Overcoming the Automation Paradox

New and more powerful forms of automation are emerging rapidly. To date, adoption has largely occurred through automation centers of excellence.
For automation to achieve full potential, companies must also build demand and usage of these tools among employees.
A recent Bain-UiPath study found that as automation becomes increasingly entrenched in company strategies, a paradox has emerged: 86% of employees want to use automation, but only 30% of business leaders give them access to it, and only 5% allow them to create their own automations.
Companies can take four steps to overcome the hurdles and democratize access.
The imperative to sharply improve business processes, and even reinvent the business, using automation technologies is gaining steam. Healthcare insurer Anthem, for instance, aims to automate half of its work by 2024.

One way to automate is through teams: Set up a project team, or an automation center of excellence (CoE), identify the right activities or tasks, reimagine a business process, and then automate the activities.

Written in collaboration with

Another way is to get automation technologies into the hands of a broad swath of employees who can, in turn, automate work on their own. In 1993, Microsoft’s introduction of Excel 5.0 for Windows, which included Visual Basic for Applications and the ability to create macros, put the power to automate repetitive tasks in the hands of people with basic technical skills.

While involving a wide range of employees in automation isn’t new, increasingly powerful types of automation are rapidly emerging. These include robotic process automation (RPA) and cognitive automation tools deploying machine learning, natural language processing, and other forms of artificial intelligence. Unlike earlier tools, these new technologies hold tremendous promise for automating an even greater amount of manual work and simultaneously giving organizations resources to support effective collaboration and governance.

To harness the potential of these new technologies, companies need to grow automation in both ways—through project teams and CoEs and through employees interacting with the tools and automating their own work. Until now, the former approach has been more prevalent.

This presents a challenge: How can companies empower employees to more enthusiastically embrace automation, with flexible and easy-to-use tools that have strong governance, without creating more complexity for IT teams to manage?

Democratizing automation
Sustained success in automation requires enlisting the organization more broadly to set the right goals and generate new opportunities. Most business users may not have specialized technical backgrounds, yet they’re capable of using automation software and tools. They can automate work through self-service tools or even participate in more sophisticated initiatives, including developing automations and submitting them for approval. This won’t happen in a vacuum, and it goes beyond giving employees access to tools. The organization must make people aware of automation possibilities, evangelize adoption, create clear guidelines, build training programs, and offer incentives.

Today’s movement to democratize automation stems from a few recent trends.

Slowing growth in labor productivity. Annual growth in labor productivity dropped from an average of 2.6% from 2000 to 2007 to 1.7% between 2011 and 2019 and 0.9% in 2020, according to the Conference Board. This slowdown led to a cumulative loss in output in the US nonfarm business sector of $10.9 trillion since 2005, or $95,000 in output per worker. To accelerate growth in productivity, automation will be imperative, especially in knowledge-based work.
Scarcity of technical talent. Korn Ferry estimates that, by 2030, more than 85 million jobs globally will go unfilled, representing $8.5 trillion in economic output. The technology sector is particularly hard hit by the shortage. There are not enough technically skilled people to automate all the work that needs to be automated.
Digitally savvy employees. Technology has become pervasive in today’s society, and people are more comfortable using technology at home and at work.
User-friendly technology. Automation tools are becoming easier for nontechnical people to use. The emergence and ongoing maturation of low-code and no-code development software environments makes it easier for anyone to pick up these tools and use them. Many such tools can be deployed out of the box, featuring intuitive interfaces and even prebuilt automations for specific industries and functions.
While plenty of organizations have automation CoEs, they have struggled to expand beyond a few processes. Democratized automation can attain greater scale by targeting use cases that a CoE otherwise wouldn’t have capacity to build or would miss due to limited familiarity with business processes. It also fosters a more productive and skilled workforce.

The California State Association of Counties’ Excess Insurance Authority, for instance, has automated administrative processes, enabling employees to be more strategic with their time and focus on more technically complex work. Automation has cut in half the time spent processing high-volume tasks, increased process accuracy, and reduced human error, lowering employee stress levels.

Companies that have successfully democratized automation realize other substantial benefits as well. Dentsu, a global media and digital marketing communications firm, launched its Citizen Automation Program with a mission to integrate automation into every business process across the company. Although its automation CoE had successfully delivered projects such as building 60 robots in under 30 days to complete a large-scale data migration project, saving over 125,000 hours, the CoE realized it would quickly become a bottleneck to identifying and implementing the long tail of opportunities.

Now employees can identify opportunities and automate their daily challenges independently, submitting automation ideas and tracking their progress via a dedicated platform to ensure centralized oversight and transparency. Dentsu estimates that employee-initiated automations completed during its first group of two-day hackathons have already saved over 3,000 hours of manual effort. These automations help employees keep their marketing campaign process on track, improve quality assurance, and free them up to focus on more valuable, strategic, and creative aspects of their work.

“Upskilling and empowering employees to tackle the long tail of automation opportunities, in aggregate, can far exceed the benefits of complex, top-down, COE or IT-driven initiatives,” said Max Cheprasov, Dentsu’s former chief automation officer.

What’s impeding democratization
Despite the clear need, few organizations have made meaningful progress toward democratizing automation at scale—primarily due to four perceptions.

Fear of job loss. Many managers perceive that employees are reluctant to automate their work because they fear losing their jobs.
Increased data and IT security risks. Some companies don’t want to place automation in the hands of business users, perceiving an increased risk to data and IT security. This is particularly the case in highly regulated industries, such as financial services and healthcare.
Lack of confidence in employees. Not all managers believe that employees can learn to develop and use automations effectively, because they perceive the tools as complex and requiring deep technical knowledge.
Disruption and higher costs. Current processes would need to change, and managers think employees might not have the time to learn to use new tools. Organizations worry that new tools may also add expense and require additional IT resources to manage and maintain.
Many of these perceptions haven’t been formed through actual experience, however. Few companies have mature, democratized automation programs operating at a large scale. As a result, many senior leaders may not fully understand how employees feel about automation.

Returning to robotic process automation, a joint Bain & Company and UiPath survey of over 500 IT and business users of RPA found that 86% of employees are willing to use these tools, yet only 14% were provided the opportunity. Just 30% of organizations had some form of attended RPA deployment (bots that reside at an employee’s workstation and are triggered by specific events, actions, or commands from employees). And only about 5% of companies have any RPA development led by business users (see Figure 1). Of this 5%, only about one-third said they have a mature, democratized automation program—or less than 2% of all surveyed companies.

Figure 1
Only a few organizations have RPA development led by business users

The first gap is lack of awareness. Despite RPA’s rapid growth, 66% of employee respondents have not even heard of RPA (see Figure 2). Making them aware is an obvious first step.

Figure 2
A minority of employees are aware of RPA, and fewer have used it or created bots themselves

Once employees know about it, the great majority want to use RPA. Of employees who have heard of RPA, 60% have never used bots to perform tasks. Despite that, 86% cite high willingness to do so.

Among employees who already use RPA, half have never created a bot themselves. Still, some 80% are very willing to develop automations.

Hurdles to employee adoption
Three categories of impediments contribute to slow adoption among employees, despite high interest (see Figure 3).

Cognitive. As the data shows, trust in automation is not an issue for employees. However, they struggle to identify use cases for automation in their daily work, and many are not certain about how automation adds value to their workdays.
Organizational. Employees shy away from using automation if their company has not formally sanctioned it or does not offer a formal training program.
Product and training. Employees frequently perceive products as difficult to use, and companies lack effective, consistent training to familiarize employees.
Figure 3
Companies will need to overcome barriers to RPA use and development

These findings underscore the importance of reconciling the automation paradox. Despite the widespread interest, many leaders mistakenly believe employees are not willing or able to use these tools.

