, the area that I work in which is technical services, we're needing more empathy, we're needing more creativity and actually we're needing to help people learn in a different way.

Julia Hobsbawm [00:14:25]
I think productivity is great. I think we should have more of it. And I think if you are engaged creatively, emotionally then you're going to be productive. We are all exploring at the moment. We have to be brave enough to experiment, to do pilot projects and to say just like in physical health we now know that everybody is different and that one person's dietary requirements are going to be different from another. We've got to be genuinely innovative and tailor experimentally solutions not just across sectors but across a business at any given time in that businesses is life.

Emma Nelson [00:15:03]
Lara, how receptive are the companies that you work with to this creative and emotionally intelligent alignment that Julia mentioned just then?

Lara Potter [00:15:13]
The opportunity I think that we have is to reinvent. But to reinvent we actually have to collaborate in ways really that we've never collaborated before. We have to bring people together in different ways and we have to ask the questions in different ways as well. So, my earlier comments around the types of skills that we need and some of those softer skills in order to really be more innovative and more creative, actually we need to bring those into the sector. So of course we need the understanding of what's happened in the past and the experience that we've had, we need to bring that into the room with people who perhaps don't know the sector. Sectors need to come together and ask difficult questions about what society needs together, to be able to create new solutions, I think.

Emma Nelson [00:15:55]
The pressure, though, that the building industry faces at the moment is a housing crisis here in the United Kingdom. And it's lovely to have emotional alignment, but will this create a better, more productive workforce, which builds faster houses and at a better quality and actually improves our country's quality of life?

Lara Potter [00:16:13]
In my view it's the only way that we're going to do it. What people are trying to do now is look at that process end-to-end. So going back to the comment around productivity is to improve the productivity, the process but actually create something that's really relevant to the people that we're developing for.

Julia Hobsbawm [00:16:28]
There's a very interesting case study in America of a pretty large group of hospitals that were experiencing a lot of death through medical error. They created a new system across the hospitals and what they did is they started with the human. And they said this time in a year we're going to celebrate one hundred thousand lives that haven't been lost. They gave a human dimension to the target. And then they changed the system that happens at the end of every shift in the hospital. They set up one very simple new innovation which is talk to the person you're taking over from and ask them, has anything happened that I should be aware of? And just after I read this case study, my husband had very major heart surgery and he was moving from intensive care to the high dependency unit. And just as he was about to be moved, this wonderful nurse said, 'just a minute, I remember that he had a procedure when he was in intensive care that the people in the high dependency unit may not know about and I am going to make sure that they know'. And it was a game changer. And so really the small stuff is what makes the big difference. And you have to start with the human perspective. And I think if that doesn't raise productivity, I don't know what else does.

Emma Nelson [00:17:57]
Let's look a little bit ahead to the future then and the education structures that we're experiencing in the United Kingdom.

Emma Nelson [00:18:05]
At the moment the emphasis is still so much on pass or fail. Our seven year olds take national exams now. And there is very much a streamlining and 'you're on your own' kind of mentality that some people have noticed. What needs to be done to make sure that the small people running round our classrooms now are going to be fit for this world of work in 10, 15, 20 years time?

Lara Potter [00:18:28]
We have to be able to maintain the creativity that our children have. There's some amazing statistic around the number of different things a five-year old can imagine that they can do with a paperclip and by the time you reach the age of 21 it's 5 percent of those number of things. And I think our education system has to be thinking much more about how they maintain the creativity of our children so that they remain creative as they go into the workforce. You know I've come from a very technical background in construction, and we will need to be more creative in the way that we bring together projects and how we work with one another. And actually that's really pretty difficult, when you've been taught in a very technical way. I absolutely agree that it's many many small things - innovation happens by many small connections. And I think the construction sector really if it can take the shackles of how it has been operating off and allow its people to be a little bit creative, perhaps some of those innovations that we're talking about will be able to happen.

Emma Nelson [00:19:29]
Final thought to you Julia.

Julia Hobsbawm [00:19:31]
I've got five children in total. None of them have benefited from great careers advice at school. For me, if I had one change in education, it would be to invite people to recognize what they're really interested in and to give them a huge range of ideas, back to your creativity point [Lara], about what happens in different workforces. I think we have to give people the imagination to connect with who they are and what they could actually do.

Emma Nelson [00:20:04]
And on that note that brings us to the end of today's show. Lara Potter and Julia Hobsbawm, thank you both for joining us in the studio. And if you enjoyed that then still to come we examine whether the world is ready for the driverless car and much more ahead, so make sure you subscribe.

Emma Nelson [00:20:21]
You'll find each podcast popping up every month at There'll be lots of extras too all to do with the future of our cities.

Emma Nelson [00:20:31]
You've been with Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis UK. I'm Emma Nelson, goodbye thank you very much for listening.

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