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The Elephant in the Room - Sudha Singh EPISODE 21, 8th April 2021
21: Ben Foulkes: The future of work
00:00:00 00:29:25

21: Ben Foulkes: The future of work


Reams have been written in the recent past about the future of work. But, long before COVID upended beliefs on WFH and remote working, Hoxby founded in 2015 had a vision to create a world of work without bias; without the barriers to inclusivity created by the 9-5, one size fits all system. Today, this hugely successful social experiment has a workforce of over 1000 people spread across 30 countries and works with some of the world's biggest businesses including Unilever, Merck, Amazon Webservices, AIA, Warner Media etc. 

Full disclosure I have been stalking Hoxby for years and last year when I launched The Purpose Room it was hugely inspired by what it's founders were trying to do. 

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to have a wide ranging conversation with Ben Foulkes MD Hoxby Futureproofing. Listen to him speak about on the future of work; hierarchies; relevancy of HR; on what makes organisational culture; fostering creativity & innovation in a dispersed workforce etcπŸ‘‡πŸΎ

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Memorable passages from the episode: 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ So Hoxby's purpose is to create a happier and more fulfilled society through a world of work without bias. And that really manifests itself with a, a principle, if you like, that everyone should be able to choose when and where they work. So for those, that don't know Hoxby it's a little bit of a social experiment. It's not your typical organisation. There are no employees for instance. Everyone within Hoxby is a freelancer. So we avoid the employee-employer, relationship and that dynamic. And we come together in teams to work on projects. And we do that with some of the biggest companies in the world, like Unilever and Merck and People like this, and smaller businesses as well. And we do it across a range of services from marketing comms and PR to strategic consulting. And I lead the future-proofing, which is the sort of strategic consulting arm of the business

