Tech, humanity and humour: meet the new CFO

When Govia Thameslink Railway suffered a 95 per cent drop in footfall, chief financial officer Ian McLaren drove recovery by being open to innovation and investing in staff

Drag queens, diversity and inclusion, and data-driven decisions are unlikely to be among the first words you would associate with a typical chief financial officer (CFO). However, Govia Thameslink Railway’s Ian McLaren is far from a stereotypical CFO, although he argues no such thing exists in 2021.

As the 52-year-old cycling enthusiast, who took up his position at GTR in December 2017, can attest, the tumultuous events of the past year have elevated the role of CFOs and significantly expanded their list of responsibilities, across the board. “When I started at GTR, my remit was a lot simpler and I was focusing on a narrow scope of my skillset, whereas now I’m using a much broader range,” he says.

“Today, it’s more about the human side of things, thinking about very practical stuff: keeping almost 8,000 colleagues safe while being able to carry out their duties, alongside supporting the varying ambitions of stakeholders and looking for opportunities to create value.”

The inference is the train has left the station for those who still believe a CFO’s primary journey is counting the beans. Business continuity has been paramount through the coronavirus crisis and those in McLaren’s position, at their respective organisations, have become more central to steering strategy.

Considering GTR, which handles 250 locations and some of the busiest train stations in London, went from “moving over a million people” in and out of the capital on a normal day, pre-pandemic, to footfall crashing by 95 per cent when the first lockdown was enforced in late-March, it has been a mighty challenge to get the business back on track. 

Broader range of skills required

Connecting with, and looking after, customers and staff alike has enabled McLaren to navigate a quicker route to recovery. “As an organisation, we are looking to build back better, greener and faster,” he says, “and part of that is drawing on the ability to listen and adapt.”

Today, it’s more about the human side of things, keeping colleagues safe while supporting the varying ambitions of stakeholders and looking for opportunities to create value

A good handle on technology also augments modern CFOs and, most importantly, their employers. McLaren has this in spades; his curriculum vitae lists two-year stints as CFO and head of finance at Nomad Digital and Digital Barriers, respectively. Indeed, he has been in the driving seat for GTR’s digital transformation journey, which began in 2017, and it “came into its own” last year, allowing colleagues to “work with technology in an untethered way”.

Further, through utilising products provided by technology partner Microsoft, McLaren and his fellow GTR strategists can gain “real-time insights that have led to data-driven decisions”. He says: “These insights have meant our colleagues can optimise their time on the ground and it has empowered people to do the job we’ve required of them, which has been ever-changing.”

Dealing with the pandemic has taught us that our ability to change can move at lightning pace, so over the next five years we need to become very good at rethinking everything we think we know

Since the first lockdown, that agility and flexibility, following the data, has been vital for GTR’s service operation and particularly for hospital staff and those they aid. “We realised there are nearly 70 NHS trusts across our network, and first-responders and critical workers relied on the train service, so we adapted our timetable predominantly for them,” says McLaren. “We became more of an off-peak rather than a commuter service. The old rush-hour peak has disappeared and now travel patterns are more evenly spread throughout the day.”

Value-creation officers: open to innovation

A suite of new digital applications has minimised disrupted running of services. These include an app, introduced in May, that indicates to train drivers and station staff how recently a long-lasting virucide, designed to stick to surfaces and kill viruses, including COVID-19, for up to 30 days, has been applied. 

“It has given all our colleagues confidence about going into a clean workplace,” says McLaren. Another app allows GTR staff to access the latest Public Health England information about the pandemic and report sickness and absence from work, thereby limiting potential bottlenecks.

“Technology has helped us all throughout the pandemic and understanding technology is increasingly important for CFOs and others in executive positions,” he says. “I’m lucky because tech has been my background, but it’s essential to know the risks associated with technology and cybersecurity especially. I would encourage all organisations to think more like technology companies, but being technology-savvy certainly raises a CFO’s stock.