While our survey focused on RPA, these trends also apply to other forms of automation. Building awareness of low-code and no-code automation tools, along with providing organizational support, should help increase adoption.

Four guidelines to achieve scale
Stepping back, it’s clear that different perspectives come into play as companies develop automation initiatives.

Business users want to free up time to do more valuable work and improve their skills. But they often feel hamstrung by IT and CoEs. Those who are eager to use and even develop automations may struggle to get the necessary support.

For their part, IT and CoE teams don’t want to cede control over identifying, building, and managing automations to business users. They have concerns about quality, security, governance, training, tool proliferation, scalability of automated solutions, and cost.

Senior executives, meanwhile, care most about enabling growth, increasing productivity, improving service quality, and enhancing customer satisfaction. They are only interested in automation if it will deliver significant business value.

With those perspectives in mind, the experiences of leading companies that have overcome the automation paradox suggest four themes for success.

Break through the noise. Most companies have numerous, often competing, business priorities. Why pay attention to automation over other priorities? CEOs need to convince their executives that automation is central to reinventing the business. And reinvention requires not only that business and functional leaders, supported by an automation CoE, identify and execute on automation ideas, but also that every employee contributes to achieving the automation goals. Business leaders will need to adjust the traditional view of automation as an initiative imposed on employees to an initiative alongside, or in collaboration with, employees.

Inspire employees. As mentioned, awareness is low. Just as a CEO must rally the senior management team to the cause, automation leaders need to inspire employees to take an interest in automation for their everyday work.

Hackathons, big prizes for great ideas, and bonuses for people who come up with winning proposals are among the ways to inspire. Companies will also have to think through what they do with the savings derived from an automation project, and how to reward the employees who enable it.

As automation takes hold, quarterly performance goals may include digital adoption scores tied to automation tool certifications. Organizations could establish digital personnel records that allow them to update and track milestones throughout a person’s career. Just as companies get consumers excited about buying a product, they can use similar marketing techniques in service of selling automation internally.

Singtel launched “a robot for every person” with the goal of saving at least 30 minutes weekly for each employee. This program is not an investment in bots but in people. Since the way work is done will change as Singtel introduces automation, the company invested time and resources to help employees upgrade their skills.

Formalize the democratization. Success with automation entails coaching employees on how to spot use cases and how to navigate the transition to digital processes. Digital transformation requires not only new tools but also new ways for people to collaborate.

Employees should be able to share automation projects with other employees through power users. Having one enterprise-wide platform—a low- or no-code development environment—makes it easy for anyone to develop automation without going through the IT group. And the IT group or automation CoE can provide the right governance to avoid tool proliferation, assist business users in building their automation, and provide the right frameworks to scale up this automation.

World Fuel Services conducts workshops to showcase the potential of automation, with real-life examples to make it interesting and relatable. With the CoE team as an advocate, World Fuel Services introduced an employee-initiated automation program that allows anyone in the organization, regardless of technical skills, to create software robots for everyday clerical tasks. Continuous communication makes people aware of the value of automation, including opportunities that might lie within their departments and what it can do for them personally.

Invest in culture change. Smart leaders recognize, and act quickly to address, employees’ fear of losing their jobs to automation. They communicate early and often on the impacts that automation will have in their companies. Democratizing automation ultimately requires employees to adopt a digital or automation-first mindset. And to do so, employees need clarity on what is in it for them as individuals. It’s important to highlight how automation empowers employees with better skills, allows them to focus on higher-value activities, and ultimately leads to greater advancement and rewards over their careers. And companies should celebrate the successes of employees who innovate the use of automation to add business value.

As automation of all kinds spreads throughout the business, many companies unwittingly limit its potential. That leaves a huge amount of value untapped. Properly scoped and sequenced, an automation democratization program helps companies harness employee knowledge and creativity to surface new opportunities for automation and ultimately reinvent their businesses.


What Distinguishes the Super Rich From the Rest of Us

Peeking into the inner theatre of the seriously wealthy.

Reading about Jeff Bezos, I cannot help but wonder how it feels to be the richest man in the world. When your net worth is estimated at nearly US$200 billion, you arguably deserve a superyacht that is almost as big as the Great Pyramid of Giza (if the vessel was laid out vertically). In fact, owning such a vessel is cheaper than shooting rockets in the air, another popular billionaire hobby.

In the history of super-rich businesspeople, the world’s first billionaire was John D. Rockefeller, the father of the petroleum industry. He took advantage of the new technologies of his time to amass great fortunes, a trend that has continued until today. There is something to be said about being at the right place, at the right time.

Presently, there is more extraordinary wealth creation than ever before. Still, the billionaire club remains incredibly exclusive. There are 2,744 billionaires on this planet, according to Forbes. It is estimated that by 2030, the richest 1% of the population will own two-thirds of the world’s wealth.

Becoming a billionaire

Do you have what it takes to be a billionaire? The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Could these people possess a mysterious X-factor? Do billionaires have more things in common than their heady bank accounts?

A few years ago, the historian and sociologist Rainer Zitelmann interviewed 45 members of the German wealth elite, mostly self-made entrepreneurs with net assets between €30 million and 1 billion. Zitelmann had them take the Big Five personality test to figure out whether specific personality traits play a key role in the successful pursuit of wealth.

In the field of psychology, the Big Five model suggests that behaviour is determined by people’s degree of neuroticism, conscientiousness, extraversion, openness to experience and agreeableness. Zitelmann discovered that the very rich scored low on neuroticism and thus tended to deal well with stress. They appeared to be extraverted (or knew how to present themselves that way) and more open to new experiences. In addition, they were less agreeable, i.e. less likely to shy away from conflicts. And finally, they were quite conscientious, i.e. more detail oriented and thorough.

In sum, the super-rich may be different from you and me, but not very much. Having dealt with quite a few of them given my work as an executive coach, psychoanalyst, and management professor, I would like to add my own observations.

The inner theatre

Most self-made billionaires appeared to have been raised by parents who encouraged them to pursue their interests. But quite early in life, these budding super-rich realized the importance of having control over their lives. To work under somebody became a very unattractive proposition for them. As a result, many grew up with entrepreneurial role models in mind.

Furthermore, from a young age, they came to appreciate the importance of having money. They view it as a tool that provides them with a range of options and opportunities. In other words, their pursuit of money is linked to their primary desire of having more control over their lives.

Beyond these traits, I have also noticed the following common behavioral themes.


Many self-made billionaires possess a somewhat different Weltanschauung, or world view, compared to run-of-the-mill businesspeople. They’re very focused and have big ideas. They are also quite talented in envisioning possible futures. Moreover, they tend to be quite driven and to have lots of energy. Enthralled with a magnificent obsession, they bring an intense focus to whatever they want to accomplish.


These people appear extremely determined. And they don’t easily give up. When faced with crises and setbacks, they take action and move on. They don’t wallow in self-pity and become depressed. They also know that success doesn’t come overnight. They have a long-term time horizon.

People skills

Many of these people tend be somewhat outgoing. They have realised that starting ventures isn’t an activity that can be done alone. Given this interpersonal skillset, they have a knack for persuading others to buy into their dreams. In addition, undeterred by critics and naysayers, they don’t take no for an answer and always find ways to go around the obstacles before them.


While other people spend time and energy blending in, the super-rich create their own path. Going against prevailing opinions is not a problem. In fact, many of them enjoy swimming against the current. Some even become uncomfortable when they suspect that their way of thinking is too mainstream.


Another notable quality of the super-rich is their sense of self-efficacy. They have a can-do attitude. They strongly believe in their own abilities. They come to view success as being the result of their own efforts. Possessing an internal locus of control, they don’t see their achievements as a question of luck, fate or circumstances. Supremely self-confident, they’re convinced that they can solve any problem.