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ Yeah, it's a good question. It's a word I've been hearing an awful lot more. Everyone's talking about future-proofing at the moment. Organisations face a whole bunch of different forces. And a lot of them have been accelerated by the pandemic over the last year. So we've seen technology has radically changed the way that we can and the way that we enable work. So everything from cloud computing through to the video conferencing software which we're using right now to AI and how it's fundamentally changing the way that jobs and tasks can be performed. You've also, on the other hand got the way that people work. So an awful lot of forces are changing the way our careers, and we're going to be potentially pandemics, permitting, living longer, working longer, having this one job for life notion is a little bit archaic and a little bit that's certainly going to change. So what we're seeing is workforce demands really shifting to wanting more flexible ways of working, to be more purpose-driven to use our time for a meaningful end. And then also to be able to pick and choose a bit more about, about when and where we work and, and to be more like that. So you've got these kinds of forces and the fact that we need to, we organisations need to be cognisant of that to, to adapt.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ And what we're seeing is that actually, it's organisations that are more agile and more able to adapt are more likely to survive in the future. So in the past controlling natural resources, controlling factors of production and scale and economies of scale were really important. Today it's much more about agility, agility to respond to technology and agility to respond to the needs of the workforce. And so Hoxby future-proofing helps clients to understand these forces and to adapt to it. So it's sort of two things it's really, how do you both actually be truly agile and then how do you kind of create the right conditions to empower people? And we'll come on to that I'm sure in a moment, but we have to change, if you like, the way that organisations are structured to be more agile and then they also have to change the way that you empower people in order to enable collective intelligence.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ Yes. Absolutely so we've been working with a client at the moment? A lot of the work that we've done at the moment has been obviously to do with remote working and the shift to that. And actually, one thing is really getting the leadership team to understand what are the forces at play and how can they respond to that. And how does that play out within their own organisation? So setting the direction, creating the vision for the future where the organisation needs to move. And then also acting upon it. So getting clear around the purpose of the organisation and how that is communicated throughout the organisation. Understanding the cultural impacts and looking at different cultural programs that need to be initiated to be effective in the future. And then thirdly, also looking at structure. So actually we're seeing a big shift. A lot of organisations have announced that the shifts to distributed working, remote working more permanently and actually really challenging themselves about what structure makes sense for their organisation in the future. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ It's a good question. About a hundred per cent I think it can be an inclusive because I totally take the point that there are certain jobs that you need to be in a certain place to do a hundred per cent. But I think what works though is the freedom to choose. But the freedom to choose as an adult it's not to just walk off base and go and hole up in Bali or something like this. It's actually, a mindset. And it's also a mindset shift from both the person the individual, but also the organisation. So instead of dictating to the workforce, you must be here between a certain time, et cetera. It's allowing people to recognise the needs of their job, their task, and then to make that adult decision. So even in industries where for instance that you clearly need to be there, like take a surgeon, absolutely you need to be in the operating theatre to be able to operate on that all day. With certain technologies that may or may not be the case for 20 years in the future. But today obviously you do, but actually, an organisation could look at this differently. If you had a pool of surgeons all potentially available, people can pick and choose when they were able to come in and operate. And actually you wouldn't necessarily need to have one person doing an awful lot of administration to work out and schedule all the rotas together. If you allow people to make those decisions, you can restructure organisations to enable this. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ Absolutely. I mean, it's a big question to sort of unpick, let me try and put two angles to it. So firstly absolutely. Some structural inequalities exist and we see this today. We've published recently a report through the Hoxby foundation that looks at a bunch of different groups from people, with disability, to people, with mental health problems, to chronic illness, to carers, et cetera, who we call the ..... work gap, which is the difference between the number of people who want to work and who actually can. And we've seen that actually, a lot of traditional office work practices, it's clearly creating some structural barriers to these people being unable to find work. So, it's something like 29% is the gap for disabled people so a significant nearly one in three people can't find work and that's partly sometimes because, you know, they can't get to the office or, or there are certain times that they can't be online for one reason or another. And if you break these notions of the nine to five and of work being done in a specific place, then that might actually be able to break it down. So definitely there's some cause for hope. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ I would also say that the inequality is a huge huge challenge and it's not one that we should lay at the feet of capitalism or modern structure it's embedded in human nature and we've been doing some, research as part of the book that we're writing at the moment on this. But very much embedded in human nature. Hunter-gatherer societies were quite egalitarian back in the day, but as soon as we started creating surpluses, we started giving perhaps our dark side the chance to start wanting more than the other person start creating hierarchies and pyramids and, and these sorts of things. So there is some inevitability of some sort of hierarchy and some sort of inequality there developing, the key thing you want to have though is a hierarchy that is based around competence. Not around dominance and not around age or gender or, or some other characteristic. And so you want to give everyone ideally equal opportunity and then allow the best people to rise to the top. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ So you take the surgeon example again, when you need a heart transplant, you want the best surgeon there to do that operation for you. You don't want that to be sort of arbitrarily chosen all because they are certain superficial characteristics, like age or gender or anything like this. It's really important we give equality of opportunity. And in order to do that, we also need to recognise, sort of the dominance dynamics that can play out in organisations. And we need to kind of really try and challenge those and question those. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ It's a very complex problem. I think how I see it or would like to see playing out in the future is that certain things, we talked a little bit about dominance dynamics and therefore you know, yes men and people like hiring people just like them. And then you get into problems where you don't get diverse leadership teams and you don't get the diversity of perspective and range of thought that enable organisations to solve big problems. And there's lots of research that shows diversity is really important. So we need to challenge that. We need to become aware of the biases. And the things that we have in organisations. And then we also need to do things, like we need to avoid where we can labelling and stereotyping and treating people as a group, rather than as an individual and based on sort of arbitrary characteristics which are not related to their ability to actually do the task. So I'd love to see a move much more towards treating people completely as individuals towards giving people a fair crack, or fair opportunities. And I see a lot of the structural ways and just beliefs that we hold about work, actually hold us back a little bit from doing so. And we talked already a little bit about some of those beliefs are - that we need to go to the office in order to be productive or certain timings. If you have caring obligations, then it's really hard to be online at certain times, if we're constantly structuring our day as a series of back to back meetings, there are certain people that that's really not going to suit, and that is detrimental, not just for the individuals and the people who kind of get left out of that system, but also for organisations themselves, because they don't get access to that talent. They're not employing the best people for the job. They don't have the diversity of perspectives, which enables them to solve more complex tasks. And there's some great research that Matthew Syed has been leading around this, the book Rebel Ideas that we draw a lot from. But with the types of challenges organisations are facing today, you do need that diversity of perspective. You can't just have everyone agreeing with what the leader says is the right thing to do. Or even just the leader, employing a bunch of people that he feels comfortable working with, or she feels comfortable working with because they're just like themselves and they have the same educational background, the same way that they look at certain problems. So I see it as a lot more as individual. And also hopefully a lot more as, as a competence hierarchy and allowing people to come to the top without having to formalise that what we do often is we give people roles and titles and then that's it, and we move up the ladder in a very linear sort of a way. But I might not be the best person for the next project that comes in for Hoxby. So I should work under or with someone who's got more experience in that industry. And we try and be a lot more flexible in that sort of way of working, which I think can help. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ It is a huge ask and maybe it's a bit idealistic. I don't know, but I think you do have to have a bit of a vision for, for how, things can be different. What is the future of work is obviously such a broad question? And there are so many predictions about this. I don't know if I almost should be making one, but most of them I think 