“Dealing with the pandemic has taught us that our ability to change can move at lightning pace, so over the next five years we need to become very good at rethinking everything we think we know.”
McLaren, who has thrice cycled from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, owns ten bikes of various vintages, the oldest being a 1935 “speed racer”, and regularly clocks up 200 miles a week, finds strategy brainwaves often hit him when pedalling.
The secret is being open to innovation and new ideas. “Some might think the finance director is there to say ‘no’ and it’s all about cost-cutting. But to me, it’s more about value creation; we are becoming value-creation officers,” he says, suggesting that adopting a “beginner’s mindset to everything” helps in the current CFO’s role.

Invest in employees

“If you consider yourself an expert then you are closed to many things,” he adds. “I try to approach things with novelty and understand the art of the possible.”
Ultimately, the success or failure of an organisation is down to its employees, argues McLaren. “You have to understand the business and, more importantly, what makes its people tick.” Hence, he is passionate about diversity and inclusion, and keen to invest in and join events that “demonstrate my more human, fun side”. 

For example, he and his daughter have recently enjoyed tuning in to virtual drag queen shows, featuring the amusingly monikered Annabelle Lecter, put on for GTR’s LGBT+ Network. “Spending a tiny amount on a diversity and inclusion event is nothing compared to the huge value it generates to us as a business,” says McLaren. 

“It’s intangible, but you know you are creating something quite special when you see the brilliant reactions from colleagues, which then resonates with their service to customers.”

The anatomy of the modern CFO

The chief financial officer’s role has evolved somewhat since Ian McLaren gained his accountancy qualification over three decades ago; finance credentials alone are no longer sufficient.

“Today, finance roles need to be augmented with many more skills,” says Govia Thameslink Railway’s CFO. He suggests, in addition to being good with numbers, the modern CFO must understand legal and broader governance issues, and be technology savvy, not least to manage cybersecurity risks and data. On top of being able to structure commercial deals, they ought to be excellent negotiators too. 

In terms of personality traits, the best CFOs are armed with “a good sense of humour, can understand and show humility, and have tenacity”, says McLaren. Further, given the business agility necessitated by the pace of change, they require a certain amount of creativity, plus an openness and a “growth mindset” that enables them “to question, listen and rethink” strategies and business models.

Being a courageous leader, who can communicate with and energise colleagues and those across the business, is increasingly valuable for a CFO. “Having good people skills is essential,” McLaren concludes. “This skill helps with negotiation and, if you can be authentic and intentional, it will inspire those around you.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future CFO report in March 2021

Fighting fraud in times of crisis

Cybercrime is always distressing for those affected, but when the resultant losses come from the public purse, it must be taken even more seriously

Coronavirus has coursed through every facet of our lives, and society and business have already paid a colossal price to restrict its flow. We will be counting the cost for years, if not decades. And while people have become almost anaesthetised to the enormous, unprecedented sums of support money administered by the government, it was still painful to learn, in October, that taxpayers could face losing up to £26 billion on COVID-19 loans, according to an alarming National Audit Office report.

Given the likely scale of abuse, it raises the question of how authorities should go about eliminating public sector fraud? Could artificial intelligence (AI) fraud detection be the answer?

Admittedly, the rapid deployment of financial-aid schemes, when the public sector was also dealing with a fundamental shift in service delivery, created opportunities for both abuse and risk of systematic error. Fraudsters have taken advantage of the coronavirus chaos. But their nefariousness is not limited to the public sector.

Ryan Olson, vice president of threat intelligence at American multinational cybersecurity organisation Palo Alto Networks, says COVID-19 triggered “the cybercrime gold rush of 2020”.

Indeed, the latest crime figures published at the end of October by the Office for National Statistics show that, in the 12 months to June, there were approximately 11.5 million offences in England and Wales. Some 51 per cent of them were made up of 4.3 million incidents of fraud and 1.6 million cybercrime events, a year-on-year jump of 65 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.

