Doubling down to build creative spaces in the age of remote working

Creativity often flourishes when people are together in the same place, but technology solutions can help whether at home or company headquarters

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, workspaces sought to maximise innovation and collaboration by introducing communal spaces, breakout areas, brainstorming pods and the like. Now remote or location-independent working has become more widespread, how can organisations ensure their offices remain a lightning rod for creativity?

It’s a puzzle that business leaders must urgently tackle. According to Nespresso research, over a third (34 per cent) of large enterprise businesses see themselves utilising co-working and collaborative spaces in the future. Organisations need to double down and make offices inviting, comfortable and collaborative spaces.

“Businesses can’t assume employees will flood back to the office in the long term,” says Rebecca Tully, managing director of inclusion and diversity at Accenture in the UK and Ireland. “Employees are increasingly looking for more flexibility from their employer. As such, the onus is on business leaders to rebuild trust with its employees when it comes to returning to the office, ensuring the environment is both safe and beneficial for them.”

Dr Susan Lund, partner at McKinsey Global Institute, says the tasks needed to be performed in an office have changed irreversibly because of the rise of remote working, the ubiquity of good wifi connectivity and the capabilities of tech devices. It is arguably more efficient for practical, task-based work to be performed at home. Meanwhile, creative and collaborative work is best done in the office.

“I can answer an email or write something from anywhere,” says Lund. “When people go into the office now they are not going to be sitting at desks in cubicles. The office, however, is important for creativity and collaborating, and also bringing on board and training new colleagues. The same is true for making business-critical decisions, serious negotiations and forming new relationships.”

In-office cross-pollination of ideas

Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), at Facebook, concurs. “When I started my career, I would dream that one day I’d get the big corner office on the eighth floor, but that’s no longer the case,” she says. “The spaces we have to co-create, to ideate, to bring people together need to be even bigger than they were before the coronavirus pandemic.”

Future smart technologies will soon be harnessed by workplaces to provide personalised environments able to be altered seamlessly from one mode to another

While existing physical offices are widely considered to be vital for collaboration, Adam Steel, strategic foresight editor at The Future Laboratory, believes these buildings might evolve to become what he calls “rotation offices”. He explains: “These spaces, owned by multiple companies but used by one at a time for weekly or monthly face-to-face meetings, would help employees retain a degree of tactile humanness with colleagues, resulting in a cross-pollination of ideas.

“Beyond design, future smart technologies will soon be harnessed by workplaces to provide personalised environments able to be altered seamlessly from one mode to another.”

It’s already something the workforce expects, according to research from Aruba Networks that reveals almost three quarters (72 per cent) of people think the future workplace should automatically adjust and update itself.

Companies that embrace these concepts, using technology to usher workers to take breaks in social spaces and encourage conviviality, will likely experience a boost in productivity too,” says Steel.

ComRes research demonstrates the impact social spaces can have on overall efficiency, with two thirds of workers (67 per cent) feeling more productive after a coffee break.

Steel adds: “Being based around conviviality, the bleeding edge between workspace and hospitality space is a natural one and will also inspire a new wave of hospitality-focused brands to develop their own co-working spaces, enabling the creations of connections between employees, fostering collaboration and creativity.”

Investing in collaboration tools

Thankfully for businesses whose headquarters are not co-working spaces, technology is making it easier to innovate as part of a dispersed team. “Collaboration solutions that foster productivity, from online meetings and videoconferencing, to instant messaging and content-sharing, can be used to maintain a high level of collaboration between employees and facilitate creativity, regardless of their location,” says Sion Lewis, vice president, EMEA, for remote IT specialists LogMeIn.

“We are likely to see an increasing number of IT professionals adopting artificial intelligence in their workflow to make their collaboration efforts smarter and more efficient.”

More than ever though, the office is vital for generating innovation. And remote workers should be encouraged to head in for meetings regularly, says Lee Penson, founder of PENSON, the innovative commercial architectural firm behind Google’s famous inflatable office space. He believes the office “needs to be somewhere that caters for all teams to support their creativity, whether it’s in-house or remotely”, he says.

“The simplicity of taking a group call on FaceTime with colleagues and the progress of conferencing on the move has developed significantly. These innovations join people together in the most basic way. But spaces are still facilitators for unlocking creativity for people and businesses; the cross-pollination of ideas between people happens when they’re together,” says Penson.

Lewis concludes: “Technology is an enabler, not the end-goal, for creativity. It removes the barriers of geographies, time zones and accessibility, and creates a limitless space where people and their creativity can flourish. Ultimately, tech enables us to drive innovation, wherever we are in the world.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s Return to the Workplace for SMEs report in March 2021

How can purpose support growth targets?

Company culture is central to achieve staff engagement and motivation, and the coronavirus global crisis has provided an opportunity to pivot and rewrite business models

A happy worker is a productive worker, goes the oft-repeated business aphorism. It is incredibly challenging, though, to keep the workforce motivated through periods of significant change, such as during the early stages of a digital transformation journey or while a startup is experiencing rapid growth. However, change is something most organisations have experienced in 2020, as the coronavirus chaos has touched every part of our lives.

Business leaders should be sensitive to this current climate of uncertainty and potential bad news. Further, they must be careful not to become fixated on the bottom line and drive staff to hit growth targets. Taking this myopic view, and not paying due consideration to staff wellbeing and happiness, runs the risk of alienating the workforce.

Focus on your culture and the business will take care of itself

Organisations that foster and communicate an inclusive, company-wide culture driven by a clearly defined purpose are likely to find scaling more manageable. And now, following the global crisis, is the time for organisations to seize the opportunity to reset their culture.

“Focus on your culture and the business will take care of itself,” says Eissa Khoury, executive director for culture and engagement at Landor, a global branding and design agency. “Having a strong culture often translates into fewer checks and balances, and boosts efficiency as employees have much better clarity on what is expected of them, and how they’re meant to work collectively towards a common goal.”

Good communication and positive contributions

David Mills, chief executive of technology giant Ricoh Europe, goes further and posits an organisation looking to attract and retain top talent while scaling, and also appealing to consumers, must lead with a purpose that benefits society.

“Financial margins are no longer the sole indicator of business success or growth, sustainability must be at the centre of a modern business,” he says. “People are looking to employers to set an example and make more positive contributions to the communities in which they operate.”

Indeed, for positive contributions to permeate throughout an organisation’s culture, they must come from the top down, says Khoury. And leaders have to be transparent and communicate plans and progress, as well as setbacks, to staff.

Company news, he says, ought to be disseminated regularly and through various channels, particularly when people aren’t physically in the same space. Moreover, leaders should engage employees by encouraging their ideas and acting on them, so staff become more emotionally invested in the project.

