Highlights from Festival of Work 2022 (part one)

From AI as a colleague to giving employees control of their careers, People Management look at some of the key takeaways so far from this year’s hybrid conference

Peter Spinney/Rehmat Rayatt

Making skills the new currency

As a society, people are not very good at explaining to students what the real world of work looks like, said Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Speaking at a session on bridging the skills gap, Schleicher said most of traditional education focuses on theoretical knowledge that does not always translate into practical skills.

But now more than ever, during a time of economic turmoil and a shrinking labour market, businesses need to support vocational work and practical learning, especially in industries with considerable skill gaps, he said. It is also important to allow people to practise and apply in the workplace the skills they have worked for so the learning is not in vain. Schleicher suggested that the people profession needed to create the notion of a “currency of skills that we build up on, not just a lump-size education” that people only acquire at university.

Speaking at the same session, Amelie Villeneuve, global head of people capability at Standard Chartered Bank suggested that, given the quickly shifting nature of the workforce, organisations should look at change as a permanent feature.

Employees should be allowed to take charge of their own career

The top listed reasons employees are leaving Nestlé UK&I are salary and career progression, said Lisa Scales, the organisation's head of talent acquisition in a session on creating inclusive cultures – a common trend in the current labour market that has left many organisations footing the bill for extra training and recruitment.

Nestlé, alongside many organisations in a similar position, is often seen as a “springboard” by young talent looking to kickstart their career and make a name for themselves, said Scales. But, she said, employers can help retain these staff by offering them the opportunity to take charge of their own careers, adding that supporting employees in communicating their needs, and allowing them to be proactive and seek the opportunities to progress in their chosen field is an important part of retention.

Chris Mullen, executive director at the Workforce Institute at UKG, said there was a generational difference in career outlook as a whole, with the younger generation often preferring to tailor their career experience in a way that makes them feel happy and fulfilled, and not necessarily focusing on earnings. For this reason he suggested that employers need to explore the needs and wishes of their younger employees, who will soon be the face of the workforce, by offering choice and flexibility around work and learning to help instil the sense that people are in charge of their life and work. 

Mullen added that digital nomadism was an example of this generational change. “[For them,] it's not about working from home – it's like: ‘I don't even know where my home is. I'm going to travel and work,” he said. “It’s something other generations have never had the chance to think about.”

L&D needs to be inclusive

Justin Maggs, professional development and business skills learning stream lead at Severn Trent, urged L&D practitioners to put themselves in other people's shoes when trying to make learning inclusive. “Close your eyes and imagine you have lost your sight. How would you exit the room? How would you exit the building? It’s probably going to feel like a really difficult thing to do.

“If you have to do it every day, you get into a routine and you adapt because we are humans. As humans we’re resilient and we adapt and that's our role as L&D professionals is how do we help people around us as the environment is changing all the time, new skills are coming in and new roles are coming in, how do we help people adapt to the best possibility”, he explained. 

Speaking at the same session, Sarah Harris, head of academy at Severn Trent, said her organisation worked closely with its HR business partners to develop its learning provision, and was constantly measuring and reevaluating its outcomes. “Any real partnership is about listening and reflection,” she said.

Artificial intelligence will ‘become a workplace colleague’

Artificial intelligence [AI] will one day become a colleague in the workplace that other employees have social interactions with, predicted Dr Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and CEO of Addo AI. In her keynote speech closing the first day of the conference Khanna said there will become a point “where teammates that are AI can become more and we can have social relationships with them. They are assistants, but they can also be our colleagues.”

But, she added, AI was never going to completely replace humans in the workplace. “As humans we have ideas, as companies we have ideas. With artificial intelligence as our assistant, it can catalyse ideas, it can help us do things faster. Can it replace us? No, of course not. It cannot come up with the idea, it cannot come up with the plan,” she said.

This doesn’t mean there are no risks involved in the future of AI. These new technologies are open to the biases of the people who build and implement them, and because of this diversity in organisations is essential. It’s a problem all employers are going to have to face going forward, she said. “You can’t say ‘I’m not going to use technology’, because your team and your company will not be competitive [without AI]. What you can do is use it responsibly.

“If you’re using artificial intelligence, definitely think about your values. Only human beings can think about culture and values and company… We need diverse teams that are standing on the shoulders of machines, that are governing the risk properly,” she said.

‘Purpose is passé’ when driving sustainability

Purpose-driven business is “passé”, according to Valerie Keller, co-founder and co-chair of Imagine and associate fellow at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School. “Real businesses that are purpose driven and sustainable aren’t putting a badge on it... It is about saying, ‘What is it that we’re actually doing that is at the core of our business?’”

Speaking on the opening keynote panel for the second day of the conference, Keller added that it was business leaders who are responsible for driving purpose and sustainability, and said firms needed to reach out and connect with innovators to move forward.

Speaking on the same panel, Charlotte Harrington, co-CEO of Belu, stressed that firms don’t have to be big or have a lot of infrastructure around to make action happen. Speaking of her own organisation, Harrington said: “We report extensively and we think that being transparent in everything that we do – that’s the good, the bad and the ugly – [means] not trying to hide things and not falling into greenwashing spaces.”