07 November 2023
Climate change. Geopolitical conflict. Artificial intelligence. Rising energy costs. The list goes on. “This is arguably the most challenging environment that business leaders have ever had to work through,” reflects Australian futurist Dr Ben Hamer. “A lot of leaders are coming to me asking ‘Where do I start? There's so many things coming at me, where do I focus?’”
In this episode of Outpacing Change, Ben provides some strategies to help leaders answer these questions. He discusses how to balance short-term and long-term challenges and, along the way, he explores:
While acknowledging the many challenges that business leaders will face in the coming years, Ben remains upbeat about the future. “There's a lot of talk at the moment that ‘the robots are coming to take our jobs’. And the thing to really remember with this is most of the jobs that exist today are still going to exist in 10 years’ time. They're just going to look very different because of technology ... I see the exciting potential of technology and automation, and how it help us do our jobs better, rather than necessarily replacing and displacing us.”
The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Listeners should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.
Hello and welcome to Ashurst Business Agenda. My name is Andy McLean and you are listening to a special episode in our Outpacing Change miniseries where we meet visionaries who are changing the world around them.
In today's episode, you'll hear my conversation with Dr Ben Hamer, who's a futurist consulting to business leaders on strategy and the future of work. Ben's formerly at the World Economic Forum and he's also a board member of the HR Institute. In fact, he's the youngest non-executive director in the organisation's entire history. Ben is also one of Australia's leading experts on the future of work. So in today's discussion that you're about to hear, Ben revealed several current and future trends that business leaders should be watching out for, and importantly how they can act now to prepare their organisations and their workforces. And so without further ado, let's jump in and hear the conversation.
Well, welcome Ben to Outpacing Change.
Dr Ben Hamer:
Thanks for having me, Andy.
Now, Ben, before we jump into the wider world, I'm interested in your world. You are a futurist. You're good at anticipating what's to come. Indeed, you do it for a living. I just wondered, at what point in your life did you realise that this was your dream job?
Well, I wasn't a very good futurist because I didn't think that this would be my dream job at one point in my past. So I think for me, the way that I often think back on it is, so I'm originally from Perth. I grew up as the youngest of three children, and there's a very big age difference between me and my older siblings. So growing up on my own almost, I had to develop my own fun. I had my own imaginary friends and developed this wild imagination and sense of curiosity, which really I think is the foundation for what is futures thinking and where I found myself today. So I sort of started out in marketing, which was a little bit left of centre for me. I never thought I'd do it, but then did a course at university on it and thought it was pretty interesting. So I just kept studying it. But then as soon as I graduated, went into strategy consulting, which has really then evolved into workforce strategy, future of work, futurist, and here I am today.
Right. Wow. Wow. I always wondered how futurists become futurists. So you've just given us a potted history of your little experience there. That's interesting.
Potted history is a very fancy term! But in terms of how you go about becoming a futurist more formally, so it's one of those emerging disciplines, but a lot of universities and educational institutions offer programs on it. You can do a certification, like you would do your charter accountancy, which I have done. There's an international membership association. So it is getting a lot more formal so that you can kind of get a better understanding if you're talking with or engaging or dealing with futurists, whether or not they've got that level of credibility or if they're just a glorified psychic.
Speaking of which, that leads me onto my sort of first main question, Ben, which is about when you first get approached by business leaders, because you consult to all kinds of different organisations across all different industry sectors. I'm just interested in when they first get in touch with you, what are the issues that they cite? What are the things that are keeping them awake at night or they've got doubts about that make them pick up the phone or drop you an email or contact you on social media?
A lot of the time it's less around a specific issue, but the idea around they don't actually know what to focus on. And so there's this real feeling amongst executives around the increasing complexity of their role on the market that they're operating in, right? So sure, working through a pandemic was really hard for a lot of leaders, but we're still feeling the hangover of the pandemic now while we're dealing with increasing geopolitical conflict, energy supply crises, cost of living pressures, and a whole heap of other stuff, which means that this is arguably the most challenging environment that business leaders have ever had to actually work through. And so what I'm finding and what a lot of leaders are coming to me asking is where do I start? There's so many things coming at me, where do I focus? Where do I start? And part of that is also helping to join up the dots internally with organisations and move beyond operating in silos.
