“Partnership, Purpose and Productivity”—RSA panel outlines strategies for the changing workplace
By Andy Hix—To quote recent Nobel Prize Laureate Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changing, and more rapidly than ever. Technology is developing at break-neck speed and threatening to replace many existing jobs. Politics seems to be moving faster and more unpredictably. Young people entering the workforce now don’t just want a job, they want meaning.
The RSA brought together Stephen Bampfylde, founding chair of Saxton Bampfylde; Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership; and Sacha Romanovitch, CEO of Grant Thornton to share how their companies are responding proactively to these challenges. The Royal Society for Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce is a UK charity with the mission of enriching society through ideas and action.
Mayfield pointed out that since 2008, productivity in the UK economy has flatlined, which is very unusual in the wake of a recession, and this means people are earning less.
Not only that, but technology is increasingly doing jobs instead of humans. As just one example, he pointed out that in the last year, the percentage of people using self-checkouts in Waitrose has increased from 17 to 25 %. What future does the company’s 17,000 checkout staff have?
Mayfield said that there needs to be a moral and ethical debate about these changes because unemployment seriously affects mental health. He wants to see a measure of prosperity that includes wellbeing and equality.
He warned that with the growth of Artificial Intelligence, there will definitely be more losers, and the question is whether there will be enough winners to keep the faith in the system.
On top of these economic and technological challenges is an existential one: Bampflylde said that in the wake of the credit crunch, young people are arriving into the workplace cynical and in search of meaning.
The main ways the panelists are responding to this context are though connecting their employees to the company’s to purpose, employee ownership and autonomy.
Romanovitch argued that in order to survive in this uncertain, rapidly changing context, companies need to abandon the prevailing, outdated industrial model or self-interest, hierarchy and competition.
She said people think of companies as like machines in which you just have to pull the right lever to make something happen. In fact, they’re more like forests in which everyone’s behavior affects everyone else.
Her preferred model is one of coming together around a shared purpose, collaborating beyond the boarders of the business and being agile instead of hierarchical.
She said that Grant Thornton wants to get to the point where all of their employees’ decisions are guided by connecting to their purpose of creating a vibrant economy.
Mayfield pointed that employee-owned companies are more likely to take responsibility for the casualties of AI terminating their jobs, and that John Lewis will always try to find someone a new role in the company.
Bampfylde spoke with zeal about how since becoming employee owned in 2014, his executive search and leadership consulting company has become more responsible and his employees more motivated.
They’ve seen engagement and enthusiasm fly off the charts, their cost base has gone down and the employees now feel like guardians of the company values, holding him and the board to account.
Romanovitch said that one of the main ways she’s trying to make her accounts firm more forest-like, is holding back from telling people what to do and letting them make their own decisions.
She said it takes a lot of confidence for a leader not to just repeat the strategies that worked for them in the last role, but if businesses are going to be able to adapt quickly to change, they need to empower their employees. They’re also more likely to perform well and be motivated than if they’re micro-managed.
An audience member made the point that it always seems to be the same ‘enlightened’ companies at these discussions, and more needs to be done to bring the rest on board.
From what all members of the panel said, having a sense of purpose, autonomy, and employee ownership is more profitable, so surely it’s only a matter of time before more businesses follow suit.