Work ethic

The super-rich are very much achievement oriented. They set challenging goals for themselves and work hard to achieve them. In whatever they do, they go beyond the call of duty. Furthermore, they aren’t easily satisfied. They’re always driven to do better.

Strong intuition

Compared to run-of-the-mill corporate executives, the super-rich make many of their decisions based on gut feelings as opposed to resorting to detailed analysis. Somehow, they’re able to bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious parts of their mind.

Competitive mindset

Self-made billionaires thrive on competition. In fact, many of them appear to have collected sport achievements, which taught them how to deal with victory. It also taught them how to assert themselves against their competitors. In addition, it increased their tolerance for frustration.

Risk tolerance

They also know how to take calculated risks. They strongly believe in the saying, “No guts, no glory”. To them, being risk averse is not the way to great achievements. At the same time, they always ask themselves how they can minimise their losses. In other words, they are risk tolerant but not impulsive.

The dark side of ultrawealth

If you think that you have what it takes, you should next ask yourself what the possession of that much money will do to you. Or to your offspring. Feeling unable to escape your shadow, your children may lack the motivation to accomplish anything in life. They may become financially irresponsible. They may end up aimless and estranged in this world, at the mercy of gold diggers.

Furthermore, while money can be a force for good, it can also have a corrupting influence. It can turn some people into greedy and uncaring individuals. Wealth can be a very dangerous god to worship. Consequently, these people may become enthralled by the “Dark Dyad” – the toxic brew of narcissism and psychopathy.

Some super-rich acquire a sense of superiority over other people and believe that they deserve special treatment. Whatever narcissistic tendency they possess, their wealth has amplified it. Subsequently, like all narcissists, they come to think that rules are there for others but not for them. Some may even have psychopathic characteristics, devoid of compassion and empathy. Feeling compelled to win at all costs, they are willing to deceitfully manipulate and exploit people and circumstances for personal gain.

Having some of these dark characteristics could partly explain the success of many billionaires. This could be why a person like Bezos puts most of his gains in his own pocket, why the working conditions in his warehouses are lacking and why his firm has been a champion of tax avoidance. It makes you wonder if we should really leave the task of bettering the world to the unaccountable super-rich?

Money as a force for good

If you want to become a billionaire, it is not necessary for you to become an obnoxious and manipulative narcissist. In fact, most billionaires are like you and me in that they want to belong and are searching for meaning and purpose. But would you know how to make money a force for good? Would you be able to select the most appropriate causes to which you can give your money? And if your selection has public policy implications, should you be the only one to make these choices?

Of course, instead of giving oodles of money to your children – if you want to make your wealth a force for the good – you would do well to emulate billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, who have given away sizeable chunks of their wealth. They have even started initiatives such as the “Giving Pledge”, a campaign through which more than 200 billionaires have pledged to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

In fact, the Giving Pledge looks like a very thoughtful initiative. After all, how long will the general population tolerate a situation whereby just a few people possess most of the world’s wealth? It is an invitation to social unrest. So, while you may want to join the ranks of the world’s wealthiest, make sure not to end up with a revolution on your hands.


Tough at the top

Kearney analyzed chief executive departures from ASX 200-listed companies over two five-year periods—from 2011 until 2016, and from 2016 to 2021. While the total amount of transitions stayed relatively stable at 150 and 155 respectively, the number of involuntary CEO transitions triggered by causes other than financial performance increased nearly five-fold during the latter period (see figure 1).

The increase in involuntary CEO departures over the past 10 years has been driven by non-financial factors
Non-financial factors that force chief executives out generally fall under the heading of environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG). Sometimes the triggering event is personal misconduct by the CEO, but there has been a sharpening of CEO accountability around issues that occur a long way from their office. CEOs are increasingly vulnerable to being sacked for turning a blind eye to a toxic corporate culture, or for failure to prevent socially irresponsible or unethical conduct by employees. Expectations in each of these areas continue to shift, with increasing scrutiny on the upstream and downstream consequences of business decisions (for example, heightened focus on the circular economy, scope 3 emissions, supplier ethics), making the challenge progressively more complicated.

The consequences
Our analysis further suggests that involuntary, non-financial CEO departures often carry dire consequences for a company’s share price. In the aftermath of voluntary CEO departures, share prices outperform the ASX 200 over the following year, on average, as the sense of orderly transition seems to refresh investor confidence (see figure 2). Even after CEOs involuntarily exit due to disappointing financial performance, companies often beat the market as a whole—likely because investors perceive that the board has taken the requisite corrective action.

Shares in ASX 200 companies underperform following involuntary CEO departures for non-financial reasons
In contrast, a company’s share price tends to suffer in the wake of an involuntary, non-financial CEO departure, underperforming the ASX 200 index by an average of nearly 8 percentage points one year post-announcement. When a CEO is forced out for ESG reasons, investors may fear that there are deeper structural flaws in the organization that may take longer to correct than pure financial performance issues.

Clearly, an involuntary, non-financial CEO exit is a scenario to avoid. But how?

The causes
To begin, consider the forces behind the sharp rise in ESG-driven involuntary turnover. There is no evidence that today’s CEOs are markedly deficient in competence and character. They are, however, held to new and higher standards.

Socially responsible investing, once a novelty, is now mainstream. Funds feel compelled to be far more alert to ESG risks, which in turn ratchets up the pressure on C-suites and boards. In the age of #MeToo, a global reckoning with climate change, and impassioned calls for social justice, expectations for socially and environmentally responsible, ethical behavior have never been higher. Nor more stringently enforced. Indeed, every misstep is likely to be immediately amplified by social media echo chambers, often stoking furious stakeholder indignation.

While the link to value is now much more immediate, low sophistication of many businesses in managing the changing stakeholder landscape makes it much harder to anticipate where the risks are. In such an environment, boards must move quickly to limit the damage to the company’s reputation. The result? A sharp increase in board-instigated CEO sackings for ESG transgressions. Given the negative consequences that come when boards are forced to take such dire measures, this is a problem demanding urgent attention.

The solution
The solution is proactive. Your goal is to prevent events that precipitate CEO exits, and thus preserve shareholder value. The solution is also systemic. To effectively mitigate ESG risks, you will need to build systems comparable to those already in place to contain your financial risks and to ensure workplace safety. Finally, the solution demonstrates commitment. The response to any breaches of clearly communicated ESG standards will be timely and effective.

Here are several concrete steps you can take toward developing a proactive, systemic solution:

Develop fresh antennae that keep you attuned to this new class of risk. To reduce the danger of being blindsided by ESG events, seek unfiltered viewpoints that illuminate your vulnerabilities and blind spots. Invite cautionary critique from indirect stakeholders (community, government and regulatory bodies, industry peers) as well as direct stakeholder groups (customers, staff, shareholders, key partners and suppliers). And before you dismiss negative feedback as a product of their ignorance or bias, carefully consider whether it actually points to blind spots or biases of your own.

Build new systems to manage the full range of ESG risks. Financial controls have been in place for longer than anyone can remember, but the systematic pursuit of workplace safety is a more recent phenomenon that illustrates how much companies can achieve when they apply uncompromising effort. In the best companies, safety is a cultural norm that merits everyone’s constant attention. ESG should now be treated as a comparable corporate priority. Develop a comprehensive and detailed ESG framework to guide behavior and decision-making. Establish and enforce standardized controls. Develop ESG risk scenarios and rehearse your corresponding response. Make ESG integral to your culture by keeping it in the forefront of your organization’s collective awareness.