“When scaling and growing a company, stress and long hours are often unavoidable,” says Khoury. “The essential advice for leaders is not to lose their sense of humanity and to appreciate that pushing teams too hard for too long is a terrible long-term strategy.

“If companies want their employees to be ‘bought in’ to the strategy, then they need to have a sense of ownership. The easiest way to accomplish that is to keep employees aware of how the company is doing, warts and all.

“Should companies try to push the company line to make employees think everything is rosy, they will see right through it, which creates mistrust and disengagement. Treat employees with respect, let them know what’s happening and make them feel like their contribution matters.”

Transparency breeds trust

Abbie Walsh, chief design officer at Fjord, an Accenture-backed design and innovation agency, agrees. “A focus on financial growth means companies risk losing sight of the very culture and values their brand was built on,” she says. “And if employees aren’t already feeling like a cog in a machine, the new hires, team restructures, redefined roles and a mountain of new processes that come with business expansion is sure to lead to levels of dissatisfaction.”

Walsh believes having a clear purpose will increasingly become critical for organisations, small and large. She points to the Fjord Trends 2020 report that suggests we should care more about our impact on the planet.

“In 2019, questions about capitalism’s trajectory of endless growth with profit as the sole measurable moved from shouting on the streets to conversations in the boardroom,” she says. “There is an urgent need for businesses to redefine value, reassess their goals and scale in a way that serves the interests of investors, society and employees at the same time.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s Return to the Workplace for SMEs report in March 2021

Opening the doors to a reimagined workplace

The coronavirus fallout has forced new ways of working and workplaces to be redrawn, but what could this look like?

We will look back on 2020 as the year the world reset for the digital age and for the better. To stem the flow of coronavirus, organisations of all sizes closed their offices. Out of necessity, business leaders were forced to rethink and revamp their operations.

The virus fallout has exposed systems that were either inefficient or outdated. Trends have been accelerated, with remote working being the most significant. Laggards have kickstarted digital transformation programmes and the pace has picked up for those whose journeys had already begun. Those with a progressive mindset, though, have embraced the opportunity to recalibrate the way things operate, and reimagined workplaces and workspaces are paramount.

“I don’t think there’s a company on the planet that hasn’t had to change as a result of what’s happened,” says Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Facebook, who admits many of the social media giant’s employees have “really struggled” with remote working.

“It would be wrong to assume we’re going to go back to how things were before. The companies that will do well as we come out of this are the ones, first and foremost, thinking about their people. They’re thinking about how they enable them to work in this hybrid way of working, part remote and part office.”

Putting people at the centre and collaborating

Adam Steel, strategic foresight editor at The Future Laboratory, agrees that organisations have to build workspaces around their staff to improve wellbeing and, in turn, productivity. “In our new working world, offices are being transformed with the health of employees now central to their function,” he says.

“And the benefits of remote working will cause employers to reconsider the entire purpose of the office. Employers should reimagine offices with their unique benefits in mind – their social, communal, convivial benefits – able to inspire collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas organically.”

However, recent Nespresso research highlights that in the UK worries about workplace safety and hygiene have been heightened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, in-person creativity is being hampered. More than a fifth (21 per cent) of respondents expressed concern for cleanliness when they return to the office while 19 per cent said they’re unsure how they can collaborate safely with new measures in place.

Organisations have to show commitment to their employees’ wellbeing, regain the trust of their staff and provide workers with the confidence to return to the office. “Every company must now consider itself a health business, in both the physical and mental sense, and reflect this in day-to-day operations,” says Rebecca Tully, managing director of inclusion and diversity at Accenture in the UK and Ireland.

“It’s essential companies look beyond initial fixes, such as one-way systems and plastic screens, and explore how they can start to make bold, long-term, systemic design changes to the office space.”

Blending hospitality hubs and workplaces

Implementing simple technology solutions in the office can both reassure employees that their wellbeing is being considered and reactivate creative processes. “For example, low-cost wearables that replace security badges can create a connected ecosystem to aid social distancing and allow employees to locate empty spaces in the workplace easily, reworking the physical space to become more responsive to employee needs,” says Tully.

Beth Hampson, commercial director at flex-space provider The Argyll Club, which has 38 luxury workspaces across London, notes demand for co-working products has increased the longer people have experienced remote working this year. “Our members are seeking places to meet and be inspired away from the humdrum of home,” she says. “The key difference between working on home and office turf is collaboration. When inspiration and support from your team are needed, there is no substitute for the office.”

COVID-19 has given us the chance to press a big reset button

But the reimagined office is more than that; it is a hospitality hub. “Professionals want somewhere they can seamlessly and effectively complete multiple tasks they just couldn’t do at home,” says Hampson. “Whether that’s a team brainstorm, a midday yoga class followed by lunch with investors or an end-of-week drink with colleagues in a business lounge. Traditional offices sticking to a cookie-cutter approach will struggle in a post-coronavirus world.”

This chimes with Lee Penson, chief executive of global architecture and interior design studio PENSON. “We see hospitality and workplaces decategorising and becoming somewhat blended,” he says. “An office building doesn’t need to be just an office building any more. Buildings need to multi-categorise, multi-function, be more flexible, more efficient and offer more for the people who work and live in them.”

The office is vital for facilitating new ideas, communication and collaboration, says Penson. “It’s a place where everyone comes together, where people mingle, strike deals and become firm friends,” he says. “Nothing can replace catching up with a colleague over a coffee or lunch; that’s where inspiration starts. Humans are social beings and the workplace should enable that, even more so now.

“COVID-19 has given us the chance to press a big reset button. We hope things don’t go back to normal.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s Return to the Workplace for SMEs report in March 2021

How can a coffee break help the bottom line?

Communal coffee breaks, whether working from home or in the office, are an increasingly important way to relax and unwind, and boost productivity

In Sweden, they call it fika. Essentially it is a coming together where staff take a break and time out to socialise and promote wellbeing. York-based staff management software company RotaCloud introduced fika to the workplace in 2018, to “help make people’s days better”, according to co-founder James Lintern. “It’s a time when everyone can make a cup of coffee, have a snack and talk,” he says. 

“We don’t force people to take a break, but we strongly encourage it and we use automated alerts on Slack to remind people.” Lintern says the practice has had a positive impact on staff and, in turn, productivity. 

“Having this time set aside within the working day is very important,” he continues, “because it creates an environment of sharing and learning, and helps employees build a support system within the office. This is about fostering a mentality that makes it OK to stop, slow down and reflect.”

While the coronavirus has driven new ways of working and triggered an initial exodus from the office, this practice is even more important for both people and businesses. The stress of having to work away from the office, possibly juggling family commitments in addition to the uncertainty of the future, has led many people to work harder than before. This approach is counter-productive, says Dr Argyro Avgoustaki, associate professor of management at ESCP Business School.