Cybercrime gold rush – counting the cost

Jim Gee, national head of forensic services at Crowe UK, a leading audit, tax, advisory and risk firm, says: “Even more worryingly, while the figures are for a 12-month period, a comparison with the previous quarterly figures shows this increase has occurred in the April-to-June period of 2020, the three months after the COVID-19 health and economic crisis hit. The size of the increase needed in a single quarter to result in a 65 per cent increase over the whole 12 months could mean actual increases of up to four times this percentage.”

In terms of eliminating public sector fraud, Mike Hampson, managing director at consultancy Bishopsgate Financial, fears an expensive game of catch-up. “Examples of misuse have increased over the last few months,” he says. “These include fraudulent support-loan claims and creative scams such as criminals taking out bounce-back loans in the name of car dealerships, in an attempt to buy high-end sports cars.”

AI fraud detection and machine-learning algorithms should be put in the driving seat to pump the brakes on iniquitous activity, he argues. “AI can certainly assist in carrying out basic checks and flagging the most likely fraud cases for a human to review,” Hampson adds.

John Whittingdale, media and data minister, concedes that the government “needs to adapt and respond better”, but says AI and machine-learning are now deemed critical to eliminating public sector fraud. “As technology advances, it can be used for ill, but at the same time we can adapt new technology to meet that threat,” he says. “AI has a very important part to play.”

Teaming up with technology leaders

Technology is already vital in eliminating public sector fraud at the highest level. In March, the Cabinet Office rolled out Spotlight, the government grants automated due-diligence tool built on a Salesforce platform. Ivana Gordon, head of the government grants management function COVID-19 response at the Cabinet Office, says Spotlight “speeds up initial checks by processing thousands of applications in minutes, replacing manual analysis that, typically, can take at least two hours per application”. The tool draws on open datasets from Companies House, the Charity Commission and 360Giving, plus government databases that are not available to the public.

“Spotlight has proven robust and reliable,” says Gordon, “supporting hundreds of local authorities and departments to administer COVID-19 funds quickly and efficiently. To date Spotlight has identified around 2 per cent of payment irregularities, enabling grant awards to be investigated and payments halted to those who are not eligible.”

We need to watch how the technology fits into the whole process. AI doesn’t get things right 100 per cent of the time

She adds that Spotlight is one of a suite of countermeasure tools, including AI fraud detection, developed with technology companies, and trialled and implemented across the public sector to help detect and prevent abuse and error.

Besides, critics shouldn’t be too hard on the public sector, argues David Shrier, adviser to the European Parliament in the Centre for AI, because it was “understandably dealing with higher priorities, like human life, which may have distracted somewhat from cybercrime prevention”. He believes that were it not for the continued investment in the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the cost of fraudulent activity would have been significantly higher.

Work to be done to prevent fraud

Greg Day, vice president and chief security officer, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Palo Alto Networks, who sits on Europol’s cybersecurity advisory board, agrees. Day points to the success of the government’s Cyber Essentials digital toolkit. He thinks, however, that the NCSC must “further specialise, tailor its support and advice, and strengthen its role as a bridge into information both from the government, but also trusted third parties, because cyber is such an evolving space”.

The public sector has much more to do in combating cybercrime and fraud prevention on three fronts, says Peter Yapp, who was deputy director of incident management at the NCSC up to last November. It must encourage more reporting, make life difficult for criminals by upping investment in AI fraud detection and reallocate investigative resources from physical to online crime, he says.

Yapp, who now leads law firm Schillings’ cyber and information security team, says a good example of an initiative that has reduced opportunity for UK public sector fraud is the NCSC’s Mail Check, which monitors 11,417 domains classed as public sector. “This is used to set up and maintain good domain-based message authentication, reporting and conformance (DMARC), making email spoofing much harder,” he says. Organisations that deploy DMARC can ensure criminals do not successfully use their email addresses as part of their campaigns.”

While such guidance is welcome, there are potential problems with embracing tech to solve the challenge of eliminating public sector fraud, warns Dr Jeni Tennison, vice president and chief strategy adviser at the Open Data Institute. If unchecked, AI fraud detection could be blocking people and businesses that are applying for loans in good faith, or worse, she says.