Personify ESG commitment. Impassioned, authentic leadership breathes life into systems. Legitimize your stated ESG commitments by exhibiting zero tolerance for ESG transgressions—especially at the highest levels of your company. Demonstrate your commitment to transparency, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. Reinforce the importance of even “small things” that run counter to your company’s core principles. Invest in building your company’s reputation equity by resourcing initiatives to advance the environmental and social causes your people believe in.

While our statistical analysis focused on ASX 200 CEOs, the evidence points to a structural trend across a broader landscape—from boards to front-line managers in non-public corporates, SMBs, and government institutions alike.

ESG has become a de facto norm for expected behavior across organizational life. To measure up against those expectations, and thus limit costly and embarrassing failures, companies need to pursue much more proactive and systemic approaches to ESG risk management.


Tapping the Power of Corporate Purpose

Let’s start with a short quiz. (Don’t worry, only you will know your grade.)

On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 representing “completely disagree” and 10 “completely agree,” how would you rate your company on these statements?

Our purpose creates a sense of belonging for all.
Our purpose is distinctive, and it attracts people to us.
Our purpose guides our actions and decisions, especially in times of uncertainty.
Now average the three numbers to create an overall score.
If your score is 7.5 or higher, you would be among the top 25% of respondents to Bain & Company’s Change Power survey. Top-quartile companies in Change Power (combining purpose with the other eight elements of the Change Power Index) tend to have significantly higher levels of growth, profitability, and inspired employees.

The what and why of corporate purpose
An authentic corporate purpose is much more than a slogan on a wall. It creates a sense of belonging, guides decisions, and inspires action. It helps corporate leaders navigate a world of accelerating change. Most people strive for a sense of meaning in their lives, and since everyone spends a lot of time at work, it makes sense that people also want the companies they work for to have a meaningful and rewarding purpose.

In many ways, purpose is more important than it has ever been. Especially as organizational boundaries become more porous, with a growing gig economy, it can help independent workers feel they belong to something. Many companies’ employee bases are becoming more diverse as well, and for them, purpose becomes a unifying anchor to provide context and focus. It holds organizations together.

An inclusive and inviting purpose can be an advantage in attracting talent, something nearly every executive I speak to is struggling with right now. When Glassdoor recently surveyed people in the United States, the UK, France, and Germany, 79% of the 5,000 respondents said they would consider a company’s mission and purpose before applying, and more than half said company culture—something purpose contributes to—is more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction.

How one company uncovered its purpose
One company that’s carefully cultivated its purpose is Worley, a provider of professional project and asset services to the energy, chemicals, and resources sectors. My colleague Kevin Murphy and I profiled it in “How Good Is Your Company at Change?,” our recent Harvard Business Review cover article.

With over 48,000 people working across the globe, many of them on customer sites, Worley relies on its culture as a unifying bond. In recent years, culture has only become more important as the company navigated its way through a series of challenges and opportunities. Among them: a glut of oil that from 2014 to 2016 overwhelmed a slow-moving economy, causing prices to plunge by 70% and necessitating a significant restructuring, followed three years later by Worley’s merger with the energy, chemicals, and resources division of Jacobs Engineering Group, requiring a massive effort of integration and education.

To develop and codify a shared purpose and set of values for the company, management tapped more than 1,000 people, from support staff to PhDs and senior executives, and sent them to 70 structured workshops held around the world. Groups of 20 to 25 people spent three to four hours exploring questions about what got them out of bed in the morning, what they saw as the company’s greatest business opportunities, what behaviors they believed were key to success, and what they understood Worley’s key strengths to be.

Karen Sobel, the group president of Worley’s business in the Americas, who took part in a number of workshops, recalls how teams at a large fabrication facility in Norway worked in a mix of Norwegian and English to come up with answers that really came from the heart. The process allowed them “to tell their story and share their perspective on the direction they thought the company should take,” she says.

From the huge amount of data the workshops produced, the team distilled a core purpose—“delivering a more sustainable world”—and four company values. According to CEO Chris Ashton, from the newest hires to veteran managers, everybody agreed that this was the right focus, a sense of purpose that has now become “a powerful force for change.”

Ashton’s words remind me of those of a business leader I worked with many years ago who forcefully argued that there were two reasons to strengthen culture and sense of purpose: “First, because it’s the kind of company we want to build and be associated with. And if this is not enough, reason No. 2 is that it is a business issue—we need it to drive our growth!”

So true, so true. So, what is your Change Power, and what are you doing about it?


America’s smallest generation may have an outsized say on where we all work

Gen X, a demographic footnote stuck between two of the largest and most vocal generations in American history, has the skills to bridge the generation gap emerging over where work will take place today, tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future.
Corporations—large and small—are in position to capitalize on what ought to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine our individual and collective relationship to work. But there is a danger that generational warfare may cause us to squander this golden opportunity to reform how and where we get things done unless we senior leaders are smart enough to allow a gang of former “latchkey kids” to save us from ourselves.

COVID has certainly taken its toll on global business but has also created some exciting opportunities. What better time is there for transformation than when the normal course of business has been put on hold and people have tried—and succeeded—to craft innovative solutions and approaches to work?

The multi-trillion-dollar question currently being passionately debated in boardrooms around the world isn’t so much what work will be done in a post-COVID or ongoing pandemic world, as it is where that work will take place.

We certainly don’t believe that demography is in any sense destiny, but we do believe that some of the attributes and attitudes popularly associated with Gen X—the 65 million born between 1965 and 1980—may be key to bridging the corporate generation gap emerging between two of the most influential and marketed-to generations in history—Baby Boomers and Millennials.

Currently, ages 41 to 56, members of Gen X are the demographic peanut butter cohort that has usually been unceremoniously smashed, and usually as an afterthought, between Boomers, often the generation still leading many US corporations, and Millennials, the generation most likely to lead those same companies into the future.

A gloomy, goofy club of forgotten middle children
Pop culture mavens, marketers, and the media have never been kind to Gen X. Even deputy editor, Style at The New York Times, Anya Strzemien—herself an Xer—has described her generation as a “… gloomy, goofy club of forgotten middle children.”

Strzemien’s reference to “middle children” echoes an idea advanced in 1964 by psychologist Alfred Adler, the “birth order theory.” Now widely questioned, Adler’s topline hypothesis was those oldest children grow into authoritarians who see themselves as omnipotent; youngest children are generally spoiled so badly they can never out-achieve their siblings; and middle children become even-tempered peace­makers who have a tough time fitting in or finding their own voice.

For our purposes Boomers are the “oldest children” who value authority, need significant support to optimize, and would like to see most technology checked at the door.

Xers are the “middle children,” many former latchkey kids, who value autonomy over authority and who require little to no support. Often responsible for taking care of both older parents and their own children, Xers are more used to multidirectional simultaneous “caregiving.”

That leaves Millennials as the “youngest children” of the workplace family, preferring to approach tasks through teams in order to build consensus and demanding, what some see, as too much emotional support.

Nostalgia versus nesting in the battle for the soul of corporations
Simply put, many Boomer executives really like the office environment and are nostalgic for the “good old days” when a corner office was a badge of honor and a sign of accomplishment. Many Millennials on the other hand prefer a highly flexible hybrid arrangement that offers them a chance to develop and explore their sense of individualism while still offering significant opportunities to build community and collaborate. Xers, who grew up in the Boomer shadow and now often manage Millennials, are perfectly positioned to negotiate terms to make everybody—more or less—happy.

We recently conducted research on the issue of return to the workplace and found the majority of firms (54 percent) opting for a full return to the office typically have CEOs aged 60 to 70 years, while the firms offering more WFH options have younger CEOs (40 to 59 years). Firms opting for greater WFH flexibility in the future overwhelmingly (60 percent+) have younger leadership.