I think since COVID-19 and working from home during lockdowns, we’ve reverted back to working with this sort of hyperfocus on our immediate area of responsibility. And so as an example of that, you'll get HR who's developing workforce plans that could be suggesting that in the future we'll need less employees or we'll have less employed staff and more contractors, and that's going to have a massive impact on your office space requirements. And so you should be talking to their property team, but they're generally not. And so then you just see vacant floors pop up, people losing out on money and wasting resources. Or you could see your IT department, which is rolling out a new system, it's automating a whole heap of stuff, but then they're not talking to HR about job design implications. And so my role is really to help connect those dots, because not a lot of people have the language or capability to be able to talk across a wide range of different functions rather than just focusing on some level of deep functional expertise.
And any other sort of big picture challenges, Ben, that you typically come across?
The other sort of overarching challenge is one of balance. So balance around focusing on the short term as well as the long term. There's a sentiment that there's always an impending crisis. I'm always putting out fires and I don't have the ability or the capacity to engage in that more strategic stuff. As well as balancing expectations between leaders and employees, which can often be in conflict. So if you look at hybrid working, working from home, working from the office, something that we've been talking about for a long time and continue to talk about is that a lot of employees are wanting that flexibility of where they work, whether or not that's hybrid or working from home. And the moment you see an organisation come out and mandate, you must come into the office and you must come in on these days, turnover then spikes. And so a real indication of where there's this disconnect between CEO and employee expectations.
Okay, Ben, so you've painted the kind of helicopter view of that from a business leader's perspective.
What about some of the specific common issues that you do encounter?
Yeah, so I would say, just speaking then about hybrid working, as I said, it's still however long since lockdown measures lifted but we're still talking about it. And the biggest issue with this is that we're still framing it as a conversation that's very adversarial. It's the home versus the office rather than how we actually work across both. And really the way that we counter that is that it should be task first, place second. So what's the work that needs to be done? And therefore what's the best place in order to do that? What we seem to be doing is saying it's either one or the other, and therefore if I want you to come into the office, come into the office on these days irrespective of what you need to do, irrespective of how that impacts productivity and whatnot. So really it’s important to think about the benefits of hybrid. And that's where a lot of organisations and leaders are struggling at the moment and the integration and seamless transition between multiple spaces.
And that's becoming really important from a worker perspective. So I was part of a study with Officeworks where we found that at the moment, one in five people who have the ability to work from home are still going into the office five days a week. So you still have 20% of people who are that crowd who just want to go into the office every day, and that's awesome. But the vast majority of people are working half and half between the home and the office. (And I intentionally don't say “two days and three” or “three days and two”, because people might start their day at home and then finish their day in the office. It's really fluid in terms of how they experience it.) And the other thing is that flexibility in ways of working is becoming so important that you've seen 59% of Gen Z who have actually turned down a job in the last year because they weren't satisfied with the flexible working provisions. It's around 47-ish% for millennials, 38% for Gen X. And so we often think about it as being a working parent issue, but actually the younger you are, the more you're going to value that flexibility.
So hybrid working and flexible ways of working is a really big challenge for leaders and their organisations, particularly because leaders tend to have a different way of thinking about coming into the office and where we work because they've had a different experience through their own career.
So that's hybrid working. Ben, anything else in the sort of the workforce space that's keeping leaders awake at night and they're calling you up after a sleepless night and they need to talk to you about it?
The second issue I would say is talent attraction and retention. Last year, so 2022, we came off the back of the lowest levels of unemployment on record. So we were in an environment where there were more job vacancies than job seekers, which is almost unheard of. And while unemployment is going up, it's going up really slowly and it's still very low in the scheme of things, which means that organisations are still struggling to attract workers. Even when you hear stories around redundancies and hiring freezes and this, that and the other, the market is still really tight. And so the way in which organisations need to shift their employee value proposition and attract workers is sort of a new playing field for a lot of leaders. A lot of the time they've relied on the brand or they've relied on their industry, but there's a lot more nuance now.