“The more the employee is working, especially if there is no break or resting time, the more the productivity decreases, because they do not get the chance to recover physically, mentally or emotionally,” she says. “Working constantly without taking any breaks between or within working days may result in employees who are exhausted, fatigued and stressed.”

Healthy body, healthy mind

Given the sudden shift to mass home working, where conditions might not be optimal, there is even more reason to take regular breaks, argues Mark Fletcher, clinical director at occupational physiotherapy provider Physio Med. 

“Sitting for longer than 20 minutes has negative effects on your body, including an increase in musculoskeletal problems such as back and neck pain, while extended periods of sitting can affect the spine, neck and shoulders. This, in turn, can also affect the arms, elbows and wrists,” he says, suggesting employees should move away from their desks every 30 minutes, even if just for a few paces.

When it comes to better managing remote-working teams, regular check-ins are vital, to ensure employees are happy with their work and also, arguably more importantly, that their mental health is supported. Business leaders should view this as an opportunity to show their human, compassionate side, says Susan Hodkinson, chief operating officer at Canadian accounting firm Crowe Soberman in Toronto. 

“Communication should be frequent and transparent,” she says. “We have a virtual coffee event, which replicates the kitchen coffee chat with co-workers. You’re trying to have those touchpoints you would have in the office.

Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Facebook, agrees that virtual coffee meet-ups help keep colleagues connected, even virtually. She enjoys “coffee roulette”, using videoconferencing tools. “You enter your name and then play coffee roulette with colleagues. The random nature of it creates surprise. It’s a great way to get to know people in 15 minutes,” says Mendelsohn, adding it’s especially good for people joining the company.

Benefits of informal catch-ups

Tania Garrett, vice president of international employee experience at Adobe, says relaxing coffee breaks, whether in the office or while remote working, with other members of the team are essential for boosting morale. “One of the things we hear a lot from our employees is that they are missing their colleagues and the informal catch-ups,” she says. “As such, we have strongly encouraged our people managers to create opportunities for non-work catch-ups like ‘coffee chats’ or team events.” 

For the more introverted employees, Garrett encourages small groups for coffee chats so “everyone can feel safe and included in conversation and managers can ensure everyone’s voice is heard”. She adds: “These informal moments are critical for our teams to take time out from work and connect on a personal level.”

Organisations seeking to make their offices more welcoming to staff should think about the provision of quality coffee, says Beth Hampson, commercial director of The Argyll Club, which offers more than 35 flex-work spaces in London. “Coffee at work isn’t just for the caffeine-fanatic anymore; most professionals now want a quality hot beverage every day so offices can no longer afford to have below-par coffee,” she says. 

Coffee at work isn’t just for the caffeine-fanatic anymore; most professionals now want a quality hot beverage every day

Members of The Argyll Club can now take advantage of Nespresso on offer at their workplaces. “We’ve even had all of our teams retrained on how to make an exceptional cup of coffee,” says Hampson.

Ultimately, it’s people who power any business, so looking after them, in the office or at home, and providing them with ample opportunity to take coffee breaks creates a win-win situation. And as employees do return to the office, those workplaces that can offer quality coffee on-site will claim the hearts and minds of staff.
“After months at home, members told us they miss the city’s quality coffee shops, bars and restaurants as well as their offices and teammates,” adds Hampson. “So bringing all these much-loved elements together in one safe destination is the future of work for us.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s website in March 2021

Virtual onboarding: the new reality

Having to join a company virtually is likely to outlast the coronavirus pandemic as many companies shift to more permanent remote working. But this raises challenges over how to get new starters up to speed and feel part of a company

The deep trepidation felt by Jeevan Singh when she was appointed finance officer of influencer marketing platform Fanbytes in September is relatable for those who have endured a remote onboarding process in the past year, especially workers at the start of their career.

“Starting a new job in lockdown was terrifying,” says the 23 year old, who in 2019 graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London. “I thought I’d feel like an outsider and lack the essential team-working environment. Above all, I was worried that I’d miss out on training and be left to figure out how to do things.”

Fanbytes’ suite of online collaboration tools and a “fantastic culture” of frequent, virtual meetings and social events soon allayed her fears, though. “For anyone looking to start a new job remotely or for businesses wanting to create a more inclusive culture, regular face-to-face calls and chats should be at the top of the agenda,” recommends Singh. “While I haven’t met any of my colleagues in person yet – and they may all turn out to be catfishing [creating a fake identity] – I nevertheless feel like I know them well.”

Charlie Johnson, founder and chief executive of BrighterBox, a London-based recruitment firm that places graduates with startups, agrees that for younger talent beginning a full-time job virtually is particularly daunting. His organisation’s research reveals that more than a third (36 per cent) of respondents feel less confident about starting a role remotely, although 44 per cent say it would make no difference.

“Ultimately, what new starters are looking for in 2021 is plenty of contact time: one to ones with their direct managers as well as the wider team and virtual socials to get to know teammates on a more personal and less formal level,” says Johnson.

Managing a remote team by example

What about remote onboarding as a new manager? Having amassed 16 years’ experience working in financial services, Cedrick Parize was perhaps not as terrified as Singh when, last March, he joined MUFG as Europe, Middle East and Africa head of internal audit for the bank’s global markets. However, 12 months after he took up his position, Parize is yet to meet any of the eight-strong team, two of whom he hired, in the flesh.

“Initially, with it being the start of the first lockdown, it was a challenge to get a feel for the team,” he says. “So much human communication is performed through body language and experiencing a person’s energy.”

From the outset at MUFG, Parize was open minded and flexible, even agreeing to reschedule meetings so they didn’t clash with Joe Wicks’ workout sessions, and keen to display his human side. 

Ultimately, what new starters are looking for in 2021 is plenty of contact time.

“I encouraged video calls and switched my camera on, no matter how bad my outfit was,” he says. “There was no pressure for others to do the same, but I was happy to see that through leading by example, and slowly building up relationships, my team began to feel more comfortable, turning on their cameras. This change helped enormously to gain a sense of each individual.”

Clearly, the coronavirus crisis has transformed hiring practices and talent management. While organisations are struggling to keep pace with the change necessitated by government-enforced remote working, the direction of travel is evident. “Virtual recruitment and onboarding are undoubtedly here to stay,” says Jon Addison, vice president at professional social network LinkedIn. 

Indeed, 84 per cent of the 1,500 human resources and talent professionals surveyed from around the world for LinkedIn’s The Future of Recruiting report predict virtual recruiting will outlast COVID-19.

