The robots are knocking on company’s doors, so we better start changing the way we work.

Last year, there were two main kinds of talks that got me excited: Simon Sinek and similar minds talking about new types of working and Brynjolfsson, Pickety and other economists bickering about the speed of automation and its effect on our economy. The former usually involves stimulating confidence and creativity in employees to maximise their performance and the latter usually involves topics on how automatisation will replace jobs, get rid of our middle class and radically change our economy. What I hope to see more of on the ‘TED’-like stages in 2016 though, is how those two tie together: How can companies reorganise themselves and start using people’s creativity and start mapping their talents to prepare for the lingering automation?

How it began

Imagine living in the early 18th century in Western Europe in a small, but peaceful city. Chances are big you’re the go-to-guy for one specific product you know all about. You probably even know how to make it from start to finish, because that’s all you do, day in, day out. But, a tad unfortunate for you, your life is about to change with the invention of the steam engine and other industrial machines. The company you’ll work for is going to make sure that you only do a tiny part of a big, structured production process creating a lot more products, with fewer people. This has radically changed the way we organise ourselves: Companies grew larger, and people became part of the direct cost related to a product. Even when, by now (2 centuries further down the line), you’ve switched to a service industry (as by now 70% of all Americans have done), companies are still more or less organised in that same way. But, as Mckinsey pointed out, this wave of automation will change the way we organise our companies completely. It’s not just blue collar workers that will be replaced, no it’s up to 45% of America’s workforce in the next 20 years according to Oxford university. In other words: there’s a clear need for all companies to look for tasks that humans excel (and what each individual excels at).

The revolution

Bottom-up it’s been clear for some time that new types of organisations are due. My generation (gen Y) changes jobs at a heartbeat. We read books like ‘Escape the city’ even though we’re in one straight & certain road to the top. We build startups to escape corporate pre-thought structures. But most of all, we don’t like it when tasks become repetitive. In short we want change and impact.

And boy is our generation in good luck. Because now it becomes increasingly clear that ‘top-down’ there’s a similar need for those new organisations. Just think about all the challenges companies face from automation (read: startups) and a world-wide slacking economic growth. The problem with economic revolutions has always been that it’s not equally distributed over industries and companies (and people). Last time, it took over 60 years (until about 1830) for most industries in the western world to have automated their workflow with these new machines (people and their wages took even longer to catch up with productivity gains). But this time, automating a company faster than your competitors won’t be enough. This time it’s about creating the right environment for your talented employees, before automation takes over. Because during the transitioning period, their creativity is what will make a company nimble and innovative. And because after the transitioning period, when everything will be technologically perfect, the thing that’s left is the human touch. In essence, what you have to remember from this paragraph is that automation will bring you the same product faster & cheaper, but engaged people will bring you the right products. And that might come in handy in an ever-changing world ;)

Every revolution has victims

It won’t all be rainbows and sunshine when we start seeing the robots queue in the cafeteria for lunch. Because in part, yes, they will create jobs that will enable us to work creatively in teams. But for the other part, they will also create the need for less purposeful mini-jobs all the way at the bottom of the organisation. And worst of all, this revolution will even enable companies to do far more with fewer people: when facebook was worth 100 bilion $, it had only 2.000 employees. At the same time General Motors was worth half that much, while having 200.000 employees. And obviously it’s the government’s task to anticipate this workforce-divide (or in other terms middle-class disappearance) and make sure that people who have to work fewer hours (as Keynes predicted in 1930) still remain clear of poverty. But let’s not wander too far into this economical discussion, because nobody has the answers. The focus of this essay is on how we should start changing the way companies work with people, so they can change the way they work with the machines. So let’s switch to the micro level.

From macro to micro:

Company leaders shouldn’t wait until the automation knocks on their door (As the banking sector has seen now that their customers don’t feel the need for intermediaries in local offices anymore). They can already select the right people, give them purpose, create an environment where they can grow and let them co-create the business. As one team companies will find the right way to automate/innovate and they will withstand change. In general it’s accepted that companies that put their employees first (even before their customers, as put byVineet Nayar) are more resistant to change and more suited for innovation. So why would this be different for automation and innovative disruption? Having the right people in the right places was already put as one of the most important pilars of great companies in ‘good to great’ by Jim Collins and Harvard Business Review keeps on focussing on the importance of common purpose, and how more and more companies are making performance management constructive and future-focussed to ensure maximal result from fewer employees. The fact of the matter is that company leaders should act now (even though there’s no clear means for automation yet).

Starting with automation and higher efficiency shouldn’t start with inviting IT consultants. No, the first step is to prepare organisation structures for the future. Or even a smaller first step could be taken: Make sure you start mapping talent & engagement. This first small step will motivate and bind the good fits and it will naturally exclude the bad fits (At Adobe for example, they saw a decline of 30% in voluntary leaves and an uptake of 50% in mandatory leaves, after enforcing a continuous performance system). But moreover, such a small step will help a company become flexible and anticipate or even create disruptions. In summary, making a company fluid, flexible and future-ready starts with your people, not with the machines.