“We need to watch out how the technology and AI fit into the whole process,” says Tennison. “As we have seen this year, with the Ofqual exam farrago, AI doesn’t get things right 100 per cent of the time. If you assume it is perfect, then when it doesn’t work, it will have a very negative impact on the people who are wrongly accused or badly affected to the extent they, and others, are fearful of using public sector services.”

There are certainly risks with blindly following any technology, concurs Nick McQuire, senior vice president and head of enterprise research at CCS Insight. But the public sector simply must arm itself with AI or the cost to the taxpayer will be, ultimately, even more significant. “Given the scale of the security challenge, particularly for cash-strapped public sector organisations that lack the resources and skills to keep up with the current threat environment, AI, warts and all, is going to become a crucial tool in driving automation into this environment to help their security teams cope.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Public Sector Technology report in December 2020

Creating a culture of change

Legacy infrastructure and outmoded ways of thinking can trip up digital transformation projects in the public sector

Private sector organisations that began digital transformation before the coronavirus pandemic suffocated business as usual were equipped and agile enough to revamp their strategies and operations, and thrive despite the chaos.

And laggards quickly realised that to keep pace they needed to invest in digital technologies and accelerate digital transformation plans. Meanwhile, those operating in the public sector, lumbered with legacy systems unsuitable for the digital age, looked on with envy, twiddling their thumbs.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but it is a truism that the public sector is notoriously slow to embrace technology. There is a pervading sense, though, that COVID has necessitated a levelling-up across the sector.

Given the mass shift to remote working, the strain on public services, especially the National Health Service, and the immediate need to streamline operations and reduce spending while improving efficiencies, digital transformation is critical. As private sector business leaders can attest, change management is paramount when deploying new technologies and ways of working.

While there is great urgency for speedy improvement, it’s appropriate to acknowledge digital adoption within the UK public sector is well behind other countries. Johnny Hugill, head of research at PUBLIC, a govtech venture firm, notes that although many public services have been moved online, to, the harmonisation of digital services has much ground to make up. For instance, he says, around 60 per cent of citizens fill out online forms to public authorities here, while digital front-runners such as Denmark, Norway, Estonia and South Korea enjoy rates of up to 80 per cent.

Constrained by legacy infrastructure

The coronavirus fallout served to expose the UK public sector’s woeful lack of readiness to operate in the digital era. Indeed, a meagre 6 per cent of public sector workers said they were “extremely prepared for the pandemic”, according to research published in mid-November by Pure Storage, a global data storage solutions firm.

More than two-thirds (67 per cent) responded that “legacy infrastructure is holding up digital transformation progress”. This hindrance leads to “increased operational costs, reduced efficiency, and reduced operational agility”, says Shaun Collings, Pure Storage’s director of public sector in the UK.

The organisation’s research suggests eight out of 10 public sector workers believe agile methodologies and design-thinking are more important now than before the pandemic. “Clearly, many are constrained by legacy infrastructure,” says Collings. “The challenges and upheaval that public sector organisations have been faced with should act as a catalyst for reviews of supporting infrastructure and consideration of what is needed for the future.”

This advice is supported by new data from SAP, which indicates that 28 per cent of UK civil servants say they still lack adequate IT systems to support remote working. Leila Romane, the enterprise software provider’s head of SuccessFactors in the UK and Ireland, says: “Public sector organisations often operate independently and many are burdened by old and siloed technology infrastructure, which has made digital innovation more challenging.

“In the private sector, however, technology is increasingly seen as a tool to drive efficiencies by sharing data across departments and geographies.” Romane urges public sector organisations to be more collaborative, digitally focused and flexible, not least because they will otherwise find it harder to attract and retain top young talent, she warns.

Collaboration with suitable tech partners is vital

While public sector leaders may realise the need, and show a willingness to upgrade their digital capabilities, there are, frustratingly, many hurdles to overcome. Professor Julie Hodges of Durham Business School lists them. Of the many barriers, budget constraints and legacy infrastructure is a big one. Lack of leadership and vision also ranks highly, as does a reluctance to change among managers and frontline staff. Possibly most limiting is a culture that does not support transformational change, says Hodges.

