This week I went to Holland and co-hosted a workshop at Cognizant’s Dutch office alongside our head of consulting Wim Van Hennekeler. We set the event around my study The Culture Cure for Digital because the ideas have hit a nerve. And because this was a Dutch audience, there was no stopping the conversation about work—everything from politics, big-tech, careers, skills, to diversity and innovation.
The first thing that struck me was the level of optimism about the future of work among our audience. Moreover, the audience was around my age or younger (and I’m getting to that age where I am always one of the older attendees). But like me, these people are set to work for some time and our pensions (for what they’re worth), are some way off; and we’re thinking about where to find the talented people our teams need to thrive. I understand that this particular audience was self-selected, but the general feeling about the future of work was, on the whole, optimistic (I checked by asking the question). The same question a year ago would have elicited a much more pessimistic response, with the media awash with scare stories about automation gobbling up work, rather than today’s Omni-Brexit. So from our workshop this week, my takeaway was that the fear and uncertainty surrounding jobs and work is starting to fade. We are sensing some of the opportunities.
I started by offering a vision for how work will change in the next ten years. I started talking about the rise of platforms—and if you get this, and then it all begins to make sense. I then moved onto the rise of co-innovation—why wouldn’t you want to plug into the creative energy that Europe’s thriving start-up community provides? Finally, I looked at the impact of machines on work. These forces are in play, and there was a strong feeling in the room that people needed support to cope with the stunning pace of business change. My take is that work culture is the safety valve for modern work and it needs nudging in the right direction. Wim and I proposed that if the corporate culture isn’t primed for the way modern work gets done, then expect things to go south: Expect to see higher levels of staff turnover; worrying levels of graduate churn (always telling); higher levels of absenteeism; a drop in meeting attendance and productivity across a team or business unit. Look at it another way—are people at your firm excited about the possibilities that the future of work could create for them like we lay out in our studies on 21 Jobs of the Future? Are they empowered or are they burnt out by the blistering pace of change? This is why culture still eats strategy for breakfast, because no matter how much euros you spend on bringing in new technology, if your people aren’t on side, then its money down the drain. It isn’t enough to cross your fingers and hope people adapt to the radical shifts in how work gets done. The quick-moving pace of our business today demands a more activist approach to shaping culture.
So where to start? Well, there are some levers you can pull. Discussions started on leadership and the need for strong leaders to dial up empathy. Those in the room understood the challenges of disruption and recognized the need to motivate their teams to embrace visions of change, manage its execution and roll out learning initiatives in support. There was a series of fascinating insights from guest speaker David Versteeg, the Chief Digital Officer at Dutch private bank Van Lanschot Kempen (bear in mind Van Lanschot Kempen has been around since 1737, predating London’s 18th-century gin craze, and you can begin to appreciate the weight of history at its back. Support from his board has been critical in helping David drive new ways of approach work. He also talked about metrics and how the firm prioritized the way it engages customers above all else—and he sells a vision to his team —i.e., join me and others in the team, and you will become part of a fascinating journey. The lesson for me is that it has to start at the top. For me, however, a lot of this comes down to power—organizations need to reset the dynamics of power and decision making by opening up their organizations to the talent at its edge—and I think more firms are doing that. The talent you need is often found at the edge of the business, in a start-up or co-working space (my advice, go and find one, work in one, and chat to the people there). So that was Holland in a nutshell. There was much more, but I cannot cover it all here. Next week, we take the workshop to Brussels, and I will explore more of those levers. Hopefully, we get the same strong engagement from a Belgium audience much as we did with a Swedish audience late last year.
P.S. One question was how to shift a work culture that has grown up over decades, or even centuries? The rule is don’t throw out what has worked but learn how to adapt it. Here I give you an analogy—think of the impressive transformation at the Rijks museum, which made a 125-year-old museum truly fit for the 21st century. The building’s form and function still stand, but the new building is now a technological marvel with the addition of new technologies and new materials and new ways of thinking about how people move around and engage. It’s still the Rijks Museum, but it works differently. Perhaps we can change our work culture in the same way…
PPS. Off topic but I think the Dutch are very much like the British (but perhaps a tad more direct). What is clear is we share the same sense of humor. So check out this Dutch town that has officially opened a 'silly walks' road crossing, in honor of a classic sketch from the 1970s BBC comedy program, Monty Python's Flying Circus! Worth a visit.