And so where organisations are struggling is not differentiating their employee value proposition. They're kind of wanting to be everything to everyone, but then you are nothing to no one. So really needing to think about what you want to be known for and then how do you amplify that as far as your employee brand and benefits go? And also being able to compete with organisations who aren't traditionally your competitors. And so what I mean by that classic example is every organisation I talk to says critical roles are tech heads and data scientists. And so you go, “All right, well everyone's in the same boat,” so all of a sudden if you are wanting to get the best tech talent, let's take a law firm for example, you are competing with Atlassian, Canva and Microsoft for the same people, so why would they work for you rather than work for them? So that's that additional challenge that comes with it.
So that covers the talent acquisition part of the equation. Then there's also retention too, Ben. Tell us a bit about that.
We normally think about it in the same sentence, but retention again is becoming much more multi-dimensional as well. So, what I mean by that is the reason why people join an organisation is not why people stay at the organisation. And we're also seeing that into the future, people are going to be having a minimum of 20 different jobs across five completely separate careers. So this idea of a job for life or an employer for life no longer exists. People are going to stay in a role for about two to three years and then they're going to leave. And so we really need to think about, as leaders, how do we do things like embed career pathways so that we keep them in the organisation, but we proactively think about what their next step is rather than wait for them to resign or what we call the “boomerang employee”, which is someone who might leave the organisation and then eventually come back.
Okay. So we've talked about the people side of things if you like that, the workforce side. Ben, what about any specific issues in the technology space? What's the most prevalent at the moment?
I would say it is generative AI. I mean, you can't escape it, right? It is what everyone is talking about at the moment, and it is the largest adoption of any technology ever. So when we think about ChatGPT, this only launched in November 2022, and within six months there were 1 billion people using it every month.
To put that into perspective, there are 8 billion people in the world, 5 billion people have access to the internet, and 1 billion people each month are using ChatGPT. This is incredible. And the thing that I'm learning to appreciate every day is ChatGPT is only the beginning. There are so many other types of incredible AI platforms and services and offerings which are coming onto the market. Last week alone, there were 3,000 new forms of AI that entered onto the market as well. So this is pretty incredible.
In terms of how it's being used though generative AI, mainly the text to text, the one that we would associate with ChatGPT, the way that that's being used and disrupting professions at the moment, you've got examples of nutritionists who are using it to develop tailored meal plans for their clients. You've got teachers who were notoriously time poor who are using it to develop individualised lesson plans for neurodiverse students. You've got in the creative industries, there was an example only a few months ago where in Germany there was the Sony Art Prize and they awarded first place to someone and it turned out they actually used generative AI to develop the artwork for them.
So there's a whole heap of ways in which this has been used and disrupting work, but naturally it's not all sunshine and rainbows. There are a lot of concerns around privacy, data integrity. There was an example in the United States where a lawyer who has over 20 years of experience was caught using ChatGPT to submit a briefing paper to a judge, and he was caught because there were six legal cases that he cited that were completely made up because particularly version 3.5 of ChatGPT, it can't actually discern between fact and fiction. If it's on the internet, it assumes that it's true. And so it's kind of like a drunk guy at a college frat party, very confident but very wrong! And so data integrity is an issue.
You've got in, for example, in the United States tech journalists who are starting to unionise because media companies are letting go of journalists and getting AI to write the articles for them. And that was a really big concern as part of the Hollywood writers strike as well.
And there are a whole other heap of things that we haven't solved, which is why we're seeing calls for greater regulation, but this is just moving at such a fast pace that the regulators aren't keeping up. So it's one that's sort of both really exciting and a little bit scary. I'm more on the side of excited, but definitely something that we need to work through. But irrespective of what side of the fence you're on, it is going to have a massive, massive impact and already is on organisations.
