Leaders within Australia’s business community are asking their peers to weigh in on some of the biggest issues facing business today. At the top of the agenda is the future of work.
The local chapter of Richard Branson’s B Team began to take shape in late 2017 and launched in October 2018. The nonprofit initiative brings together 10 of Australia’s influential corporate CEOs and chairs to work toward “a fairer, greener and more human economy.”
For its first project the B Team Australasia has drafted a set of principles to guide companies to proactively address changes to their workforce from AI, robotics and new ways of working.
It’s an issue which has been gaining attention since a 2013 study from Oxford University demonstrated the vast scope for automation, estimating almost half of all US jobs were vulnerable to automation.
And while there is an academic argument to be had over how many jobs robots will eliminate versus how many new jobs will be created, there is still the practical task of planning for that economic change and training workers to navigate the transition.
For its part, the group is now actively seeking feedback on its five principles which were released in June.
“The extent of the usage and effect of AI is evolving and evolving quickly. We believe it is time for business to establish some principles of best practice. We have developed some but offer these for discussion and evolution in themselves. Definitive principles we hope will emanate from what we are suggesting for the good of all stakeholders,” said David Gonski, co-chair, The B Team Australasia.
Co-chair Lynette Mayne told Which-50 they want other leaders to join the discussion and provide their perspective on the principles.
“We won’t be insulted at all if you come back and give us feedback or say you disagree with them, but we will be totally insulted if you don’t even read them,” Mayne said.
Mayne, who is also the director of leadership group Chief Executive Women, noted there’s a dual challenge surrounding the future of work discussion. There’s an element of complacency that comes from decades-long predictions, and that vagueness also creates uncertainty over which actions to take.
“A lot of people are talking about what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen. So a lot of people are still feeling like it’s something that’s going to happen in the future, where really it’s happening now.”
Future of Work Principles
The principles emphasise forward planning and transparency.
“With anything, if you plan properly for a change that’s occurring like what’s happening, not only with technology and AI but also with our changing nature of work, hopefully, you leave fewer people behind,” Mayne said.
“Maybe Australia can be one of the first countries in the world that comes out with some principles that are really valuable for everyone’s workers.”
The principles put extra responsibility on employers, requiring them to think of their workforce in a more holistic way and take an active role in planning for their workers’ futures.
“You not only need to worry about a person in terms of their next position, but you really need to look at that individual and try to come up with a comprehensive plan for them going into the future,” Mayne said.
This requires employers look at the “whole person” and to understand who they are, not only from a skill and remuneration perspective.
“You need to understand what skills they’ve got, you need to understand what additional skills you may have to teach them to totally change them into a totally different field of work within your organisation.”
For example Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, B Team member and CEO of Mirvac, has an academy to reskill workers.
“They are well down the line in terms of assessing what skills a person has and giving them training in other skills that will enable them to totally change what they do — and they have been very successful at it,” Mayne said.
The principles also highlight the need to support workers through any transition.
“We know that change is difficult for employees, so therefore what we want to do is put a support network around them [of] the people that have gone through it, who can understand what they are going through, can be sympathetic and can help them through that part of the process.”
Once companies have agreed to do all of that, they then need to be publicly accountable, so people inside and outside the organisation know “you really do mean what you say.”
That could mean announcing when roles are automated what percentage of workers have been retrained in new jobs inside the organisation or externally. It could also result in less conventional arrangements, such as loaning employees to another organisation.
Mayne explained the member organisations have agreed to provide staff resources to each other.
“Sometimes some of our companies are going to have more need for one type of person, and less need for another type of person.”
“So if I’m automating an area and I don’t need those skills, but one of the other companies needs them, why don’t we give those employees to the other company for that period of time until we have a need for bringing them back into our company?”
The importance of recognising employees as stakeholders in a company was highlighted by the recent announcement from the Business Roundtable in the US. Mayne said other forces like the Gen Z entering the workforce and pressure from investors to only back ethical companies, are helping build momentum behind the program.
“I think we are at a critical moment in our business environment where these forces are coming together to almost force companies to do the right thing, even if it’s not necessarily what their normal stances has been in the past,” she said.