So, what does all this have to do with where work gets done today, tomorrow, and in the future?

Well, despite the nostalgia some might feel, not many employees want to go entirely back to the pre-COVID offices. After all, what’s exciting about rushing back to meetings apparently held just for the sake of having a meeting, or commuting for an hour or two just to end up in a cubicle?

Before we try to answer that question, remember attitudes can shift in less than one news cycle so any speculation on what the future of work will look like needs to be taken with multiple pinches of salt.

What companies want
Caveats in place, let’s look at how employers are thinking about where work should be done. We recently polled 50 companies operating across various commercial sectors about their return-to-office plans. We found many companies haven’t finalized their plans, partially in light of the Delta variant and partially because they are having internal conflicts about the best path forward. Little surprise then that more than 30 of the companies we studied are still looking at some form of a hybrid model.

About nine companies—primarily in the tech sector—are leaning toward primarily remote workdays/places, while about seven—primarily in the financial sector—are aiming for full or near-full returns to the office.

The scarlet letters—A, A, and A
If we are going to reevaluate what work is, how it is best done, and where it is best completed, all three generations are going to have to learn how to compromise some of their core values, finding new ways to cope with what we call the “three As”—authority, autonomy, and apprenticeship. Each generation needs to reflect on, and actively reevaluate, their views of each of the three As.

Boomers, who see work as an answer to the question “Who am I” and who tend to seek out positional affirmation, need to reevaluate their relationship to authority and their desire to restore structure to reinforce their work identities. Sometimes the best ideas really do come from lower down the org chart.

Xers, who tend to see work as “What I do” and find affirmation through their work product, should rethink their reverence for autonomy. Independence is great, but it is a tough way to build the consensus needed to move most corporations forward.

And Millennials, who seek affirmation through community and look to workplaces as stages for exploring their true, complete, and “authentic self,” have to reevaluate their attitudes about the value of serving and apprenticeship. In a repeat of the Boomer mantra, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” many Millennials may tend to undervalue the benefits of learning on the job from older peers who grew up in a world so fundamentally different from the one they themselves experience.

Crossing the generational chasm
As Xers ourselves, there may be some temptation to say our age group should be put in charge. But—while we think there is some merit in that idea—the real point is not that Gen X be allowed to take over the reins of power, but that Boomers and Millennials could benefit from listening to the voices of a generation they have both largely ignored.

If Gen X does have a generational characteristic—at least as popularly thought of—it is their perceived disposition to facilitate solutions that appeal to multiple parties. In the same way Xers caring for aging parents and children need to find ways of reconciling intragenerational conflicts in their homes, the spirit of Gen X can be used to reconcile those same genera­tional conflicts at work—starting with how the return to the workplace debate is finally resolved.

Senior corporate leadership needs to take a hard look at whether or not they are hearing—and listening—to the Gen Xers in their companies, or—more importantly—taking the values historically ascribed to Gen X into account.

The generational stereotype is that Boomers can be overly fond of making policy while Millennials often demonstrate a preference for making noise. But Xers have earned a reputation for pragmatically trying to make sense of what’s in front of them, and that is exactly what’s needed today.


Five Perks to Convince Remote Workers to Return to the Office

Working from home has made life significantly easier for many workers. Childcare, errands, and the ability to take breaks according to a less rigid schedule seem to have improved the lives of many while causing little to no reduction in productivity.

Yet, there are clear benefits to meeting in person. Certain kinds of social and intellectual exchanges happen much better in person than remotely. If you have talented employees, and you want them to share their knowledge with others, you’ll likely desire at least some in-person interaction. At the same time, given how tight the labor market is, it might still be in your best interest to offer a work-from-home option.

So, if your office is hybrid, how do you incentivize your remote employees to come into work, at least occasionally?

First and foremost, if you’re inviting employees back into the office, make sure that you’re doing so safely. With a large minority of the country still unvaccinated and with the more contagious delta variant circulating, ensuring that your workforce is vaccinated and/or has adequate physical protection is a must. Many want to work from home because they fear contracting COVID-19.

However, once you have ensured the physical safety of your team, there are perks that you can offer to attract people back into the office. Here are a few to consider:

Commuter Stipends
One of the biggest reasons why people sometimes aren’t thrilled to return to work is that it can mean a significantly longer amount of time on the road. Commutes are downright harmful to health, and there’s a good case to avoid them if possible. However, if you want the benefits of working together in the office, including things like social learning and community building, then you might consider paying employees a stipend for their commute. This can help offset the true pain that commuting causes. Offering discounted parking might also ease the pain of the transition back into the office.

Increased Time Off
One of the best ways to attract talent during the Great Resignation is to offer more time off, particularly if you are trying to get workers back to the office. Giving workers time off for commuting recognizes what the commute really is: time and energy that they are investing in their jobs. By providing them with compensation in the form of time off, you’re recognizing just how much time your employees are truly investing in their work.

WATCH: Launching a New Way to Learn

Create Social Learning Opportunities
Zoom meetings are draining in ways that in-person meetings are not. Especially for Gen Z, who are now entering the workforce, the social connections that work offers can be of significant benefit. Think about what sort of team-based activities you can do only in person. Employees may be more likely to come in to work if you offer professional development activities that can only be done in person. Your team might find that coming back to the office is more palatable if there is a good reason to do so.

READ: 4 L&D Tips: How to Improve Remote Work Force Development

Offer Childcare
One of the most meaningful investments you can make in your employees is to help care for their children. The convenience of offering at-site childcare can take the sting out of the return to the office, particularly because one of the main attractions of working at home is the ease of childcare. However, if you offer after-school tutoring or daycare, you can make the workplace even more attractive and convenient for your employees in the long run.

Offer Extra Bonuses or In-Office Perks
Some companies are offering a bonus system or lottery for employees to show up in person. Others are increasing the number of unique in-office perks, like free food, free coffee, workout equipment, yoga, massage tables, etc. Keep in mind, though, that according to a recent survey, a majority of workers who were offered a $30,000 raise or the option to work from home chose the latter. In-office perks like this can be a nice addition to these other strategies, but, on their own, they probably won’t move the needle much.


How to predict disruption when there’s no such thing as normal

“We weren’t expecting that!”

“It happened so fast.”

“We never thought it would be this bad.”

These are the kinds of comments one hears more and more lately. Even the most seasoned prognosticators have found themselves unable to divine an increasingly diverse array of disruptions: a sophisticated cyberattack, a devastating hurricane, a sudden grid collapse, or a ship wedged in the Suez Canal. “We will be in unprecedented territory again and again,” Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists told NPR in a recent interview. Indeed, these days are predictably unpredictable.

In 2019, I wrote about four trends I’ve been following for almost 15 years that suggest constancy is giving way to relative turbulence. They are climate change, rapid urbanization, a split between an older global north and a younger global south, and greater worldwide interconnection through travel, trade, and technology. Although the specifics of each of these factors is difficult to predict with precision, the overall direction is clear—they are classic “gray rhinos” (obvious and overlooked risks), snorting and ready to charge—and should inform any future-facing perspective. Further, these are not discrete phenomena. They are part of a complex, adaptive system with many overlaps and interdependencies that can trigger and amplify disruption.

A new mental model for assessing risk
To better grasp these challenges, I use a version of “shearing layers of change,” a concept usually associated with architecture. The term was coined by Frank Duffy, a British architect, and later updated and expanded by Stewart Brand in the 1990s. The core idea is that different components of a system change at distinct rates—in a building, for example, furniture can be rearranged daily, whereas plumbing and other core support systems can go years without change, and the exterior walls may remain fixed even longer. As long as those rates of change are predictable and constant relative to each other, one layer does not impinge upon the others. The applications of this model go far beyond buildings.