PUBLIC’s Hugill agrees. “Together, culture, skills and practice form a fairly significant stumbling block to getting the public sector on board with projects,” he says, making the case that tech companies and startups should be considered over traditional partners that might not be best placed to drive digital adoption.

“Public sector officials have fallen into a routine of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ when choosing preferred suppliers. The truth is that these suppliers were often chosen because they were good at what they did 30 years ago, but then became better at winning contracts than they were at innovating.”

Culture, skills and practice form a fairly significant stumbling block to getting the public sector on board with projects

Thankfully, there is a growing list of case studies where public sector bodies have teamed up with tech organisations to great effect. For instance, the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), a completely mobile and essential frontline organisation with 2,500 staff covering 32,000 square miles, uses Workplace from Facebook’s communication platform to enable employees to connect and communicate better with each other.

“When the pandemic hit, I wanted a safe and secure space for staff to ask questions, challenge each other, share stories and help us build a stronger team and supportive culture,” says Helen Ray, chief executive of NEAS. “Workplace has helped us move away from having conversations behind closed doors to more openness and transparency. The social media platform has helped to bring us closer together and instil a sense of belonging.”

The last word of advice for public sector leaders seeking to navigate their digital transformation journey, which once started should never stop, comes from Romane at SAP. “To drive change in any organisation, leaders need to first listen to their employees, especially those who are on the frontline,” she says. “Then empower them with the tools and training to manage the change effectively and efficiently. Finally, create a mechanism for them to collaborate and feedback any learnings about their experiences.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Public Sector Technology report in December 2020

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

Lockdown II: A tech-powered survival kit

Lockdown II, the sequel, is here. From today, November 5, for at least four weeks those of us in England will once again play hermit to prevent a “medical and moral disaster” for the National Health Service, according to Boris Johnson.

Legally this latest lockdown, designed to halt the spread of the second wave of COVID-19, will last until December 2. But considering the original lockdown lasted from March 23 until restrictions were eased in early July, three-and-a-bit months later, I’m not holding my breath (well, only if I have to take public transport). And that Rishi Sunak has just extended the furlough scheme to March is a telltale sign, methinks.

Without wishing to come across too much like a “prepper” – you know, those people who dash to their underground bunker armed with guns and tins of baked beans at the first hint of the apocalypse – I would like to recommend a handful of products that might help you survive the next month(s) at home. These five objects have certainly supercharged my home-working setup and made the days much more bearable.

Technology has enabled organisations to switch (almost) seamlessly to mass remote working at the drop of a shutter, so it follows that all but one of the items listed below is a new tech product. (As an aside I was amused when Eric Yuan, the now mega-mega-rich Founder and Chief Executive of Zoom, admitted that he, too, suffers from videoconferencing fatigue and, as a tonic, watches The Great British Bake Off. The message is clear: we all need our escape, and especially so in these strange times.)

Xellence wireless noise-cancelling in-ear earphones from X by Kygo (€199 / £180)

Because the first lockdown afforded me the time to further indulge in my new hobby of DJing – which I wrote about for The Arbuturian earlier this year – my music listening has been dialled up quite a few notches. Now, while tapping away at my desk, “working”, I spend many hours a day searching for audio gems to embroider my next mix. However, with family members scuttling around, it can be tricky to focus entirely – on either work or videoconferencing or music listening – without these quite incredible new noise-cancelling earbuds.

I’ve owned many a wireless earbud – including some three-times as expensive – and I’m thrilled to report these are by far the best. For one, they are wireless – no cable around your neck – and as X by Kygo is a dedicated Norwegian headphone specialist with DJ, songwriter and producer Kygo at the helm, the performance is superb. Available in either black or white, they look the business, too. Just in case you need it, the earbuds have a 10-hour battery life, and you can download the X app if you want to personalise the sound further.