Winning the war for talent in 90 days

Addison argues that as the war for talent intensifies, organisations must sharpen their remote onboarding, career development and training capabilities. “The first few days in a job are extremely important in setting up new joiners well,” he says. “Remote onboarding can make that challenging, particularly for younger generations joining the workforce who may not know what to expect.”

The most progressive organisations will start the experience well in advance of the new hire’s first day. Addison says this is achieved by connecting them to their team, ensuring home office equipment arrives, if remote working is possible, and sending a welcome package that includes information about company culture and explaining what the coming days and weeks might entail.

As vice president of people and operations at ClassPass, the fitness and wellness network that hit a $1-billion valuation last year, and with almost 400 employees distributed across 30 countries, Hollen Spatz has had to ensure her organisation’s remote onboarding runs smoothly. 

All hires join a programme coined “the 90-day warm-up”. The onboarding process starts with “a few surprises in the mail, including some company swag” and a personalised note from the ClassPass leadership team. The programme consists of a series of sessions introducing new team members to various aspects of the organisation over a three-month period.

“Onboarding and staff retention go hand in hand,” says Spatz. “An employee’s experience in the first 90 days of their role will have a massive impact on their happiness, productivity and longevity with a company.”

To accelerate the assimilation, ClassPass has also created a series of virtual check-ins with managers so beginners are clear on their role expectations and have ample opportunity to raise questions.

Finally, Spatz acknowledges that the remote onboarding process requires continuous tweaking. “We used to send out gift cards for a welcome lunch over Zoom, but quickly realised people might not feel comfortable eating in front of new colleagues on camera,” she concedes. 

With remote onboarding and virtual training set to remain, there’s plenty for business leaders to chew over to improve the recipe for success.

Five tips to improve remote onboarding

1. Divide and conquer interview duties

Moneypenny, a global outsourced communications provider, has recruited more than 350 new staff members since March 2020, and group chief executive Joanna Swash believes the secret to a successful hire is to divide and conquer. “We have two people to carry out remote interviews,” she says. “This allows each person to ask different questions and enables them to watch body language while the other person is talking.”

2. Use technology solutions to ease the load

Alexander Nicolaus, chief people officer at Paysend, a UK-based international money transfer fintech, urges business leaders to embrace technology solutions to improve hiring and training efficiencies. “We built an onboarding intranet that acts as a self-service toolkit for new joiners,” he says. This facility relieves the pressure on the business and allows employees to access a wide range of information.

3. Build a remote culture

GitLab is a fully remote technology company that has 13,000 employees spread across 67 countries. Head of remote Darren Murph says the key to successful remote onboarding is instilling a company culture. “The three key aspects are our commitment to working handbook first, being outcomes focused and having intentional communication,” he says.

4. Buddy up new hires

Being assigned a work buddy is vital for remote hires, according to Nicole Alvino, co-founder and head of strategy at SocialChorus, a workforce communications platform. “We added ‘sidekicks’ early on in the pandemic to ensure every person would have a personal connection. The sidekick is a person who can help navigate the culture.”

5. Introduce the CEO

In many ways remote onboarding has improved efficiencies, not least when it comes to including the C-suite in the process. “It has offered an opportunity for our chief executive to join the new hire training sessions,” says Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign. “Booking in time to lead a Zoom session is much easier than clearing his schedule for a face-to-face orientation session.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Employee Engagement and Wellbeing report in March 2021

Who protects the unprotected? Insuring freelancers in times of crisis

Being self-employed has always involved some insecurity, but as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps away potential work, financial support for this vital part of the workforce has never been more urgent

When disaster strikes, who protects the unprotected? Three years ago, LV= calculated that just 4 per cent of self-employed workers in the UK had income protection cover. The insurance firm warned, with eerie prescience, of a “heightened risk of a financial crisis”.

At a conservative estimate, more than four million members of the UK’s self-employed workforce did not have relevant insurance when the coronavirus pandemic began to suffocate the economy. And now that they are feeling the squeeze, having complained about inadequate financial support from the government, many are so cash strapped, it is hard to justify paying insurance premiums.

The plight of Dani, a Preston-based freelance lighting technician, is all too typical. On March 17, a day after prime minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown plans, she was due to begin her dream job. “Literally ten minutes after that announcement, the email came through from the theatre explaining ‘we can’t continue’,” she says.

The 31 year old has fallen through every financial crack and only receives Jobseeker’s Allowance. But at £73 a week, it doesn’t cover her bills. With Dani’s partner being made redundant, the outlook is bleak. “I don’t even feel like we’re surviving,” she says.

Self-employed musician, composer and sound engineer David, who lives in Perth, Scotland, qualified for the government’s COVID-19 Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, but he too is struggling to cope financially.

David and his wife, a care worker, haven’t bought anything non-essential since March and, to reduce petrol costs, their car has remained stationary. Despite tightening their belts, this has not been enough to prevent having to dip into their savings to pay the bills. 

“The events industry folded overnight,” says David. “That’s my entire income gone. What am I going to do? Have I got any transferable skills?”

It is a particularly challenging time for those in the live events industry, which depends on self-employed workers with niche skills. Conal Dodds, who co-founded Bristol-headquartered Crosstown Concerts in 2016 and had staged more than 300 music events within 18 months, has already written off next year.

The events industry folded overnight. That’s my entire income gone. What am I going to do? Have I got any transferable skills?

“This situation has highlighted that the self-employed, freelancers, zero-hours contract workers have no safety net,” he says. “We need to recognise the importance of these workers and look to protect them in the future.”

Deepening the finance crisis for the self-employed

Those self-employed workers whose industries are still open for business feel pressure to keep working regardless, according to Nesta research. Some 22 per cent of self-employed, 29 per cent of sole traders and 30 per cent of gig workers agree that if they caught COVID-19 and had to self-isolate, they fear they’d lose their job.

In mid-October, the Office for National Statistics showed the UK’s self-employed workforce had shrunk to 4.56 million, and fallen by 240,000 in the third quarter compared to the same period in 2019.

Derek Cribb, chief executive of the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, laments the record drop to 2015 levels. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the UK had experienced a consistent trend towards higher self-employment. “At the start of this year, there were over five million self-employed people in the UK, up from 3.2 million in 2000, representing 15.3 per cent of all employment,” says Cribb.

He argues the new figures are evidence of the “devastating impact of the gaps in government support for the self-employed during the first wave of the pandemic” and reflect the critical need for better solutions. “In times of recession, the self-employed are key to driving recovery,” says Cribb, “but the sector is now struggling to save itself, let alone the economy.”

