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The Future of Work, The Future that Works

Kristian Vandenhoudt, Vice President Human Resources Compressor Technique Service Division, Atlas Copco [NASDAQ STOCKHOLM: ATCO A]

Kristian Vandenhoudt, Vice President Human Resources Compressor Technique Service Division, Atlas Copco [NASDAQ STOCKHOLM: ATCO A]

In this digital age, HR has become more business critical than ever before. Organizations that embrace change and inspire their employees to keep learning and get out of their comfort zone are emerging stronger from the crisis.

The corona crisis is definitely a wake-up call and an accelerator for companies worldwide, but has it really created a whole new normal? Even before this crisis, the normal was an increasing complexity caused by a permanent storm of disruptive changes at an exponential speed, such as political shifts, changing economic power relations, climate changes and yes also health threats such as Ebola, Zika, SARS, MERS-CoV and ... COVID-19. Complexity has increased by the Covid-19 crisis, but even before the crisis our society had become more and more complex.

"Hire for attitude and train for knowledge and skills"

For companies, this complexity is not so much the problem as such, but rather how they deal with it. They need to ensure that they do not try to tackle complexity by trying to control it by adding more and more organizational levels, processes, systems … Such a patchwork of control initiatives gave them just the opposite result - a cumbersome organization not adapted to the increasing complexity. In fact, what we need to do is to move towards a lighter and more agile organization, which we should develop from a blank page and which will certainly be flatter and more decentralized.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

In this ever-evolving and more complex world, it is not the strongest or the smartest organizations that will survive, but those that are best able to adapt to change. This applies not only to companies, but also to people. According to Peter Drucker, the most important skill of the future is the skill to learn new skills. “At Atlas Copco, we strongly believe and advocate upskilling people. Jobs will not disappear, but they will be transformed. I am convinced that for almost every job, at least 50% of the tasks will change.” Every year the World Economic Forum maps the most important competences of the 21st century: complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity lead the rankings.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” The companies that will emerge stronger from this crisis are those that are aware of the change we are undergoing. They are embracing the change rather than desperately trying to fight it.

“Hire for attitude, train for knowledge and skills”

So, what is the role of HR in this evolution? How can HR shape the future of work? In this digital age, artificial intelligence and machine learning will take over a part of the work. In the manufacturing industry, this evolution has already taken place; the service economy is next. But I do not believe that robots will take over our jobs. I do believe, however, that we will evolve towards a symbiotic collaboration between man and robot. That opens a world of opportunities for HR to become even more relevant in organizations. The more tasks that we digitize and automate, the greater the number of business-critical tasks that cannot be digitized and automated. Robots do not (yet) show empathy.

That is where HR steps in and even becomes business critical. HR plays an indispensable role in making organizations future-proof. Step one is to make staff aware of the evolution in which we find ourselves, but also to reassure them that they will remain employable if they are willing to embrace change and technology. Step two is to get a clear picture of the (digital) changes we are going through and will continue to go through.

Next, it is important to analyze the competences for the future jobs that will be created as a result of these changes. In this way, we will know what profiles to look for in the labor market focusing on “Hire for attitude and train for knowledge and skills”. This insight also shows us how we can help our current employees to permanently improve their competencies focusing on lifelong learning.

At Atlas Copco, we strongly believe in freedom with responsibility. All employees are responsible for their own personal development. They are the owners of their own careers. Therefore, we don’t define common fixed career paths. The responsibility of Atlas Copco is to provide the necessary support and set the framework, the outlines of the game, but it is up to the employee to take the initiative.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Even if an organization has a strong strategy for how to deal with the increasing complexity, it will first have to be tested against its company culture or, as Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Copying a strategy from another company makes no sense.

Atlas Copco is originally a Swedish company and even though it is a strong international company, you can recognize the same Atlas Copco values (Interaction, Commitment, Innovation) in our companies in more than 90 countries. In addition, Atlas Copco has always had a strong focus on sustainability and diversity long before it became mainstream.

It is also typical of Swedish companies that the team always comes first. That is why the Swedes also speak of “Lagomär best”. The best translation would probably be: “the best is not too much and not too little” or “just act normal”. We do not tolerate show-offs and top dogs. Nobody is bigger than the team.

The iceberg of complacency

Even when we have manned a storm-worthy ship with people who have the right skills and culture to sail through a storm, we still have to look out for a very dangerous iceberg: complacency. For market leaders like Atlas Copco, it can be tempting to sit back and relax: ‘We’ve been here for almost 150 years, we won’t be disappearing any time soon’. But there are no more guarantees. The largest companies in the US will last for about 30 years. One minute you are here, the next minute you are gone.

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