OWC Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock (£285)

Granted, a docking station that transforms your laptop into a desktop computer (monitor sold separately), and much more, might not arouse interest in many people. Still, perhaps they haven’t met the right docking station. For OWC’s Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock has all you could wish for to upgrade your home-working experience – primarily if you work in a creative industry.

Now for the science. The Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock provides lightning-fast 40Gb/s transfer speeds; features a 10Gb Ethernet connection; has three USB ports and frontside CFast 2.0 and SD 4.0 card readers; and with 60W of pass-through charging it will ensure your laptop battery is never empty. It truly is the next level.

Belkin 3-in-1 Wireless Charger (£99.99)

If, like me, most of the devices you own are made by Apple, this multi-charger is a revelation. With Belkin’s new 3-in-1 Wireless Charger you don’t have to root around for your iPhone cable, or try and locate your Apple Watch charger, or remember to power-up your AirPods (but of course, ahem, with your new Xellence earbuds this is a redundant point). This clever bit of kit stands, discretely, on your desk and you can charge your three devices whenever you want – and, indeed, all at the same time.

Oculus Quest 2 (£299) (main picture)

When your work for the day is over, or perhaps just when you want a break and need to get away from it all – without resorting to watching The Great British Bake Off – reach for this. The latest virtual reality headset from market leaders Oculus only launched a couple of weeks ago, and blimey it is sensational. I’ve played around with many a VR headset, but this could – and should – be the one that breaks into the mainstream.

The Oculus Quest 2 is the most advanced, all-in-one VR system currently on the market. Every detail has been designed to make virtual worlds adapt to your movements, enabling you to explore awe-inspiring games and experiences with incredible freedom. Even before I bought any games, I’d walked up Everest, hung out with lion cubs, and danced with a groovy robot. Lockdown II will allow me to spend more time with this fantastic product, and I can’t wait. This VR headset and music will be my escape. And why not, when the tech is increasingly good, and the outside reality is increasingly bad?

One thing to note is that to use this bad boy you will need to link it to your Facebook account, if you have one. (Facebook owns Oculus, in case you didn’t know.)

S6L Brompton Bike (£1,190)

It’s not tech (at least not in the modern sense) but I’m throwing this one in here because it ticks an important box in the lockdown portfolio.

Admittedly, it’s hard to get your hands on a Brompton Bike right now, given the demand for two-wheeled bicycles, but we all know how important exercise is for your physical and mental health, particularly when locked down. Brompton still makes the best folding bikes on the market, and with the Brexit transition period coming to an end on January 1, perhaps you could treat yourself to a Christmas present and buy British?

After all, we’ll probably still be in lockdown when the turkey is carved.

This article first appeared in The Arbuturian in November, 2020

Compassion now vital as mental health crisis looms

Is there any wonder, in this eerie and uncertain period, which began abruptly and has destabilised social and economic structures, the mental health of people is collapsing? With millions across the country struggling to cope at the dawn of the coronavirus epoch, and prospects appearing bleak, what can organisations do to support employees?

Worrying stats abound. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published on July 17, indicate almost two thirds (65 per cent) of Britons “feel worried about the future”. Mind, a mental health charity, found in late June that almost a quarter of adults (22 per cent) with no previous experience of mental health say it is now poor, or very poor.

Worse, the numbers are increasingly dispiriting. In the week ending July 5, for instance, 27 per cent of us thought that the current situation was “making my mental health worse”, according to the ONS. The following Sunday, on July 12, it had risen to 30 per cent. In the same timeframe the percentage of people “feeling stressed or anxious” jumped from 58 to 68 per cent, alarmingly.

A lockdown lasting over a third of 2020 has tested the emotional limits of everyone, and broken many. Isolation from friends and family, coupled with a dark cloud of doubt stretching to the horizon, have taken their toll. At the end of June, the Mental Health Foundation revealed that one in ten people in the UK “reported having had suicidal thoughts or feelings”.

Workplace wellbeing was critical before coronavirus

“The stressors for people during lockdown have been extensive,” says Dr Samuel Batstone, a consultant clinical neuropsychologist. “As such, you would expect a general increase in mental health issues and greater severity of symptoms.”