There is a problem with the assumption that relative stability is the norm and disruptions are episodic. Such predictability is increasingly an illusion.

Brand iterated on Duffy’s concept a couple of times, eventually applying the idea of shearing layers to civilization and positing six distinct elements (from fastest- to slowest-changing): fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and nature. The faster layers drive innovation, while the slower layers provide stability. When all is in equilibrium, the system functions well. If one layer accelerates or decelerates, however, significant disruption can ensue. In the structure analogy, imagine how problematic it would be if the exterior walls of your office building were reconstructed every two or three years.

We see this disequilibrium playing out today. The gig and sharing economies, cryptocurrencies, and social media platforms, for example, are driving the commerce layer ever faster while the creaky wheels of governance struggle to keep up. Nature, Brand’s most stable and slowest-changing layer, also is accelerating. I spoke with Alice Hill, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Fight for Climate after COVID-19, and she said, “We’re rolling downhill from a stable to an unstable climate. We’re picking up speed, and we don’t know what is at the bottom.” The consequences of climate volatility will cascade through the other layers, upsetting long-established rhythms.

How to enhance risk perception
Although the shearing layers of change model doesn’t tell us how to deal with momentous change, it does prove useful in helping leaders frame risk in new ways so they can anticipate the possible sources and effects of upheaval. What effect does technology that’s evolving at a speed close to that of fashion have on your firm and industry? What fissures in our culture might be brought about by food, water, and housing insecurity resulting from climate change? Which business models persist only because no one has yet imagined an alternative to the status quo? What shift in conditions would make the time ripe for a latent innovation to emerge? Where are the opportunities and threats? And how can your business help solve emerging social and environmental challenges to help customers, workers, and communities flourish?

Another approach to leading through turmoil comes from April Rinne in her new book, Flux: 8 Superpowers for Navigating Constant Change. She suggests “running slower” as a way to enhance your perception and understanding of what is unfolding and enfolding around you. “Faster, harder” is not the solution to every problem. She writes, “There is an inextricable link between your ability to slow down and your ability to thrive.” What faint indicators of pending disruption might you spot if you were not “always on,” addicted to the immediacy of the present?

A third facet of the solution is to build ever-deeper connectivity throughout your organization’s ecosystem. Work to embed futures intelligence across the functions within your company and with external suppliers, customers, and others who might be positioned to see things you are missing. Always be testing your assumptions and questioning orthodoxies. This helps build foresight competencies to keep you anticipating shifts rather than reacting to them.

An increasingly uncertain future
Conditions in the world are such that turmoil and confusion are inevitable. Unfortunately, there is no Department of Business Discontinuity that can step in to rescue you. Nor should there be. Acceptance and understanding of the new “not normal” must permeate your organization if you are to dance with disruption rather than be overrun by it.


How to Make Lifelong Learning Part of Your Company Culture

Learning and development have become the lifeblood of organizations, especially as digital transformation continues to evolve. Certainly, during the pandemic, companies are asking employees to learn new skills, adapt, and grow in the most efficient way possible.

Human Resources has taken charge of helping everyone navigate new systems and processes and any associated learning. Organizations that are nimbly evolving had already made L&D a top priority long before the arrival of COVID-19. For those companies, learning and development already meant more than a checklist of hard skills to pass onto new hires. Instead, learning is part of their culture. It’s in their DNA.

Q&A With Expert on Lifelong Learning
Recently, Dr. Bonnie Cheuk, the Senior Business and Digital Transformation Leader at AstraZeneca (AZ), shared her thoughts with HR Exchange Network about providing employees the means to immerse themselves and become lifelong learners. For more than 15 years, Cheuk has worked for multinational corporations in Hong Kong, Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other parts of Europe.

She joined AstraZeneca as a senior director charged with helping to reimagine the drug development process with a focus on introducing knowledge and collaboration technologies. The author of “Social Strategies in Action: Driving Business Transformation” (Ark Group, 2013), Cheuk says you cannot force people to get educated or even tell them to learn something. Rather, you have to help them make learning part of their work and second nature in their habits, she adds.

Cheuk will be a featured speaker in November at an interactive session, “How to Implement Learning Agility,” during the 2021 HR Exchange Live: Corporate Learning EMEA online event. She will draw on her expertise in change management, digital transformation, and innovation. Her session will focus on understanding the five work habits required to support learning agility, assessing how to keep employees hooked on lifelong learning, and preparing the workforce for the future.

Respond to Rapid Change
Find out how Cheuk suggests leaders guide employees to take action and embrace the practice of lifelong learning:

HREN: Why lifelong learning? Why is it so important to get employees to buy into lifelong learning and really commit to it?

BC: The world is changing fast. Digital has triggered new business models, new ways to serve a customer’s needs. How can each employee respond to these changes?

Knowledge workers need to learn to be explorers and navigators. How you learn in a complex, unpredictable world is different from how you learn in a stable, certain world, which is why lifelong learning is important. It allows you to adapt, adjust, and thrive in a changing world.

HREN: How do you encourage a culture of lifelong learning in the workplace?

BC: We invite our colleagues to reimagine their definition of learning by focusing on the three Es, which are education, exposure, and experience. We focus on formal training programs, but also on connecting people with one another and learning together. Our goal is to provide them with experience, so they can apply what they learn on the job in real-time.

We define learning agility as a critical capability within AstraZeneca. The definition is made up of two parts. The first part is the ability and willingness to learn, and the second is the willingness to apply what one has recently learned in an unfamiliar context. A culture of lifelong learning is about learning in the flow of getting our work done.

Discover Learning Patterns
So, I introduced my organization to the five work habits, rather than learning habits. These are habits that you apply to conquer your day-to-day work and as you are collaborating, conversing, and working together.

These five work habits are:

• Learning and working as networks
• Self/team reflection
• Innovation and growth mindset
• Psychological safety
• Inclusive meetings and collaboration

When you apply these habits as you do your work, you naturally learn, unlearn, and reinvent yourself. We promote three AstraZeneca behaviors that lead to learning and unlearning:

• Be curious.
• Be collaborative.
• Be brave.

We run immersive workshops to invite people to practice these habits in groups. People learn together, without lecturers. We do not teach people about these work habits. We immerse them in the experience of taking on these habits, so they can apply them to their own work context and team meetings.

Ultimately, you are in the driver’s seat to change your work and life. Make these five work habits part of your day-to-day work. You will learn, unlearn, and continuously evolve. As a result, you will be able to face any unfamiliar situation and be future-ready. The best tip is to be human-centric, both to yourself and others.

Take Control of Your Learning
HREN: How is the challenge of learning/unlearning made more difficult by remote workers?

BC: There are challenges when face-to-face meetings are not possible. So, you need to pay attention to your colleague’s needs and feelings, ask deeper questions, invite people to be open about their views, and create a sense of belonging and place, even though you are not physically in the same location.

It requires all five work habits and intentionally practicing them in an online space. For example, in online meetings, pause and give time for everyone to reflect and write out their ideas on chat. Make it a ritual in the meeting to say, ‘I’d like to hear your objections.’ This is to help people feel more comfortable and so they don’t feel like they are ‘the challenger.’

Deliberate work out loud. Make unpolished thoughts or challenges visible online, so others know and can connect or collaborate with you. If people don’t know what you are thinking in a distributed world, they cannot offer advice. But one needs to take the first step to be brave, to work out loud.

HREN: What are the biggest mistakes when it comes to implementing learning agility?

BC: The biggest mistake is telling people that they need to be agile learners. You cannot train people how to learn. You need them to be self-motivated. Learning is personal. It has to start with a person’s dreams, passions, and goals for it to be meaningful to them.