Mike Parkes, technical director at GoSimpleTax, worries that the financial pressures facing self-employed workers will soon ratchet up. He predicts a “double bubble” in January, as his organisation’s research suggests 56 per cent of people opted to defer payment to HM Revenue & Customs. Many self-employed workers will have to settle tax liabilities for the 2019-20 tax year and the first payment on account due for 2020-21.

“Unless you have your house in order by January 31, and sufficient funds to cover all tax liabilities, a deferral could create a perfect storm,” says Parkes. “What’s more, once that date passes, HMRC will not hesitate to reimpose the interest charges, penalties and collection procedures usually in place.”

Knock on effect

Bleak outlook for the hardest hit

Can insurtechs or traditional insurers come to the rescue? Andy Chapman, chief executive of insurance provider The Exeter, acknowledges “the self-employed are among those hardest hit” by COVID-19 fallout. “Despite the perks and flexibility of self-employment, the reality is they are not protected in ways their full-time counterparts are,” he says.

The Exeter’s research indicates that workers in this sector have a stark lack of savings. Almost a fifth (17 per cent) have no personal savings to fall back on and 35 per cent don’t save anything in a typical month. Chapman reports The Exeter’s Day 1 cover, permitting policyholders to claim after just three days off work due to illness or injury, has proven popular, with more than 5,000 applications during lockdown. 

Is technology the answer to freelancer insurance?

Now is the time for insurers and governments alike to embrace tech-driven solutions, urges Freddy Macnamara, founder and chief executive of flexible car insurance provider Cuvva. The insurance industry “must modernise its processes and products to better support millions of people’s changing needs” and adapt for the on-demand generation, he says.

“More affordable and fair insurance products and services to protect the self-employed community, bolstering the right level of support, will encourage growth in the sector, which is critical in the economic downturn,” says Macnamara, pointing out that Cuvva provides car insurance by the hour, week or month. “It’s not surprising that insurance providers offering flexibility and a better product market fit are thriving.” 

Chris Kaye, co-founder and chief executive of Sherpa, an insurtech organisation offering personal risk management, agrees. “Drewberry has a nice angle focused on freelancers as a more traditional broker and Dinghy has picked up on the need for flexibility in cover that is important to freelancers,” he says. “I also really like what Zego has done, embedding insurance into the gig-economy platforms to make it a seamless part of the worker experience.”

Collective Benefits, a London-based insurtech startup, is similarly working with leading gig-economy platforms. “Providing benefits and protections for workers is a win-win,” says Anthony Beilin, co-founder and chief executive, who reveals the companies his organisation works with have seen a 17-fold increase in engagement.

With the government unable, or unwilling, to offer greater support for self-employed workers, the onus is on organisations and those within the insurance industry to collaborate and provide a lifeline. Otherwise, millions will sink.

The article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Insurance report in September 2020

Are boring jobs a thing of the past thanks to technology?

Technology has the ability to rid employees of repetitive, mind-numbing tasks, but it will be up to organisations to ensure workers’ adapted roles are challenging and rewarding enough to keep them engaged

Will it soon be impossible to have a wholly boring job, given the gallop of automation and artificial intelligence? Already, technological capabilities enable workers, across the gamut of business sectors, to relinquish repetitive, menial tasks and use that clawed-back time to focus on more exciting and engaging endeavours.

Perhaps it was a surprise when, in June, a French court ruled that Frédéric Desnard’s former employer, a perfume business, should pay him €40,000 after his mental health deteriorated due to “boreout”, the antithesis of burnout. Under closer inspection, though, Desnard’s unfortunate mismanagement was the result of strict legislation that complicates the redundancy process in France. French employment law needs updating, evidently.

Consider that by 2030 up to one fifth of the global workforce, or 800 million people, will see their jobs replaced by robotic automation, according to an oft-quoted McKinsey & Company report from November 2017.

This headline figure fails to account for all the new, and more exciting, roles that technology will create in the coming decade. The key takeaway for business leaders, though, should be that it is crucial to invest in employees or risk paying a higher price for not evolving boring jobs. Employers that narrow the digital skills gap and help human and machine work side by side will gain a competitive advantage.

Autonomy is critical to interesting jobs 

Psychologist Portia Hickey, co-creator of the Smart Collaboration Accelerator, posits the model presented in the mid-1970s by organisational psychologists Greg Oldham and Richard Hackman still remains the blueprint for job design today. “They identified the significance of the job, being able to see the outcome of their work, variety, autonomy and feedback were all key,” she says.

“Jobs are generally becoming more interesting, partly because organisations are more aware of job design, but also because technology can take over highly repetitive, lower-skilled work. However, what makes a job more enjoyable is autonomy.”

The gathering of knowledge allied with autonomy is the perfect combination to motivate workers, according to Karthik Krishnan, chief executive of Britannica Group. “Learning happens when one is stretched outside one’s comfort zone,” he says. “Dopamine is the brain’s reward system and is secreted when accomplishing a challenging task. If the task is too challenging or not challenging enough, negative emotions set in, such as stress, apathy and boredom.”

Krishnan, who lists TikTok content creator, drone operator and driverless car engineer among the most exciting jobs spawned by tech recently, also notes that people’s boredom threshold has never been lower. “The ‘always-on’ mode, the 24/7 information flow and stimulation lead to constant distraction and craving for newness,” he says.

Employers should “design jobs and identify the right talent to be successful”, says Krishnan, adding that it is vital to understand a worker’s ikigai – a Japanese expression that translates loosely as “reason for being” – to keep them engaged and happy.

How tech is improving employee happiness

He says the ultimate goal is to create a culture where employees feel inspired, challenged and empowered. “The good news is that today, technology increasingly performs jobs that are well-defined, regimented and repetitive, thus reducing boring and risky jobs. From taxi drivers to shop workers to soldiers, the range of traditional jobs that will decline or disappear is huge,” says Krishnan.

Research published in September by multinational software company Pegasystems suggests intelligent automation has a critical role to play in crafting a new, tech-enabled, post-pandemic future of work. The global study surveyed more than 3,000 global senior managers and frontline IT staff, and 76 per cent agreed that increased use of tech is improving employee satisfaction, says Pegasystems’ chief technology officer Don Schuerman.

Technology increasingly performs jobs that are well-defined, regimented and repetitive, thus reducing boring and risky jobs

Further, more than half of the surveyed UK businesses (51 per cent) say intelligent automation currently saves them over ten working hours per person a week, freeing up roughly a quarter of their time. And with that available time, the top-three activities are working alongside machines, engaging more with customers and innovating. “What this study makes clear is that technology is one of the top trends shaping the future of work,” says author and futurist Jacob Morgan.