will be wrong. You know, people predict that technology will automate everything. People predict that they will create a bunch of new jobs. The truth is, no one really knows. But what is also true is that we shouldn't be and organisations are not bound by restrictions of the past so we can rewrite some of the rules and explore new ways of working that are better for society that are better for the environment. And for individuals that work in them. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ One of the big orthodoxies, the big beliefs that we've had that work gets done in an office has been very successfully challenged over the last year, right? A huge number of people who thought that they could only ever possibly work in office have been found that that was just a belief, it wasn't the fact. And those we can keep challenging. So I would say it's organisations that embrace that, and actually allow people to experiment. To push the boundaries and to challenge, that again, to succeed in the future. Because we're going to need to empower people to do that, to make these choices and discover these things for themselves.And that hopefully will lead to more people feeling a greater sense of autonomy, a greater sense of fulfilment from the work that they do. There’s David Graeber book about Bullshit Jobs apologies for the language, it's his title. But you know, a huge number of people feel very frustrated I think at work, at the moment they feel they're doing ultimately perhaps pointless tasks. And it's not that it's the wrong thing to do. They kind of have to do it because it provides a family, it's because there's obviously some demand for it but, it's not necessarily that meaningful. And I think we're definitely gonna see a shift towards people wanting to use their time for more meaningful pursuits. And we're also gonna see a shift of people wanting to have that flexibility and that autonomy to do it. And I think organisations that empower people to make that choice. Are ultimately going to succeed, because they will be the ones that talented folks are drawn to. They are organised in ways that take advantage of the new opportunities and things that come up. Whereas they think they can control everyone and that they're going to keep their structure and not challenge the way that they've always done stuff. They'll be left I think in the dust.  

