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Future of Work Summit: The Readout

Thursday 3 June 2021

Last week we held a day of ThinkIns on the challenges and opportunities ahead of us in the way that we work. Here are the key takeaways


After a day of stimulating conversations and bracing ideas, do you think that we’re standing at the precipice of a great “reset” in the way we live and work? I confess, I don’t. Not yet, anyway. 

Everything we know about work is underpinned by century-old orthodoxies – from where we do it, to what we value, and who gets to call the shots. Right now, there is a chasm between the opportunity for change and the real-world ambition for it. It has been a brutal and bruising year for many businesses, and, in the UK at least, reopening is imminent and employers are keen to “get back”. It’s understandable that one of the major issues facing even the most change-hungry organisations is time, or the lack of it. The coming year will be fascinating to watch. 

Sincere thanks to everyone who joined us on the day, as invited experts and member contributors, and of course to our knowledge partners Capita, Unilever and FORA. If you couldn’t make it, all of the sessions are available to watch and share in the Tortoise app and on our website.

I’ve pulled together points of interest, including germs of story ideas and outstanding questions to ponder, from each of the sessions below – but if you have an idea that you think we should be following up in our journalism about the evolution of work, please do let me know at liz@tortoisemedia.com.

Session 1: The Reset, with Elizabeth Uviebinené

  • Even very traditional, professional firms are beginning to understand that a “high-performance culture” isn’t a badge of honour if it is associated with high anxiety and burnout. But how far does the “well-being” revolution really extend?
  • Elizabeth described the millennial workers’ mindset: “If the choice is between thinking or doing, we’re doing”. In a work context, this materialises as confected productivity and stress. Could we have allowed ourselves to become so busy we’re forgetting how to think?
  • At the heart of the intergenerational issue within workplaces is a mismatch of expectation between those in charge, who have been working for decades, and those who have just started out. Can leaders in their 40s really unlearn the “control mindset”, especially when that mindset has helped them thrive?

Elizabeth’s book The Reset is available in the Tortoise bookshop here.

Session 2: Can Covid help solve Britain’s productivity crisis? (in partnership with Capita)

With Andy Start, CEO Government Services, Capita, Bart van Ark, Managing Director, The Productivity Institute and Joanne Roney, Chief Executive, Manchester City Council.

  • One widely held definition of productivity – GDP per hour worked – is narrow and limiting, especially post-Covid. How could productivity be calculated in relation to social health, as opposed to just economic health?
  • The UK’s disparity in regional productivity, between London and the North, and between major urban centres and their surrounding communities, for example, is unique in Europe. Why?
  • Productivity is a function of resources and outcomes. If connectivity is key, and we know that resources are limited, how do we design and prioritise that connectivity? What is the trade-off between digital and physical connectivity, and how does that affect how we think about “local” economies?
  • Covid has accelerated adoption of digital technology in a way that could connect businesses and communities, positively impact productivity, and, in turn, increase prosperity. But, without significant investment, there is a danger that areas with stubbornly low productivity, often linked to persistent low pay in the “foundation economies” that have been especially affected by Covid, will get left behind.

Session 3: Upskilling at scale: great in theory, but can it be done? (in partnership with Unilever)

With Naomi Climer, Co-chair of the Institute for the Future of Work, Paddy Hull, VP Future of Work, Unilever.

  • “Upskilling” is about giving people options, at all stages of their careers, to transition away from “dehumanising, dismal work” and into secure, stimulating work.
  • Negative rhetoric, notably that which focuses on automation “stealing” human jobs, is a barrier not a motivator.
  • Governments, and then individuals, fund the lion’s share of pre-work education, but it is falling to companies to design and fund their own “future-fit” skills development plans. The upshot, thanks to reduced human contact during the pandemic, has been significant deskilling in some organisations. Lockdown accelerated the replacement of human-led tasks with machine-led ones, and introduced new metrics that incentivised reduced human interaction, creativity and communication.
  • In that sense, we should reposition the way we talk about an employer’s provision for skills, training and development as a fundamental part of their “responsible business” brief – not only in terms of employee wellbeing, but job security, productivity and even carbon neutrality.
  • How might we develop a way to badge or rank employers by the quality of their skills provision?

Session 4: The office is dead, long live the office: what does a “people first” way of working look like? (in partnership with FORA)

With Enrico Sanna, Co-founder and CEO, FORA, John Drummond, Chairman of Corporate Culture, Julia Hobsbawm, Chair of the Demos Workshift Commission and presenter of the podcast The NoWhere Office.

  • For formerly office-based jobs, the transition to “hybrid” working will not go smoothly. It is a given that everyone should have the option of working in a more flexible way, but the risks – notably of exhaustion and burnout – are real and significant.
  • There is a danger that making flexible working an option for everyone will, like shared parental leave, cause a resurgence of a two-tiered working environment that disadvantages women.
  • The old monoliths of corporate structure, not least human resources, and some persistent orthodoxies about “workplace culture”, are facing a reckoning. What is the role of a human resources department in a people-first organisation going to be?
  • It is useful to remember that “gorgeous workplaces don’t always make for gorgeous work” – a beautiful environment with perfect technology will expose, not compensate for, poor management.

Session 5: The new intergenerational workplace: what needs to change? 

With Sheree Atcheson, Global diversity, equity & inclusion leader, Lisa Barrett, VP of Learning, Innovation & operations, Multiverse, Jane Evans, Founder, The Uninvisibility Project, Carol Russell, Founder, Fresh Voices UK.

  • Rather than perceiving millennial workers as “entitled”, we should take the opportunity to reject traditional workplace norms that, if we’re honest, didn’t work very well for everybody before.
  • If the future of employment is lifelong learning and multiple careers, it needs urgent expansion to include older as well as younger people, especially women, many of whom are facing a retirement in poverty. 
  • The traditional career arc, with a peak between 35 and 45, is designed to suit a hypothetical working man who retires at 60. Why are we all holding ourselves to that false, outdated standard? Hitting peak performance in the first third of our working lives is hardly conducive to social or human sustainability.
  • Attitudinal differences between generations are hardly new, but language can exaggerate points of conflict and blur out points of connection. An illustrative example: people have always had “side hustles” – additional work to top up your income or stretch your creative muscles – we just hadn’t branded it yet. 

Session 6: Striking ahead: who will hold the power – employer or employee?

With Anna Stansbury, PhD Scholar in Inequality and Social Policy, Harvard, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary, Trades Union Congress, John Paul McHugh, Assistant General Secretary, Community.

  • Union membership is growing for the first time in a long time, driven by women and most recently the public sector. The National Education Union held a Zoom call with 400,000 attendees – “the 21st-century equivalent of the penny newspapers”.
  • If we take it that the best (perhaps only?) way to moderate the inherent power imbalance in the employer/employee dynamic is by empowering workers and protecting them through the law, then perhaps we can expect to see union density grow – including across the private sector – over the coming years.
  • For all our talk of responsible business and the great reset, this final session was a sobering reminder that hybrid-related headaches are high-quality problems to have. “Working from home” was far from universal, many people remain in insecure work and some employers even used the pandemic as an excuse to strip back workers’ rights and cut pay, even when there was no legitimate reason to do so.
  • Sectoral bargaining, as recently introduced in New Zealand, is feasible and, arguably, increasingly urgent – how long will it remain politically inconceivable in this country?

Further reading 

Thank you again for attending. We’d love to see you at our upcoming Education Summit. To find out more and book your place, click here.