Research presented by robotic process automation (RPA) leader UiPath supports this insight. “Some 35 per cent of UK workers believed that automation would deliver more interesting and creative jobs for future generations,” says Chris Duddridge, UiPath area vice president and managing director in the UK and Ireland. He offers UiPath’s work with Brent Council’s housing benefits departments as an example to highlight how RPA “cuts out the dull parts”.

Making ‘mind-numbing’ tasks history

Before embracing RPA, all rent adjustments had to be uploaded manually on to the system. “It was described as ‘mind numbing’,” says Duddridge. “A single rent change that could take a staff member over four minutes manually now takes fewer than 40 seconds. The council estimates that this automation alone has saved it over £32,000 in the overtime costs needed to ensure deadlines were hit.”

Having the right tech is paramount for workers’ happiness. In a new Freshworks study, some 82 per cent of business leaders around the world acknowledge that how their workplace tech performs is imperative to engage employees. “This is especially true now in the time of home working,” says Arun Mani, president of Freshworks Europe. “Not having the necessary IT services on hand in the same building means businesses need to ensure their technology works and provides a flawless experience for users.”

Alarmingly, the Freshworks research also found 77 per cent of employees will look for a new employer if their current job does not provide the tools, technology or information they need to perform.

Workplace tech

It’s not all about tech, though. A balance must be struck and leaders have to understand what motivates individuals. “You have to foster a culture where employees feel comfortable talking about what they need and want,” says Nabila Salem, president at Revolent Group, who recommends holding regular one-to-one meetings.

Organisations unprepared for mass remote working when lockdown was enforced in March are playing catch up in terms of engaging staff, particularly new hires, says Charlie Johnson, founder and chief executive of BrighterBox, a London-based recruitment firm. “A lack of contact time or on-the-fly coaching has left a few joiners feeling lost, unable to ask simple questions,” he says.

Creating the best environment for employee success

Janine Chamberlin, director at LinkedIn, agrees and points to her company’s research that shows 75 per cent of UK C-level executives say workers now expect greater availability and transparency from leaders. “This closer connection is a great way to engage employees, motivate them to achieve their potential and keep them focused on business goals,” she says.

You have to foster a culture where employees feel comfortable talking about what they need and want

“Great employers recognise the importance of change and present opportunities for internal mobility and skills development so employees can benefit from a new experience and progress in their career.”

This chimes with Erica Brescia, chief operating officer of leading software development platform GitHub. “Forward-thinking companies have found new ways to drive employee engagement beyond activities and modes of working that are tied to physical offices,” she says. “They adapt how they operate to support a distributed team, from changing how they communicate to how they track, manage and report on projects.

“They move from highly synchronous ways of working to more asynchronous and collaborative work. And they encourage team camaraderie through virtual activities, such as quizzes, scavenger hunts, cooking classes and happy hours.”

Looking ahead, Brescia concludes: “The new future of work is not dependent on office locations or physical workspaces, but rather on adapting to new ways of getting work done to provide employees with the best environment for their success.”

The article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Work and Collaboration report in September 2020

Educating children for the jobs of the future

In an uncertain world, the only certainty is change, so young people should be taught how to adapt in a constantly changing working environment

By 2030, robots, artificial intelligence, automatons, call them what you like, will have displaced up to 800 million workers or one fifth of the global workforce, according to McKinsey Global Institute. The inexorable and exponential march of technology will create new jobs, experts assure us, but what are those roles likely to be and how should we prepare?

It’s important to equip young people with foundational skills that will stand them in good stead regardless of what jobs they end up taking on

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018, estimates that by 2022 “no less than 54 per cent of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling”. The report adds: “Human skills, such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation will retain or increase their value, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving.”

What skills should we be teaching children in schools? 

How about in 2032, or 2042, and beyond? What tools should we be arming today’s children with so they stand a chance of surviving the world or work in one or two decades from now? “Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’ – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity,” Yuval Noah Harari writes in his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

In a chapter entitled Education: Change is the only constant, Professor Harari continues: “More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.”

Lord Jim Knight, chief education adviser at Tes Global, a network for educational professionals, strongly believes traditional curricula need to be overhauled in the UK. Moreover, young people should be allowed to play for as many years as possible because they will learn and develop skills that will be essential to flourish at work and home in the coming years.

“In Scandinavia, children attend school from the age of six and in many ways I think that is the sensible thing to do,” he says. “In Britain, we have a parental expectation for our children to be taught formal skills, such as reading and writing, earlier.”

Lord Knight contends that many secondary schools “are stuck in formal pedagogies” and must introduce more play-based learning, through projects. He asks: “Why wouldn’t we want kids to learn by building stuff, making things and being assessed by exhibiting work, rather than doing everything through formal desk-based exams?”

New schools teaching children to be ready for change 

Attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. Lord Knight welcomes the opening of two free schools, in Bournemouth and west London, that are the brainchild of Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop and the inventor of Lara Croft of the video game franchise Tomb Raider. They offer “a groundbreaking curriculum relevant to the digital age,” according to the Livingston Academy’s website. Elsewhere, Gever Tulley’s Brightworks in San Francisco is a school that “reimagines education by taking the best practices from both early-childhood education and hands-on, project-based experiential learning”.

“We can’t know for sure what skills children will require for the future, but what we can be confident of is that change, and thus the need to adapt, will be an ongoing and increasingly important aspect,” says Peter Twining, professor of education futures at The Open University.

“Flexibility and resilience, and learning to learn will all be critical. Therefore, play – an important element of how humans, and other mammals, learn – is vital. Digital technology can be a powerful tool to support children’s learning if used appropriately, too.”

The amount of device screen time youngsters should be afforded for learning is hotly debated, however. “In Silicon Valley, there are boutique schools attended by the princes and princesses of tech giants that keep the children away from anything digital,” says Sir Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder and chairman of the Open Data Institute.

Tech and play could be the secret to equipping children for future jobs

Efforts have been made to gamify learning for digital natives in recent times, with varying degrees of success, but one standout triumph is Raspberry Pi Foundation, which has developed a series of small, single-board computers to promote teaching of basic computer science, as well as innovation in schools and developing countries.

Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi’s Cambridge University-educated chief executive, believes introducing children to tech, ideally through play, is critical to their future success. “You don’t make a concert pianist by sitting someone down at a piano at the age of 18,” he argues. “It’s important to reach children as early as possible, while their brains are still flexible.

“At school, the emphasis needs to be on foundational skills: numeracy, literacy and critical thinking. We advocate for computing education in part because it’s a great way for students to gain those foundational skills in an enjoyable, relevant way.

“It’s absolutely not about trying to guess which programming language is going to be required by employers in 20 years’ time and drilling children in that; cross-training to specific technology is down to employers and employees.