Do not focus on ‘learning’ as the destination. Learning is the input to perform work, and the output of work is learning that you can apply it to the next context. Learning happens as you do your work. Can you build in rituals or processes to invite your team members to practice these five work habits as they do their job?

Focus on work and performance. Learning is a means to get work done and fulfil one’s dreams or passions. Lifelong learning has to be self-driven, self-directed. No one is going to give you all the curriculum every day of your life. You need to take control. Self-motivation is the key.


Is Coworking the Solution To Remote Work Isolation?

How we work has changed more since the start of the pandemic than it has over the previous two decades. Some are calling it a revolution because employee preferences are dictating the future of the office environment.

Coworking is one trend that is surfacing. Until now it’s been an obscure option used by freelancers and startups. In other words, this option wasn’t on the radar of anyone who worked full-time in a corporate office in 2019. With the number of remote employees increasing exponentially, coworking could be a viable option to stay productive while avoiding feelings of isolation.

Understand the pros and cons of coworking, and how it can benefit employees beyond the pandemic:

What Is Coworking?
Coworking spaces have been on the map for freelancers, small businesses, and consultants since 2005. The concept has been gaining traction for years, but the COVID-19 surge in remote work has transformed the market.

Today, coworking spaces are growing at a rate of 24.2% each year. Building owners are now thinking about opening coworking spaces rather than traditional office spaces for lease. These facilities allow different kinds of workers to take advantage of flexible office space. They also offer remote workers a chance at fostering productive and collaborative environments.

How do they work exactly? Workers enroll in flexible memberships granting them access to the space when they need it. They can utilize the space daily, weekly, monthly, or in custom-built schedules. Some coworking spaces are even open 24/7.

Workers from a number of different companies may be sharing the space at one time. Established companies may balk at this option, but the fact is successful businesses like Uber and Instagram both got their starts in coworking environments.

Pros and Cons of Coworking Spaces
The coworking model is advantageous for people who work remotely from home. A change of scenery fosters inspiration, and an office space is often needed for face-to-face business meetings.

Coworking spaces are fully equipped with office furniture, Wifi, kitchen spaces, and conference rooms. Some even offer complimentary coffee or snacks. Their mission is to provide pleasant environments to support creativity. Many workers thrive in a structured environment, where they report to the same office at the same time every day. Coworking spaces can help maintain that consistency for remote workers.

READ: How HR Can Enhance the Experience for Remote Workers

Forty-two percent of the American workforce was remote at the beginning of 2021. That amount will likely decrease as offices reopen nationwide, yet remote work isolation has been an unintended side effect.

Communal workspaces provide a sense of community for remote workers. Experts from many backgrounds can collaborate and share inspiration. They can even help each other solve complex problems.

While coworking is effective for many workers, it does have drawbacks. The first being a lack of privacy. Coworking spaces can be noisy and distracting, and there’s a potential for leaked information. These shared spaces can also be problematic for remote workers, freelancers, or consultants if the hours are only 9 to 5. These types of workers rarely follow traditional schedules.

Remote Work Breeds Isolation
There is evidence that coworking is a positive experience for some workers. The big question is whether coworking is a solution to work from home loneliness? There are consequences to continual isolation. Employees can become depressed, may lose motivation, and eventually quit their jobs.

On the flip side, there are remote workers who don’t want to return to the office over health concerns or because of the convenience factor.

Humans are social creatures and there’s no doubt we all benefit from the occasional office visit. Some companies have already recognized this balancing act between working at home and not succumbing to isolation. They’re addressing employee needs and discovering that coworking reduces real-estate costs, increases productivity, and improves staff retention.

The Harvard Business Review discovered in 2015 that employees thrive in coworking spaces. They reported being better off than those with similar roles in the office. Those surveyed said they preferred avoiding office politics or competition. They also valued job autonomy and being part of a unique community of creative minds.

From a logistics standpoint, they can still work remotely from anywhere in the world. But, they use coworking space for an occasional change of scenery or business meeting. Some companies are even providing stipends for remote workers to find these spaces.

Overcoming the Loneliness of Remote Work
Working from home has so many benefits and it’s no surprise that many employees want to keep doing it through the foreseeable future. Feelings of isolation affect everyone differently. Some may never experience this part of remote work, while others may be struggling with depression or a lack of motivation.

Coworking provides a solution for the latter. Employees working remotely can still get their social fix and community through coworking spaces.

The question remains about whether employers are game or fear the lack of privacy that coworking spaces afford? What do you think? Write to Editor@hrexchangenetwork.com to share your thoughts about coworking spaces and whether this is something you would offer your remote employees.


The world is spiky, not flat

Angelo Yu had a problem. It was late 2019, and US President Donald Trump had spent much of the previous two years tweeting increasingly bellicose denunciations of the Chinese government. At the same time, the White House had been progressively ratcheting up tariffs on Chinese imports to the US. This looked like bad news for Yu’s startup, Pix Moving. Based in Guiyang, a city 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) northwest of Shenzhen, the firm makes the chassis for a new class of autonomous vehicle. The tariffs made everything more expensive.

The cover of “The Exponential Age” shows a steeply rising graph line

A lesser entrepreneur may have had to raise prices for his first customers. Not so Yu. He had a solution: Pix Moving was using only the most modern manufacturing “dematerialized” techniques. Rather than exporting cars, Yu explained, they “export the technique that is needed to produce the cars.” Vehicles are not loaded onto container ships and sent to their destination. Rather, the company sends design blueprints over to colleagues in the US, who use additive manufacturing techniques to print components locally. From those components, the finished product can be assembled. Yu’s approach could skirt around customs inspectors (and tariffs). Additive manufacturing lets him build wherever his customers are, trade conflicts be damned.

Pix Moving reflects how manufacturing will change as we move further into what I am calling the Exponential Age, an era in which exponential technologies are changing the way business operates. I define an exponential technology as one that can improve, at roughly a fixed cost, at a rate of more than 10% per year for several decades. The 10% threshold is important because it means the technology becomes 2.5 times more powerful every ten years. A decade is only two traditional business cycles.

For decades, supply chains have been getting longer and production processes more international. The various components of a car might be manufactured in a dozen countries and assembled in more than one. In the future, however, manufacturing can happen near to the consumer. Thanks to the wonders of 3D printing, components can be produced locally; although the design might come from anywhere, the finished product can be crafted in a local workshop and handed to a customer who lives close by.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Thomas Friedman’s bestselling 2005 book, The World Is Flat, declared itself to be a history of the 21st century. Its argument: the world is entering a third phase of globalization. The first, which began with European exploration of the Americas, is most frequently associated with colonialism and the globalization of trade between countries. In the second, which got going in the 19th century, the focus shifted to the activities of transnational corporations—culminating in the monolithic industrial firms of the postwar era. In Friedman’s third phase, globalization would reach a new level—with flows of trade, labor, and information becoming ever more international.

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Yet following the global financial crisis of 2007–09, globalization started to lose its luster. It had grown in tandem with the financialization of national and global economies—as trade grew, so too did the importance of borrowing and lending, often through increasingly complex financial instruments. When the financial crisis hit, the pain was not limited to investors; it spread into the “real” economy. In richer countries, many felt that globalization had led to the offshoring of blue-collar jobs to the emerging economies of the developing world. After 2010, there was an increasing turn toward nationalism in many countries: key examples are the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the US. Although globalization remains a potent force in the world economy, it is also increasingly unfashionable.

A return to the local
The recent rise of nationalism is a story that most readers will be familiar with. Less well-scrutinized, however, is the way exponential technologies both create the rationale for more borders and provide the tools to build them. We often assume that the more high-tech a society becomes, the more global and borderless it will be. And until recently, that has often been true. But no longer. Many exponential technologies lead to a return to the local. These breakthrough technologies favor the near over the far.