In a moment. Ben, I'd like to jump in and talk a little bit about how organisations and leaders are rising to some of these challenges. But before I do, we focused primarily so far on the most immediate challenges that are in front of business leaders. I just wondered if we were to peer into a crystal ball maybe five to 10 years down the line, what are the other emerging issues that leaders, perhaps I may not have even identified some of these already, that perhaps require some thought?
Yeah, so I think technology is still a really big one. While we're talking a lot about generative AI today, I think that there's other technologies that are coming down the pipeline that leaders really have to be aware of and thinking about how they're going to respond to.
So if you look at the metaverse, for example, that's probably the most over hyped technology of the past few years. But what we're seeing is that there's a real groundswell building in the background. So if you only go back to say 2021, what we saw was that $40 billion was spent just on avatar clothing and accessories. And that's projected to be $3 trillion by 2030. So this is a fast growing area of technology.
And with that, organisations are going to have to have their own offices in the metaverse. The average piece of land already costs $20,000 in the metaverse. So we're going to have metaverse offices. You're going to have companies that follow the likes of Accenture where they do all of their onboarding in the metaverse now as well. So when you join, you get a headset that you put on and you do your onboarding on what they call “the N floor”.
And what's really driving that is this statistic that I was reading the other day, which shows that more of Gen Z feel like they can be their authentic selves online, than in person. And so we're going to see a big push for the adoption of these virtual platforms like the metaverse.
We'll also see things like 3D printing become much bigger and proliferate across a whole range of different industries. You can print entire homes, you can print food. We're seeing human organs being printed. And in Melbourne we have the largest 3D printer in the world that's capable of making submarines and rockets.
So organisations need to not just respond to the technology that's in front of them, but the “What’s next?”
We're seeing organisations likely to have a space division that they'll have to set up in the next few years if they haven’t done so already that's off the back of things like space tourism. We're going to be going to Mars in the next decade. And Pepsi has actually taken out advertising space in space to have billboards up in the skies as well.
And then there's a few other bits and pieces like climate change is going to have a really big impact on organisations. It's not just around their ESG strategy. They're going to have to, for example, reimagine the “nine to five” because just recently, the European summer in Spain, they came off the hottest summer on record. They had to actually ban certain types of outdoor work from being undertaken. And so what we're seeing is this real shift around how we can avoid extreme heat and potentially reorient the workday to be something that's more like 6am to 2pm. And with all of that, we're going to see things like new jobs emerge, whether it is the metaverse real estate agent or like The Daily Aus in Australia who have hired a 19 year old as their Chief of TikTok.
I wonder, could you perhaps give us a case study? You can name the organisation if you wish, but I'm just interested in if you like an example of an organisation or a leader who's doing this really well because kind of what our podcast is all about is “Outpacing change” – it’s about looking ahead and responding proactively.
As an example, I've done some work with a major bank, which was looking at essentially building a future of work strategy for them. And the way in which we started was to say, alright, let's start with we did an exercise called the ”Pixar Pitch”. And so if you think about how Pixar movies are structured, they follow a very set structure around: “This is the context, then this happened, then this happened, and then this is the result.” And so following that framework, we use that to articulate a view around what it would be like to work at the bank in 2035. And so setting the scene around where we are today, these are some of the challenges, but then this happened and therefore the bank became this and this is what it was like to work here. And it was almost presented like it was a children's narrative, but it was fun, it was engaging, it was emotionally provocative as well, and it gave us an anchor point that we could work towards around what the aspiration actually looks like.
Then we said, “Okay, in order to develop this, in order to achieve or realise this ambition, what does it look like functionally? What does it look like in a commercial sense? What does it trying to get a little bit more practical and realistic?” And that's where your COO then gets involved and gets a little bit more happier. And then doing that piece around saying, “Alright, well in order to get here, how do we then work backwards over horizons? So short, medium, and long term, what are the sorts of things we need to be doing?” And being really cognisant of how you go about building maturity as well. I think a lot of organisations are either in one of two camps. They go, that sounds too ambitious and that's too overwhelming, so it's easier to just do nothing because that's in the future. The future is the next CEO and therefore that's someone else's problem. Or they go, all that's where we want to be, so let's get going. And they try and go too hard too soon. And so that's where that piece around prioritisation and realising the journey and the step change and the maturity come in. So what's the enabler? Then doing that piece of work becomes really critical and that's where you can map it out over those horizons.