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ It's a good question. I wouldn't want to sort of stereotype or label based on a generation necessarily, but certainly, I would say. It's really hard to see these beliefs if you grow up in a system of them, and with lots of people thinking the same way. So perhaps to that, we see that in this, in sort of different cultures, the way that different cultures think about a certain way that things have to be done. And until you actually travel or see some people doing things differently, you kind of don't see if you like the pot that you're in. And that's perhaps really important. So younger generations of people who are growing up completely digitally immersed if you like in, in their phones and screens in being connected to people in sharing everything that they do online. They're seeing a different way of working for sure. And they're probably showing other maybe older generations that there are different ways to work, to communicate, to collaborate, to spend our time ultimately, and, there's some people who will see that and think brilliant I will adapt to that and they will change their way of working. Others who will think actually the traditional way is not for me. And so they won't join those organisations and I think the organisations that don't adapt. Whether it's the younger generation, but it's really just the folks who are experimenting with new ways of doing things. If they don't adapt to that, then there isn't much of a future. And we see this, I think to call out one industry to call out the law industry. I really think that they're really struggling through the pandemic. I know a few friends, certainly in different firms. It's really shone a light on, on what was a very traditional style of management of knowing when people were there and how they're doing work, of whether the work that itself was so meaningful of the way that people were treated. I'm not saying all law firms, I'm sure there are some good ones out there, but it really is throwing up a big challenge and the number of people wanting to go into that environment. No one wants to sit on zoom for 15 hours a day And you see that compared to your other friends, people who are able to work where they choose and to collaborate in different ways and to work in different ways then I think the choice would be quite stark. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ Yeah, I'd almost broadenit out slightly as well. Like I agree with you I dislike the term HR and I also slightly dislike the way that if you like managing people or human capital and human resources is outsourced to a specialisation. I think I could also apply it with technology to sort of an IT department as well. So you could almost broaden out into sort of a range of what are called maybe back-office functions or something like this. And I think too much of this specialisation, too much siloing of these functions is a huge challenge. It's presenting a huge challenge to organisations to be agile enough to adapt to whether it's changing workforce needs, whether it's changing technology they struggle to do it. So I don't believe that an organisation should be responsible for just managing people you can look at a number of successful companies from even Semco in the 1990s in Brazil, which is actually a very mixed workforce blue collar, white collar. Octopus energy today, which is a bit more of a sort of a digital start up in the energy world. Which have dispensed with HR functions almost entirely I believe in that one was in the press recently. But, I think rather than telling people what to do, whether that's an HR department, writing rules and procedures for people, or whether that's an IT department prescribing these are the only technologies that we use, we should enable people to make that choice. Like people are comfortable with, with technology now you know, they're capable of buying their own laptop. There are some amazing providers out there of all sorts of different types of technology services. So why do we need these functions to sort of tell us what to do. Cause the nature of their process is that to achieve scale, they have to go through a very long sort of procurement process. They then have to you know, kind of then give it out to everyone and by the time they've done all that, like things have moved on and it's a little bit the same with individuals. Individuals are so individual everyone has different needs, everyone has different things, that it's really hard to write policies for.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ And as soon as you do, you'll have to flex the policy here or there. Some of the simplest ones are the best, like do the right thing. And actually, if you treat people well, if you empower them, generally speaking, everyone, 98% of people, I think will do the right thing. And so you're writing this policy for 2% and actually the amount of time and energy and resources you'll spend doing that, it isn't worth what you're trying to save. And the risk is you're going to alienate a whole bunch of people. Whether that's talking about expense cards and rules, or whether that's talking about when and where you need to work. You're probably going to piss someone off by putting in a policy about it. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ It's a question that does come up a bit. I mean, it's another thing like organisational cultures, big question, different for every organisation. I don’t think there is a prescribed one for sure that I can go and say, this is how it should be, or ideally would be. But I do think overall, we will see a big shift towards this decentralised decision-making. So we're starting to see this already to be more agile with that and you have to enable people at the front lines to actually be able to make decisions, whether that's empowering people to make decisions about loans for customers on the spot, rather than waiting for sort of a centralised thing to do it. Handelsbanken are a brilliant example of this. We're certainly seeing that and when people working all over the world in a distributed way in remote teams, people sort of think, you, how do we keep a culture? It's like, there will still be a culture. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ Culture is if you like, it happens regardless, whether you're in the office or not. It's about the decisions that people make, the actions, people take the decisions that leaders make, what they focus on, how they spend their time, what they prioritise. And so culture will still. Evolve over time, whether we're hybrid or decentralised or all in the office altogether. What we, I guess, need to sort of see is and what we are seeing as well is, is how the working practices evolve, how these habits and how these behaviour patterns evolve. And we're definitely seeing a focus more on written communication over a unproductive and potentially draining virtual meetings when we're in a, in a hybrid world, seeing a big shift in the way that we use technology and collaboration tools and things like this. And then also a big shift in transparency. So actually being open by default, really sharing information, recording video messages, if you're having a meeting cause all of these little actions shape the culture. And I think that transparency point when people aren't in the office is really important because it's so key for, for building trust.