“It’s a truism that in the future workers will have to be prepared for roles to change radically over the course of a career. The days of a job for life, and of a single programme of education and training that fits you for that job, are gone. This is why it’s important to equip young people with foundational skills that will stand them in good stead regardless of what jobs they end up taking on.”

Learning through play

It is not just children who learn through play; adults do as well. In this period of seismic workforce transformation, wrought by technology’s unstoppable progression, retraining and mastering new skills will be imperative – and not just in the future, but now.

Indeed, data literacy is fast becoming a desirable facet for members of the C-suite and business leaders of the near future. “Half of the world’s data to ever exist was created in 2017 and only 0.8 per cent of it was analysed,” says Amanda Clack, head of strategic consulting at real estate group CBRE. “The potential is huge. We are only limited by our imagination.”

The Open Data Institute (ODI) has created an educational strategy board game to help people, old and young, better understand data and open their minds to data-driven innovation. Datopolis is the brainchild of ODI chief executive Jeni Tennison and former ODI colleague Ellen Broad.

“We wanted to build a game about data and data infrastructure, and help people understand their roles in making the most of data,” Dr Tennison says. “Players need to work together in Datopolis – negotiate whether to open or close data – to achieve common and individual goals. In addition to learning about data, players are encouraged to collaborate and communicate – both essential skills for the future. It’s great fun, too.”

Dr Tennison spent 18 months fine-tuning the game with her team, which included the ODI’s ex-head of learning Simon Bullmore, before launching in 2016. Mr Bullmore has since founded a data literacy and digital marketing organisation, Mission Drive, and regularly uses Datopolis as a learning tool.

“Whether it’s travelling to work or analysing sales performance, we rely on data to get answers to complex problems and make better decisions,” he says. “To thrive in an increasingly data-driven world, leaders need to understand important concepts like data strategy and data infrastructure. But these concepts are abstract, difficult to grasp, let alone take action on.

Datopolis gives people the experience of creating economic, social and environmental value with data. Participants of all ages and all levels of experience tell us it has helped them understand data concepts they had previously had difficulty grasping, for example that data infrastructure is about the data itself, not the cables and computers that connect data together.”

Stressing how learning through play is effective for everyone, he concludes: “Research shows that, at any age, games do a better job of activating the cognitive functions that help us learn than standard approaches to training. This gets people engaged and ready to learn, which in itself is valuable, but for data literacy it’s essential, because getting value from data requires people to think and do things differently.”

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Work report in December 2018

Flex space: the office isn’t dead, it’s different

As business leaders cautiously unbolt their doors after lockdown, blinking to adjust to a new reality, it’s becoming clear that office spaces offering safety, agility and value are highly desirable in these uncertain times. In the raging debate about the coronavirus-era office, there is a strong argument for embracing flexible workspaces. So let’s talk about flex space.

While home working has benefits, numerous studies show it affects both physical and mental health. Little wonder a recent survey published by Office Space in Town (OSiT), providers of serviced offices in London, Cardiff, Northampton and Edinburgh, discovered that just 5 per cent of employees want to work remotely on a full-time basis.

“Respondents cited the inability to unplug, loneliness and distractions as major pitfalls of home working,” says OSiT chief executive Giles Fuchs.

Indeed, statistics released exclusively for this Future of Work report, reveal that 97 per cent of 14,000 members of leading flex-space provider The Office Group (TOG) believe they will require an office as the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Furthermore, the new research, carried out in partnership with Leesman, indicates almost half the respondents (46 per cent) feel disconnected from colleagues during home working, while 38 per cent feel disconnected from their organisation.

“Despite many hailing the pandemic as the death of the office, I believe we’re seeing its evolution from a rigid concept to one of fluidity,” says Olly Olsen, co-founder and co-chief executive of TOG. “More than 40 per cent of our inquiries during lockdown have come from companies that are currently in traditional offices, which just aren’t set up to offer the space density or layout required to meet safety measures and create a comfortable work setting in this new era.”

Embracing new health measures

Enrico Sanna, co-founder and chief executive of Fora, which has 11 flex-space venues in London, is equally bullish. “We are going to continue to see flexible workspaces take market share from traditional offices, probably at a faster rate than we have been doing to date,” he says. “To reopen an entire headquarters for just 10 per cent of the workforce is completely uneconomical.”

To reopen an entire headquarters for just 10 per cent of the workforce is completely uneconomical

Also, having employees stationed across three or four different sites, as flex-space providers often offer, helps from a health and safety perspective. Sanna explains: “There are fewer people to spread infection and, if someone is taken ill, it doesn’t risk the entire workforce.”

Richard Hyams, founder and director of architects astudio, points to findings by Bisnow, published in April, as evidence of the global trend for flex space. Almost three quarters of those surveyed (71 per cent) want their employers to provide some form of flexible workspace following the lockdown. However, he warns that flex space providers must invest in technology and better ventilation systems to take advantage of the predicted uptick in demand.

“Even before we were worried about airborne pathogens, air quality was a growing concern,” he says. “The Lancet reported, in 2018, that 800,000 people in the UK die annually as a result of poor building air quality. At astudio, we have designed displacement air systems that ensure the air we breathe is as clean as possible. Already these systems are helping to future-proof flex spaces against health risks.”

Tech solutions for health challenges

Happily, most flex-space providers are moving with the times. “Fora has installed thermal imaging cameras that test the temperature of people entering the building, signage and one-way-systems, as well as best-in-class ventilation, and increased levels of sanitation and hygiene,” says Sanna.

Similarly, The Argyll Club, which has 38 luxury workspaces across London, has listened to customers’ concerns about public transport and increased bike storage and built more showers. Beth Hampson, commercial director, is unsurprised that flex space is increasingly appealing to business leaders. For one, they need not be tied into long-term office leases for buildings that, due to social-distancing measures and home working, are likely to be woefully under-utilised.

“It’s clear remote working isn’t going away completely, but it’s also evident that getting teams back into offices is needed for the UK’s morale and economic recovery,” she says. “The most successful businesses in this new age will be those that can effectively find an equilibrium between the two.

“For employees, this means a hub they can use as needed to create a working week that best suits them. For employers, it means a safe home for your business, which is run with stringent health and safety policies, but with a shorter lease, so you can adapt to the changing economic cycle and expand or contract as needed.”

Flex space is critical for survival

OSiT’s Fuchs agrees. “Flexible workspace offers businesses the ability to be nimbler as they recover from the financial strains of the pandemic and gradually bring back furloughed staff, as well as the capability to flex space up and down to cater to social-distancing requirements,” he says. “And having flexible access to ‘burst space’ outside their current real-estate commitments is invaluable.”