Now, Ben, I've read The Kickass Career, which was your first book. A fantastic read and full of really insightful advice for people who are looking to plan their career and almost to kind of futureproof their career to some extent, or futureproof themselves for what's to come in the jobs market. Now, that was an entire book, but I wonder if you could try and distil some of the key takeaways for us?
Well firstly, thank you for reading the book and not giving it a one-star review! I’m very appreciative.
I think it goes back to that point around how I said earlier we're going to be having a minimum of 20 different jobs across five completely different careers. So from an organisational perspective that obviously has big implications, but as an individual there are some really interesting psychological things that play out with that right back to when you're in high school, when you're thinking about what it is that you want to be when you grow up, which is this idea that that conversation starts when we're 5, 6, 7 years old. “I want to be a princess”, “I want to be a firefighter”, etc. And we start to attach identity to careers. But if we're going to have five different careers, we need to break that cycle and we need to shift it.And so when I do a lot of work with high school students and they're trying to get advice around what they should study at uni or what they should do when they leave school and go into the workforce, I say, “Just do what makes you happy,” which sounds so silly, but at the end of the day, I will bet my house on it. If you go and do an accounting degree, you are not going to retire as an accountant. Even things like teaching and nursing and being a doctor, things that we see as “jobs for life” – you will not retire in that profession. That is just the way that things are going. And so I think that really shifts the mindset upon which you approach work. Often we think about the job that we go into next, we put so much pressure on what that looks like, but again, that's just a stepping stone onto the next thing and the next thing because you're not going to be in that job for more than a couple of years.
And so that sort of psychological phenomenon is starting to play out. And there's a mindset shift that transforms our perspective on how we view careers and therefore the decisions we make. But I would say that the biggest thing that we can do around future-proofing our careers comes down to skills. So upskilling and re-skilling and the way that we learn has completely changed. So if I think about my parents' generation, they would go to school, which is where they would get their foundational skills around reading, writing, arithmetic. They would then go into the workplace where they would then start to specialise into something, whether that is accounting, being a lawyer, being a banker, whatever it might be. And then every couple of years you'd go to a conference, you would top up your knowledge cup and then you'd retire. Whereas now you just can't afford to do that.
So the value of job skills is halved every five years. And the data shows that we need to be spending 15% of our weeks upskilling and reskilling in order to remain current. So not get ahead of the game, but just to remain current. So thinking about not necessarily going and doing a full blown course on something, but how you can go about doing micro learning and embedding those into your day-to-day life, like hacking your daily routine. So it could be listening to an Ashurst podcast on the way to work. It could be seeking out an opportunity at work that's going to stretch you, that gets you out of doing the day-to-day stuff that you're so comfortable and used to doing. Whatever it is, think about how you can meet that 15%.
And the skills that we need to be working on as well is becoming really clear that they're those human skills or soft skills. So there was a report released by IBM this year 2023, which found that back in 2016, the number one skill was around was computer skills and software development that is now of a list of 15 that they had that is now the bottom. It's gone from top to bottom since 2016 to 2023. The top one is time management and prioritisation. And then from there it's like teamwork and negotiation and persuasion and creative writing and all of that stuff because the way that technology is moving, it can do a lot of the stuff for us. So what's the stuff that makes us uniquely human that tech can't easily replicate? That's the stuff that you should be focusing on.
And if there was one specific thing that I would encourage people to do after listening to this podcast, it would be watch a YouTube video on prompt engineering. So when we think about the art of asking the right questions with the likes of ChatGPT and generative AI, it is the difference between getting a response from a high school student versus a Nobel prize winner. There is such a big difference in quality based on asking the right question. It doesn't take a lot to upskill yourself on it, but it is going to give you a massive return if you just spend 10, 15, 20 minutes watching a video and quickly getting across it.