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ I think one thing is you kind of have to have a centralised place. So for us, it's Slack and there are a well-structured set of channels and the spaces and way for people to communicate and collaborate there. And then it's reinforced by leaders all the time, the importance of written communication of asynchronous working practices. And those are, those are learned by, by people. I'd worked in consulting, in teams, in different countries before, but also predominantly from the office. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ So you do you have to sort of tweak your style, but it's also not such a massive shift. I think there's a great deal of sort of fear and misunderstanding about what remote working really entails. and we also see people conflating remote working over the last year, because they've been stuck at home in a pandemic compared to what remote working could be in the future and that's really important. It's actually, it doesn't have to be that it's, it's not that you can never meet up with people for some purpose, but we should challenge it. It shouldn't just be the thing that we do unthinkingly and sleepwalk sort of to the office every day, just because that's what we do. And that's where we go to work. So we've got to just allow people to find what works for them. And it's a big wake up call to every individual. I think you do have to learn and get comfortable with Slack. It's a noisy platform where there's lots of notifications. It's a different way of being able to deal with it. But equally it's got to be in your power to turn it off for an afternoon and do some deep work. And it's up to you to do that.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ I hear this a lot and my background is in innovation so I am also sort of passionate about it. I don't quite understand that everyone seems to think the office has like a patent on creativity. I think most people would say they have them in the shower or the on the toilet or something anyway. So the best ideas for sure, bumping into people, serendipitous sort of happenstance moments and, things like this when we remove ourselves, give ourselves some time away to process and to think. So we need to do both of those things, we need to remove ourselves sometimes from our normal routines. And we also need to make sure that we're still making connections. If for short, like I think sat behind your desk all day is not good for, for creativity and for innovation, but I don't also think it has to be that you need a whiteboard for it. You know, there are virtual tools. There are things like this and actually technology has evolved to such an extent that we actually can actively collaborate with a much broader, more diverse set of people on ideas, on projects remotely. More effectively than we could in the same room. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ So look at Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a remote team collaboration between almost everyone. And we see when we work, remotely actually introverted people, people who wouldn't have shouted out in that brainstorming session would have zoned out, perhaps contribute actively a lot more. People are willing to share their ideas in written form. And so we see actually, more remote teams can be more collaborative and more creative. And we get way more ideas then we would have done perhaps in a room, if we use things like a Mural, Slack or Google I mean, there's a range of sort of different tools out there. So there are times when you might want to discuss something with someone and you want to be in person and there's that physical connection completely. And also if it's too many people on one zoom call, you can only have one conversation on zoom. If you've got 10 people, it's why like zoom drinks are absolutely rubbish because you've got 20 people there. You have to listen to the one person and you won't get your time to talk. Whereas if you’re in a room, obviously there are lots of different conversations. There are times it makes sense to me, for people to meet up. But....... 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ It's interesting you bring this up. I sparked a bit of a debate on LinkedIn the other day with a, with a post about this, because I think there is a really concerted effort at the moment. I saw this last summer. I see it again now where you've got certain vested interests who have a lot to lose, I think from a big shift in working patterns, that we're quite potentially going to see. So, city centre landlords in particular. So this one post I saw a BBC article from it was effectively a PR piece from the Canary Wharf group saying it may become socially acceptable for people to work from home once or twice a month. I just thought that's complete rubbish. There is no evidence that remote working is bad for well-being. The evidence I would say from the last year is for sure lockdown and isolation is a real challenge. And we need to address that, and we're not advocating for that in any way whatsoever. There is also no evidence that remote working is bad for organisational productivity. In fact, lots of evidence to the opposite, and lots of people have been surprised and pleasantly surprised by how productive they or their teams have been. 

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ So while, there might not be as much in the news. It might not be the political commentary that we're hearing. We are seeing a huge shift. A lot of big organisations are permanently saying there's going to be a significant chunk of their workforce who will work remotely, permanently in the future, that's not just the tech companies, but big banks are saying this as well. So I think this isn't because businesses are waking up to the commercial reality, the commercial reality of how much money they were spending and how much time they were forcing people to put into wasteful activities like commuting, is absolutely crazy. And actually the organisations are waking up to this and market forces and economics will mean that the organisations that don't react to this will be again, left behind. They won't be able to survive because if you're paying city centre rates for a big swanky office that no one actually wants to use, and you've discovered is not related to productivity or the well-being of your workforce, you would think that the market will force organisations to, to have a rethink.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎ So, yeah, I think. It won't be the end of the office forever. There'll be certain groups of people that want to come together for certain reasons. Some people you know don't have the set up to work from home. That's absolutely fine. Everyone should they get the choice and we'll also probably see a big increase in, in-person events. So I think, you know, big retreats or whatever it is like the big collaboration things for people to feel part of a community, part of a group, you know, we have a big one every year with Hoxby, the Hoxby Refresh. I think we'll see quite a big increase in that, but also a big increase in the amount that people can work flexibly and remotely if they choose to. 

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