In addition to helping rehouse teams and assisting with overflow, flex spaces can attract and retain both talent and clients. “The shared services provided by flexible workspaces offer businesses the ability to access HQ-standard facilities,” says Fuchs. “At OSiT, all our tenants can typically access gyms, salons, doctors, restaurants, cafés and even hotel rooms.”

Aside from the promise of exclusive access to dumbbells and haircuts, Hampson from The Argyll Club summarises the primary reason this industry is on course to grow in the coming weeks, months and years. “Flex space has always been about helping businesses remain agile,” she concludes. “Now that agility is no longer just a ‘nice to have’, it’s critical for survival.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future of Work report in July 2020

Invest in employee training before it’s too late

The nationwide lockdowns, enforced to limit the deadly dissemination of COVID-19, sparked explosions in digital transformation and home-working trends across the globe. Digital transformation, though, is not deployed once: it’s an ongoing strategic campaign.

Technology and people are the two drivers powering successful digital transformation. Yet myopic business leaders, bedazzled by tech, risk forgetting the latter. Investing in staff training is critical. Moreover, it’s a win-win situation.

“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” Henry Ford, the founder of the eponymous automotive giant and architect of the assembly line technique of mass production, died 73 years ago, but his words live on with matured meaning.

Encouraging employees to re-skill, or up-skill, emphasises a level of care and commitment towards them, at this time of acute vulnerability. If left unchecked, automation advancements and coronavirus’ long shadow are enough to disable anyone’s career. While investment in staff training boosts morale and, in turn, productivity, it also helps better future-proof an organisation and narrows the chasmal skills gap.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 laid bare the need to learn new talents to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace. Analytical thinking and innovation will be most desired in the 2022 skills outlook; manual dexterity, endurance and precision will be the first shown the door.

Further, the researchers calculated that on average employees will require 101 days of retraining and upskilling from 2018 to 2022 as “emerging skills gaps – both among individual workers and among companies’ senior leadership – may significantly obstruct [organisations’] transformation management”.


“On the one hand, businesses must retain and retrain their workforce to keep up with as well as take advantage of a constant stream of innovations,” says Anthony Tattersall, head of EMEA at online learning platform Coursera, which has generated more than 25 million enrolments since mid-March – a 520 per cent rise from the same period last year. “On the other hand, individuals must keep pace with a constant stream of innovations that hybridise and alter jobs.”

Last year the Office for National Statistics predicted 1.5 million jobs in England are at “high risk of being automated in the future”. Mr Tattersall continues: “Many jobs will slip away, but increased productivity will mean that many more new jobs will replace them – across all industries. These jobs are at risk of going unfilled if we don’t adapt to a new way of thinking about education and learning new skills throughout a lifetime.”

There are manifold benefits of investing in employee training, states Mr Tattersall. Funded learning improves staff engagement and empowerment, and helps facilitate the transition to remote working. It also enhances the emotional wellbeing of employees. “The act of learning helps cope with stress,” he says, noting the average age of a learner on the Coursera enterprise platform globally is 29.

But with business leaders struggling to cope with the onslaught of disruption wrought by COVID-19, is enough being done to protect future careers?

D2L published research in June that showed almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of learning and development (L&D) professionals believe the rise of automation and artificial intelligence is having “a serious effect on their workforce”. While 59 per cent have subsequently evolved their L&D programmes, the same percentage of employees don’t believe these challenges can be met with the current offering.


“There is not only a mismatch between employees’ and L&D leaders’ views on the skills crisis,” says Alan Hiddleston, D2L’s director of corporate learning EMEA, “but it would seem that many organisations do not offer engaging learning opportunities that actively encourage personal development and ‘enable’ their workforce to continue to test themselves.

“To deliver effective L&D solutions, there needs to be greater collaboration among departments. Establishing a continuous learning culture is key.”

LinkedIn’s Leading with Learning report, also launched in June, presents a more positive conclusion. Some 76 per cent of L&D professionals in the United Kingdom say that more chief executives are now “actively championing the development of their workforce” since the COVID-19 outbreak – up from 28 per cent in a comparable study conducted in October.

“The coronavirus pandemic has forced many companies to pause hiring,” says Namrata Murlidhar, director at LinkedIn Learning, “and instead focus on helping their existing employees adapt to the ‘new normal’ and develop skills that will be crucial to future growth.”

So-called MOOCs (massive online course platforms) – including Mr Tattersall’s Coursera and Udemy – have stepped up. “The online learning world is now overflowing with courses on pretty much any topic from a professional or personal standpoint,” says Amanda Rosewarne, business psychologist and co-founder of the Professional Development Consortium, which accredits online courses. “Cost-effective online training is disrupting the world of education. Prior to COVID-19, it was estimated that the e-learning industry would be worth $325 billion by 2025. This is likely to have quadrupled since lockdown.”

Ms Rosewarne urges caution when selecting online courses, as many are scams, but says: “With barriers to entry being low, millions of people across the globe are beginning to share their knowledge with the world. The online learning boom shows that people are thirsty for knowledge.”


Martin Raymond, co-founder of strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory, argues that learning was due a shakeup. “If you could time-port a university professor from the 19th century to today they would think few things have changed,” he says, referencing the youth of students and the hierarchical system. “Prior to COVID-19, this was changing, especially for those in their 50s and 60s, millennials and members of Generation Z.

“We understand that new skills, disciples, and insights are needed to accommodate this multifaceted life-journey we are on. And since universities are still trying to accommodate the single career path, many organisations – recognising that their employees will stay with them, our research shows, for 2.3 years maximum, unless there is a wider prize to be won – are becoming educators in their own right.”

Mr Raymond celebrates the surge of blended learning – “part digital, part remote, part face-to-face” – and traces the trend for lifelong learning back to 2008, and the global financial crash, “when jobs became more precarious”.

It’s a time Lord Jim Knight, chief education and external officer at Tes Global, well remembers. “I was employment minister in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, and was part of preventing the scarring effect on young people of long-term unemployment,” the 55-year old says. “Right now, we are in a deeper economic crisis than anything in my lifetime. I hope a similar focus can help this time, but individuals also have a responsibility.”

Can organisations survive if they fail to invest in their staff? “Frankly no, not in the longer term,” continues Lord Knight. “Technological change and globalisation are redefining work and the wider economy constantly. The only answer is more individual and corporate agility – that is only possible through a deep-rooted, lifelong-learning culture.”

Hackathons, brown bag sharing sessions, and “coffee roulette” on Slack have been embraced to improve the learning culture within Tes, and break down siloes, reveals Lord Knight. “Right now people need to feel active and valued, even when isolated,” he adds. “Investing in them through learning and in making it easier to work remotely is just non-negotiable.”

It’s imperative that business leaders heed these lessons, and invest in their employees.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Digital Transformation report in June 2020