The Biz Box: Business

The future of the working individual

on . Posted in Business

The rapid development of computers and robots will radically transform the employment market. This offers opportunities, including for entrepreneurs, says Randstad’s Marjolein ten Hoonte. “It’s about imagination and how you translate that to your own company.”

The Randstad Group head office in Diemen, the Netherlands, is a classic example of ‘the new way of working’. Visitors no longer have to wait for employees to come and collect them with an access pass. The entire ground floor is accessible to everyone. Just like the employees and clients of the company, visitors can go there to meet, work, drink coffee and eat lunch. This is a logical consequence of technologisation, says Marjolein ten Hoonte, labour market and CSR director at the company. “Although your location might not be relevant any more for your job, working people still want to meet each other.”

The discussion about the future of work often implies a threat - of robots that will take over jobs, rendering people unemployed. But Ten Hoonte is not a pessimist. She would rather focus on the chances that technology brings. “Old jobs go and new jobs are created: it’s what we’ve witnessed since the introduction of the steam engine. Almost no one knows what a growth hacker actually does, but it’s certainly a new profession.” While she likes to look at opportunities, Ten Hoonte also argues that technologisation creates stress in society. Suddenly, a company is no longer a building in a street with a front door, but a platform with an algorithm and a chatbot, such as Uber or Deliveroo. Technology flips business models upside down, reversing processes. Instead of selling a product or service, there are companies which try to discover the characteristics of a consumer by sharing vast amounts of information. Google, for example, offers free services. Thanks to the data it gleans in doing so, it can provide targeted offers.

New business models

Ten Hoonte believes we need to start understanding how technology can help us. Robots can also relieve us of work we don’t want to do. Moreover, technology provides equal opportunities by destroying the old hierarchy – younger colleagues often know better – and offers entrepreneurs many new opportunities. “From this perspective, the future of work isn’t about technologisation but about the humanisation of the labour market”, she says. To identify and exploit opportunities, entrepreneurs have to delve into new technologies and what these can offer their organisation. “Supercomputer Watson, developed by IBM, can rapidly process a wealth of legal information. This can improve a lawyer’s plea. At the same time, it’s a threat to the traditional company billing by hour. Therefore, they’ve got to ask themselves: what will my new business model be? It’s about imagination and the translation of technology to your own company.”

Transition consultant

Ten Hoonte is happy to be inspired by leading institutes and thought leaders such as Andrew McAfee, researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He studies how information technology is changing business. In his book The Second Machine Age he describes the following competencies of the future: taking initiative and risks, thinking creatively, creating and exploiting opportunities, collaborating and communicating. Ten Hoonte’s tips also sound like a plea for entrepreneurship. “Take a good look at the new technology around you, ask questions, try it out.” She believes that only thinking in terms of competition is outdated. The new era requires collaboration, for example, as is happening at innovation ecosystems such as Brainport in Eindhoven. “Only by joining forces and coming up with innovative ideas together will it be possible for small entrepreneurs to oppose major tech companies or platforms.” As an example she cites networks of entrepreneurs in construction who are asking what it means that half-built houses will be printed in factories one day. “The issue is simply too large to solve on your own.”

And if you can’t find an answer, she recommends looking for someone who knows how you can develop into a new organisation. “This person doesn’t have a name or function yet – let’s call them a transition consultant. Someone who can explain that you currently still need truck drivers, but that self-driving is on the horizon. Or that the painting company can provide its customers with a new interior every week when using new technology.” This brings Ten Hoonte onto her next tip: develop new networks. Find the specialists who know what’s happening. This may be the branch association, the technical university or the economic board. “The homogeneity of existing networks may pose a risk. There may be insufficient knowledge of new, genuine innovations. As an entrepreneur, you should constantly be asking yourself which people you need around you in order to understand how new technology works and how you can use it as effectively as possible.”

Reinvention

Whereas companies used to be able to do the same thing for 30 years, they now have to reinvent themselves time and time again. Ten Hoonte was astonished when the Randstad Employer Brand Research (research into the most attractive employer in the Netherlands) found that nearly half of employees interviewed stated that tech won’t have any impact on their jobs. “The only reason I can think of for it is that employees haven’t had to deal with this element for such a long time that they now dismiss it and think: “I’ll hear about it when it’s actually happening.”

New reciprocity

Employers also have to take responsibility here, says Ten Hoonte. They mustn’t only consider what technology means for the company, but also the consequences for employees. “How do you keep them up-to-date with the developments? How do you keep it a challenge? This requires a new approach from employers, which I call the new reciprocity.” More than the current discussion about permanent or temporary contracts, this concerns sustainable employability and organising adaptability, according to Ten Hoonte. “Employers and employees must enter a dialogue with each other about how they want to work together: about how an employee can live, work, care, learn and develop without having to worry about income.” Projects are replacing jobs, she states. “And employees are jumping from project to project. We have to organise this properly together.” She has seen how the old, institutional frameworks used to reward those who stayed in one place. In this new era, a time of change, people can still work somewhere for a long time, but they must also be able to leave in a dignified way without being fired and or being made redundant. “In a reciprocal working relationship, the employer isn’t only worried about the job but about the transition as well”, she says. For the time being people still need income and employment, she laughs. “Humans still can’t live on air alone. The abundance theory suggests that this will happen eventually, but we’re still a long way off.”