Ben, I have just jotted down “prompt engineering” and promptly after this podcast recording, I'm going to look it up. Thank you for the tip.
And speaking of questions, you've brought us to my favourite part of the Outpacing Change podcast episodes, which is where we ask every guest five quickfire questions. So Ben, are you up for the challenge?
As long as you're nice to me.
I promise we will be kind and generous. Question one is how would your colleagues describe you in three words?
My colleague is my dog, so I can give you woofs, not words, but based on when I had colleagues, they would describe me as:
2. "Insert one word for what means, 'pushes boundaries'", and
3. "A liability!"
Ben, I've worked with you so in the past, and so I count myself as a previous colleague of yours and I would call you “pioneering”. And I think that's the “boundary pushing” word you were reaching for there, but you're too modest to say.
Okay, question two, if you could have a coffee meeting with any leader alive or dead, who would it be?
So I've never been someone who loves a favourite actor or a favourite sports person or a favourite leader. I just like people's stories, whether or not they're listening to Andy's fascination with Shakespeare or the journey of my local barista from Vietnam to owning their own cafe. So I like stories rather than people, but I have been fortunate in the last year to see both Barack Obama and Jacinda Ardern and can recommend those for other people's reading lists.
Lovely. Okay, thank you. What is the biggest myth or misconception about your profession?
That futurists have a crystal ball and can make predictions!
I did mention “crystal ball” earlier, didn't I? In one of my questions!
I think you did!
I've just proven how common that myth is then! Okay. What about when it comes to generating new ideas? Ben, are you a morning person or an evening person?
I can't emphasise enough that I am not a morning person.
And number five: Can you name one book or podcast that you'd recommend for business leaders?
Well, I do have a book coming out, so I don't know if that's cheating, but April 2024, A Postcard From The Future, put it in your diaries!
But I would say for me, it has been The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F***. It's not a business book, but for me it's had a really awesome impact in my mindset and how I approach work and interpersonal relationships at work; things around picking your battles, things around how to not sweat the small stuff. It's just really common-sense stuff, but really simple, really easy to engage with and it helps in life and work, but I think that all leaders should have a copy of it and give it a read.
Now we're just reaching the end of the podcast, Ben, but I did want to, I guess just get one final reflection from you. What excites you personally most about the future of work?
I think for me, there's a lot of talk at the moment around how the robots are coming to take our jobs. And the thing to really remember with this is most of the jobs that exist today are still going to exist in 10 years' time. They're just going to look very different because of technology. And so what excites me is the way that we can actually get more done. We can be more focused on adding value and the stuff that we really like doing rather than just tolerating our jobs.
Because when you look back in history, rarely does automation take away the stuff that we absolutely love doing. Like no one says, “Damn, I miss putting all that data in a spreadsheet over a whole day's worth of work”. Or “I really miss being able to put one cord into another and connect someone on a switchboard.” It doesn't take away work that makes us passionate and the work that really gets us going. And so for me, that's where I see the exciting potential of technology and automation and how it helps us do our jobs better rather than necessarily replacing and displacing us.
What a lovely note to close us off on. Thank you so much, Ben, for sharing your words of wisdom and your thoughts today. It's been really enjoyable.
Ben: Thank you very much, Andy.
You've been listening to my conversation with futurist Dr Ben Hamer.
Now, Ben mentioned in that discussion that his new book is coming out in April 2024, and indeed it is. The book is called A Postcard From The Future and it will be available through Ultimo Press. So check that out.
And this episode has been part of Ashurst’s special Outpacing Change miniseries where we speak with innovators and disruptors who are changing the world around them. To make sure you don't miss any of our future episodes, subscribe to Business Agenda on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, feel free to leave us a rating or review – and feel free to check out our previous Outpacing Change episodes too; there's some cracking conversations in there.
So until next time, this is me, Andy McLean, saying thank you very much for listening, and goodbye for now.