“Today’s education system does not teach students what will be expected of them after they leave it: professionalism.”
A discussion with Professor Gunter Dueck – mathematician, author, philosopher, futurist and satirist – about the challenges in the world of work today and in the future.
What kind of developments do you anticipate in the working environment of the future? What can we expect, broadly speaking?
As I see it, digitalisation is causing a shift in the kind of skills needed in the workplace. One effect of this will be a horizontal development. That means people are going to need different/completely new kinds of expertise. And at the same time, we will see a vertical development in terms of the human, interpersonal skills. In the sense that on a human level people will need to work with more professionalism.
What do you think this horizontal and vertical development will look like as far as company leaders are concerned?
I think company leadership is about enabling employees to operate as independently and responsibly like people do in small businesses. Today’s managers function as a kind of control mechanism, where all they really do is criticise people who haven’t come that far yet.
What we really need is managers who function like coaches and ideally act as an example, helping colleagues to work more professionally and to network effectively. The real problem however, is that most managers have not even really embraced the networked society themselves yet. Simply put, management as a profession is mutating into something completely different, requiring a different set of skills. So there is probably going to be an awkward transitional phase.
What will this transitional phase be like, and what specific skills do managers need?
Since the managers are not keen to change, it is difficult to predict what will happen. Pious recommendations about coaching, role modelling, emotional intelligence etc. have been around for years already. But all these require a different kind of personality – and that is very difficult! On top of that, we have been in denial about the advance of digitalisation for over 20 years now. And that’s not all! Think about the car industry for instance – it is hardly thrilled about the idea of electric motors, nor about self-driving cars. So the transitional phase will depend on how quickly company managers are willing to fully embrace these changes. The management issues will probably be resolved by the next generation. Thirty-year-olds are coming in now with new open-minded attitudes, becoming department heads where they can take matters into their own hands, and progressing to become vice presidents. Even if the older generation is not motivated to make changes, it will happen in any case as the next generation takes over. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that conflicts have been settled with redundancy packages.
Will we see a change in where people do their work? I’m thinking about co-working spaces, home offices and so on.
As far as these issues are concerned, it’s a question of “reality” and “business”. There are many different interests involved! Companies want to save on office space and “improve communication” amongst employees. The furniture industry wants to sell new furniture, and consultants want to restructure the way people work and charge consulting fees for that. But I get annoyed that amongst all these factors, people don’t think about what is best for the employees. Introverts like me hate having to work in an area that’s noisy all the time. What is more, a recent study showed that there is actually less communication in large, open office areas, because employees complain more and more about the noise. The end result is that everyone keeps quiet. So in fact people would communicate more if office spaces were smaller. Introverts need time to themselves, so they retreat to their home office and become isolated. Then they are forced to work in the office again. This kind of to-ing and fro-ing happens because the solutions are designed for the uniform brick-in-the-wall people imagined by extrovert personnel managers and office space savers.
What do you think would be a better solution?
One apparently scientifically proven solution, which also seems to make sense, recommends small offices (10 square yards or 8 square metres) for introverts and two-to-three person spaces for extroverts, combined with plenty of communication zones and ideally free water/coffee/tea for everyone. The conversation about office spaces is not a matter of “status”, but simply about “providing the appropriate environment”. Once I had to give up a 20-square-metre office where I had lots of bookshelves and plants and move into a mass habitat instead. It almost broke my heart, and I secretly started job-hunting. I offered to give up my company car and keep my room instead, or to accept a reduced salary to pay for it. “No, company policy is that everyone sits in the open area.” Ah, policy.
Your idea sounds good to me. At Bene, for example, we recognise that the needs for confidentiality, calm and concentration vary from one department to another. A bookkeeper works differently from someone in marketing. So we believe this should be taken into consideration when offices are planned.
Yes – after all, employee satisfaction also effects the bottom line. If someone is not happy because they can’t concentrate, then we could make some kind of rough estimate of what percentage of their labour potential is lost. As I see it, a good working environment is part of the picture. So it also seems absurd that in large companies the property management department saves one per cent of turnover only to kill off 10 per cent of productivity. That is the way I see it. Does anyone ever actually do that calculation? Don’t they see that when people can’t finish their work in the daytime because of the noise, they work at home later just to keep up? That’ what is really happening, but management could give a hoot.
Where will people find meaning and purpose in work in the future?
That is a clear cultural issue. In sectors where people earn a lot of money, such as investment banking and top consultants, I don’t think the desire for meaningful work is an issue. Many of these people accept the risk of burnout. Their dream is to move to the Bahamas at 40! But the dilemma now is that companies are less and less willing to pay well, and yet they expect more and more from their employees. People feel exploited and exhausted, and when they are consistently stressed and underpaid, the question of meaningful purpose is bound to arise. This wouldn’t happen if they had a 5% salary increase every year. Then they could at least enjoy themselves outside of work. The question of meaningfulness is also a factor in people’s well-being. On top of that, many occupations are also undergoing a kind of devaluation down to minimum wage conditions.
So the human factor is reduced to a subordinate role – it’s all about technocracy?
Humans adapt to fit into a process chain, they are just an element of the process chain. Many countries in Europe, including Germany, have been pursuing a minimum wage strategy for some time now, so that they can increase economic growth. Obedient employees play along with this and pull in their belts even tighter. “Make sacrifices, or your job will go to China!” That works with Germans. As a result we are currently highly successful, but in the frenzy of cost-cutting, we have ceased to be innovative. It used to be that the Germans were so highly innovative that they could afford wage increases and so were able to cope with a constantly appreciating Deutschmark. That’s how it is in Switzerland today. The Swiss franc is a safe-haven currency, and is consistently over-valued. This makes it difficult for the Swiss because their exports are very expensive in other markets. So the Swiss have to prioritise innovation! And as we can see, that is working for them – as it used to for us.
Innovation is a good buzzword for my next question. What do you think of the start-up scene? What potential does it have in Austria? That is also difficult to say. Basically there is only a handful of new firms that will be successful later, perhaps 10%. It is important to recognise this. Today there is too much emphasis on refining ideas. That is not the problem. What we need in addition to that is unquestionably is an entrepreneurial character, a basic personality type that is tenacious, curious and eager to keep on developing, willing to accept suggestions and clever enough to learn from what others are doing. These are personality traits that feature consistently in successful business people. Before starting up a company, people should take a look in the mirror – and then maybe decide to follow a normal path of study and employment instead.
What additional challenges do you think digitalisation will present in the future?
Routine tasks will be done by machines in the future. Complex, expansive tasks will still need to be done by humans. Decisions that machines can’t make for themselves will then have far-reaching effects! That means that in the new working environment, errors will have increasingly serious consequences. In this context, mistakes can often cost a great deal of money. For example if a manager demotivates or overburdens employees, that can often become very costly. This is not made clear to students today. They can pass exams with “50% of the top score”. In professional life this is not good enough! What would you think of a hairdresser who gets hair colour wrong every other time or makes ugly mistakes on 50% of the cuts? They’d soon have no customers at all. Today’s education system does clearly show what the key expectation will be: professionalism. Plato depicts Socrates as spending a long time discussing “arete”. A thing or person has arete if they are really excellent in whatever they are supposed to be. I would give this the new-fashioned name “professionalism”.
Gunter Dueck (b. 1951) lives in Hamburg and is a freelance writer, philosopher, business angel and speaker. After a first career as maths professor he worked for almost 25 years at IBM, where he was Chief Technology Officer; he is now “retired” with a busy schedule of writing and speaking engagements. He is well-known for blunt speaking and his witty, satirical talks and books, including most recently Swarm stupidity and Flachsinn.