Mental health statistics in UK

Dr Batstone argues because our brain anatomy is “essentially the same” as it was thousands of years ago – when fight, flight or freeze responses were short term and typically concerned with physical threats – our minds are failing to deal with “more abstract threats, like a pandemic”.

He continues: “In the developed world we seldom face a physical threat. However, we have replaced this stressor with numerous other, more abstract threats such as deadlines, money, peer pressure, relationships, social media and 24-hour news channels. The problem is that our biological evolution – regarding brain structure and function – has not kept up with this social evolution.”

Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, concurs that our brains have failed to keep pace with the helter-skelter of modern life.

“The issue of mental health was a big one in the workplace before the coronavirus outbreak,” he says, pointing to a Health and Safety Executive study that showed 57 per cent of working days lost between 2017 and 2018 were due to “stress, depression or anxiety”. More recently, in January, Deloitte calculated that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year.

Counting the cost of collapsing mental health

And then the exponential spread of coronavirus began. Businesses that previously realised the importance of employee wellbeing, and had established support systems, have been better placed to help employees with the coronavirus fallout. Others have improvised well, and technology has enabled frequent contact, despite mass home working.

“Good organisations have ensured that line managers have direct contact on a one-to-one basis with each of their direct reports, from shop floor to top floor,” Professor Cooper says.

Many companies have sought out digital solutions. For example, American startup Humu uses artificial intelligence to sift through employee surveys to discover behavioural aspects and improve their overall wellbeing, while Kooth Work and Rightsteps offer good – and inexpensive – options for businesses to assist the mental health of staff.

Dave Lewis, principal at employee health and wellbeing specialists Rightsteps, says: “We’ve seen a surge in businesses – particularly SMEs – turning to us during lockdown as they’ve sought urgent support for their employees. Getting access to scalable, affordable and effective wellbeing solutions sooner rather than later is key to preventing the escalation of issues and minimising the impact on the business.”

Renate Nyborg, general manager in Europe of meditation platform Headspace, agrees. “The pandemic has forced organisations to expand their staff support rapidly,” she says. “Since mid-March, we’ve seen a 400 per cent increase in requests from companies seeking support for their employees’ mental health.”

Organisations turn to digital solutions

While all employers have a duty of care to protect the health and safety of their employees, Lynne Connolly, global head of inclusion and diversity at investment company Standard Life Aberdeen, believes organisations should go above and beyond for their staff. “Irrespective of legal obligations, as an ethical employer we want to help colleagues deal with mental health issues and have a range of interventions and resources at hand to provide active support,” she says.

“These range from the traditional – such as having someone to talk to – through to an app that tests a user’s emotional wellbeing and takes them on a journey to help them take control of their emotions. That same app acts as a pathway to professional counselling.”

Indeed, Moneypenny data shows that it’s good to talk: the average length of a call increased by 22 per cent during lockdown. “We crave human contact,” suggests Joanna Swash, chief executive of the outsourced-communications company.

Chinwagging aside, she showed impressive innovation to keep team morale high at the start of the pandemic. “We quickly introduced new initiatives, such as online yoga, meditation and exercise classes, as well as virtual lunches – with food delivery vouchers sent to employees’ homes – and much more,” says Swash, hinting at an evolution of wellbeing perks.

Similarly, at global workforce communications platform SocialChorus, co-founder and chief strategy officer Nicole Alvino implemented “distancing days”. She explains: “We decided that one day a month would be a company holiday, for the rest of 2020.”

In the coming months – possibly years – with a global recession looming, Alvino believes “empathy needs to be the foundation” of an organisation’s support for employees. “And this doesn’t require a capital investment,” she says. “For companies who can allocate resources, access to counselling services, meditation programmes and physiotherapy are impactful investments in your people.”

This sentiment chimes with Nyborg of Headspace. “Getting the best out of a workforce is difficult if leaders don’t empathise with employees and strive to understand pressures they might be facing,” she adds. “Moving forward, employers need to manage with compassion, transparency, and flexibility.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Employee Experience report in July 2020

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