Exponential technologies create the rationale for more borders and provide the tools to build them. We often assume that the more high-tech a society becomes, the more global and borderless it will be. And until recently, that has often been true. But no longer.

As the 21st century unfolds, the localizing potential of technology will only become more powerful. The coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020 showed how fragile global supply chains could be. But if it was a virus in 2020, in the future it could be war or extreme weather—exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change. The result is an era in which, once again, geography matters, with economic activity set to become increasingly local.

There is an irony here. The economic paradigm that brought about the Exponential Age—globalization—has fostered technologies that will lead to a return to the local. But our political and economic systems were not designed to cope with the new age of localism. As so often happens, gaps emerge. Between the economic policies advocated by our political institutions and the actual workings of an increasingly de-globalized economy. Between the countries that can adapt to the new age of insularity and those that can’t. And between the creaking nation-state and the newly empowered cities, whose influence has been turbocharged by new technology. The world is not flat. It is very, very spiky.

Those of us born in the late 20th century inhabit a world of global trade that Adam Smith and David Ricardo could only have dreamed of. The supply chains of this global world touch every part of our lives. As we progress even further into the Exponential Age, the tendency toward global trade in physical commodities is being inverted. There would be no need to exchange all those goods if you could source everything that you need locally. In the case of food, we wouldn’t go to all that effort if it was straightforward to grow food—whether tomatoes or bananas or pineapples—here in rainy Britain. And the new technologies of the Exponential Age create that very possibility.

Farm at the table
High-tech entrepreneurs have started to bring farming closer to where the food will be eaten. Urban vertical farms, popular in Japan and spreading elsewhere, are unusually efficient. In this setup, the traditional field is chopped up and assembled in indoor stacks. A modern vertical farm may run to 12 or 13 stories high, each with a floor area of a few dozen square meters. This method increases the productivity of each square meter of “farmland”: when built vertically, 40 square meters of growing area can concertina to nearly ten times that. Using AI systems to control lighting, water, and heat drives even more efficiencies. Computer-controlled intensive farms do not require pesticides or other chemicals. Some require substantially less water than traditional farms. Soil is eliminated in favor of hydroponics (in which the roots dangle in water) or aeroponics (in which a nutrient-dense solution is misted onto the roots). Rather than using ordinary greenhouse lights, with their wide spectrum of colors, some vertical farms’ lights shine only the precise wavelengths to which the vegetables respond. Not even a photon of light is wasted. The farms’ energy costs decline, and by using renewable energy (often supplied via solar panels on the roof of the building), their carbon footprint drops even further. Provided one has the resources to invest in the technology, these farms can be built more or less anywhere

Historically, food needed to be transported from rural farms to urban centers. But the new technology of urban farming means this need not be the case. With their smaller footprints, farms can be closer to the mouths they feed—sometimes even in the city they serve. Montreal’s 15,000-square-meter (160,000-square-foot) Lufa Farms greenhouse, the world’s largest, sits directly on top of a distribution warehouse. A tennis court is less than 300 square meters (3,000 square feet); Lufa would easily fit 50 of those. The proximity of Lufa to its consumers allows for fresher produce, cultivated for nutrition. And many urban farms are following this template: built close to the retailer, so that the tomato practically rolls from its vine into your shopping bag.

As of 2020, vertical farms have a tiny share of the food market. But the market for high-intensity vertical farms is growing at more than 20% per annum, on the march up our exponential curve. The effects of this shift could be staggering. If, in the 20th century, that ancient human problem—that you can only eat what is nearby—was solved by globalized logistics, then the 21st century offers an alternative solution.

The energy trade
Today, you can use technology to transform what is actually nearby. But there’s another solution that is even more radical. New technology reduces our dependence on certain classes of commodities altogether. Let’s turn now from kale to coal. For a hundred years, we have moved around vast quantities of fossil fuels to meet our energy needs. Cargo ships laden with coal, then tankers with oil, and finally refrigerated supertankers for natural gas all move prehistoric energy from its source to giant power stations. Apart from the handful of nations with energy self-sufficiency, fossil fuels drive a large portion of world trade. They are so essential that the United States has kept an almost permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf to ensure the flow of crude oil continues unabated. But renewables can now put every nation on a path to energy independence. Once wind turbines are installed or a solar farm is deployed, they require few raw materials. Such power supplies are fast becoming ubiquitous.

This shift to renewable energy drastically reduces the amount of “stuff” that needs to be carted around. In 1998, the UK consumed 63 million tons of coal, three-quarters of which went into electricity generation and a third of which was imported. A mere 21 years later, coal demand for electricity had reduced by 94% and imports were down by 70%. This is combined with a wider trend, in which we get more out of the electricity we use. Between 1999 and 2019, British GDP increased 75%—yet the amount of electricity the economy uses has declined by 15%. We literally create twice as much wealth for every kilowatt-hour of electrical energy we use.

And this is only one example; dozens of countries, from Germany to Uzbekistan and Ukraine to the United States, have had similar experiences. The shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewables reduces global dependence on fossil-rich nations. Solar energy, thankfully, is much more equitably distributed. Although not every nation is rich in fossil fuels, solar energy is possible everywhere. The most solar-rich nation, Azerbaijan, only gets four times more sunlight per square mile of land than the most impoverished, Norway. That may sound significant, but it is a relatively minor variance. The equivalent disparity between the haves and have-nots for oil is more than a million to one.

This shift is being charged by not only new forms of electricity, but new methods of energy storage. In an age of green energy, storage systems become more important—after dusk, solar farms become useless, and so you need a way to store large amounts of electricity. And many of the new methods of storage bring electricity closer to home. Our electric vehicles can hoard electricity that could also power our homes and offices through so-called vehicle-to-grid systems. The average electric car stores about 50 kilowatt-hours of electricity enough to run the typical British or American home for five days. It will become commonplace for our electric cars to lend their stored electricity to our homes when it is dark. Britain alone is forecast to have as many as 11 million such cars by 2030. If each owner were willing to share a bit of the surplus energy stored in their cars with their neighbors, it might cover the whole country’s needs.

My friend Simon Daniel is an inventor whose work reveals the power of these newly localized storage systems. His first success was a folding keyboard he designed in the 1990s, just as the PalmPilot, an early pocket-sized tablet computer, was taking off. His latest adventure is to string together thousands of batteries to make a gigantic virtual power plant. For Moixa, his company, to buy the batteries itself, it would need large amounts of capital, perhaps running into the tens of millions of dollars. Instead, he’s persuading owners of electric cars to connect to his network. Together, these idle car batteries form a giant virtual power plant. Daniel’s platform manages them and uses sophisticated algorithms to balance usage across the whole network. At last count, he had managed to combine 20,000 batteries together in several Japanese cities. That’s enough to power 25,000 Japanese homes for a day. It is like alchemy—replacing a massive power station, smokestacks rising into the sky, with a web of cars, parked on driveways, keeping homes running as we sleep.

These trends—the re-localization of commodity production, plus our decreasing dependence on some commodities altogether—mark a radical shift. Soon, we may be able to fulfill many of our material needs without relying heavily on international trade. In the Exponential Age, manufacturing is becoming less about putting shoes, phones, car components, or prosthetics onto standardized 6-meter (20-foot) containers and shipping them around the world. Instead, manufacturing is taking the shape outlined by Angelo Yu. The idea is shipped across the globe, but the building process takes place at a printer or fabricator close to the point of consumption. This new paradigm could make much of the global network of factories, logistical supply chains, and offices redundant. They become liabilities. This increasingly localized world of manufacturing is driven by the new norms of the exponential economy.

Source : https://www.strategy-business.com/article/The-world-is-spiky-not-flat