IBM Carmel Somers on the future of work
Carmel Somers, IBM. Image: IBM

‘For flexible, lifelong learners, the future is bright’

26 Feb 2018

What are the key trends in the future of work that will affect employers and employees alike?

The future of work is upon us, but what do employers and employees need to know about it? As an organisational psychologist and talent manager at IBM, Carmel Somers knows what the workforce of the future will look like and what recruiters and employers need to know to attract future talent.

Somers’ career at IBM spans more than 20 years, in a variety of global management roles from operations to consulting services. She has a degree in organisational psychology and a diploma in executive and business coaching.

Future Human

She has been a talent manager for IBM’s Ireland Lab for the past five years, and she spoke to about what we can expect to see in the world of work and how we can prepare for it.

What challenges and opportunities face the workplace and workforce of the future?

There are numerous challenges facing organisations and the workforce, such as the changing pace of technology, the changing nature of work, roles becoming obsolete and new roles appearing.

I think these challenges will continue for the foreseeable future, but they do bring incredible opportunities. For organisations and employees who embrace change and challenge, who look beyond the nature of their traditional roles, are flexible and, more importantly, who are lifelong learners, the future is bright.

We have an incredible opportunity to envision right now how that change may impact us and carve out new or revised roles in our organisations as the technology and work we’re doing begins to change. Ultimately, the future isn’t a fixed destination, so we should start planning for more dynamic careers and roles in the years ahead.

What key trends do you foresee in relation to intra-team behaviour, management-employee interactions or other workplace dynamics?

Global teams are the norm today and that trend is likely to continue, so having secure technology that fosters bringing the team together and keeping it connected is important.

Providing audio/video technology and spaces where the team can collaborate regardless of location and devices is important and will continue to be. Being able to provide that technology to foster face-to-face interaction with clients and partners will also be important.

With the demise of formal performance management systems in favour of regular check-ins with employees and regular feedback in both directions (manager to employee, and employee to manager), leaders will need to ensure they are accessible and invest quality time with their employees that is focused on the employee; their goals, challenges and learning.

This is going to become increasingly important in the short to medium term as employees speculate about what the future holds for them in the changing workplace environment.

How will the workplace change as the baby boomers and Generation X age out of the workforce, and it becomes millennial-driven?

I have a feeling that workplace change may not be greatly different to that which the baby boomers and Gen X cohorts faced. Millennials will need to lead their organisations into their next phase of growth, with similar disrupters in the form of new organisations entering the marketplace and more challenges from a continuing globalised world with shifting political, economic and social factors.

The workplace issues they will likely face will be very similar to those of the earlier generations, including hiring the right people, engaging them, and providing them with the learning, tools and technologies needed to do their jobs. But they will have to do this in the changing dynamic of the organisation, with the rise of independent work, the gig economy and fissured work.

One key difference I see between millennials and the baby boomers and Gen X cohorts is that millennials grew up embracing technology; they expect technology to be available and they expect it to work for them and enable them to ‘get the job done’.

Many baby boomers and Gen X employees and leaders had a less progressive view of technology. Millennials will likely continue to embrace technology and expect it to work for them, but it will need to keep pace with the challenges and opportunities facing the organisation, and that may present a certain level of frustration for them, not unlike the previous generations who struggled to adapt and adopt technology.

What part will diversity and inclusion play in the make-up of the workforce of the future?

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) are very important in the workplace today and I believe it will continue to be in the workplace of the future. I see diversity as how we hire; the sourcing and selection of candidates with different skills, abilities, experiences and backgrounds.

Inclusion is how we ensure that each person has their place in the organisation, feels part of and valued by the organisation regardless of any difference. D&I should be central to the organisation’s culture for it to work seamlessly. There is endless research demonstrating that a diverse and inclusive organisation makes for a better place to work, and a more successful organisation in the marketplace.

We at IBM work in a global environment comprising IBMers, clients and partners. We have a long history of D&I in our workplace and know that, to operate successfully globally, our employee population needs to mirror the global environment. D&I for IBM is the essence of who we are – it’s in our DNA.

Work-life balance is arguably central to job satisfaction. How can it be better achieved?

Today, we are familiar with organisations that provide flexible start and finish times, working-from-home options, working from other locations – all of which support work-life balance but tend to require strict boundary management.

Work-life integration is now recognised as a better way to provide work-life balance where work and life are intertwined and essentially ‘in sync’. The working day has shifted because of global teams and clients.

Technology allows us to work from any location at any time, which now means I can go to a doctor’s appointment and check email while I wait, or I can take a call en route home so I don’t have to stay in the office and, essentially, I get my commute underway at the same time.

It’s about allowing the blending of work and life activities. Organisations that provide secure connectivity to work applications for employees on their own personal or work devices is a great step forward.

I find it great to have my work email and chat services on my smartphone and iPad. If I need to be away from the office for an appointment, I can check mail or catch a colleague and it takes away the pressure of not making it back to the office if I’m delayed. But it does require discipline on my part and consideration on the part of my employer for this to work well.

We’ve seen immense increases in salary, particularly in tech. Do you think salaries in your sector will trend upwards or will we start to see other benefits coming to the fore?

I expect we will continue to see salary increases, especially when there is significant competition for talent. However, I do think that employees are different and while none of us would say no to increased remuneration, there are other benefits that can be equally attractive for many employees.

Prospective and current employees are inclined to look for organisations that provide learning and development (L&D) technologies that support continuous learning ‘on the fly’, in online and offline models, and support further formal education.

There is increased interest in organisations that support the development of soft skills and competencies in addition to the core business and technology skills, and that have a framework for the continued growth and development of the employee.

Many employees want opportunities to do things outside their day job or to give back to the community. As a technology company, we engage in internal hackathons, a transition-year programme and host IBM’s Extreme Blue internship programme, among other things. In addition, our employees engage in external activities, such as CoderDojo and Engineers Week, in the local community.

I think the future workforce will engage more in external communities of practice where they can share, learn and build their networks with clients, partners and others in their sector. We are already seeing momentum in this area from our employees.

Given the pace of change in most industries and a future workforce, which may include the gig economy or fissured work, these types of benefits will become more important to employees and prospective employees.

We’re currently deep in the world of data. What part will data play in developing the future of work?

Data is becoming more important for every organisation. Accessing and analysing data is no small task. Understanding what you need, how to capture and track the data is a skill organisations will need to invest in.

Having the right data results in better decisions. However, this needs to be planned and technology needs to be in place to support this activity. Most organisations have large volumes of data, but knowing what you have, how to get at it and make sense of it is key.

We know that getting buy-in is easier when we have the hard facts and figures to back up a proposal. Smart organisations are using analytics to see what is working for them and what needs to be changed, and there are endless areas where applying data analytics will assist better decision-making.

As a result, we are seeing the birth of a range of data analytics roles, which will appear in every functional area of the business, and in particular will play a key part in the HR function, assessing how areas such as hiring, employee engagement, retention and attrition are working and what changes are needed.

We’re looking at a more automated future, as AI and bots become more sophisticated. How do you think this will affect roles in your sector?

In my sector, AI and bots are already here. IBM has included bots in a number of tools and processes to support users in completing tasks, particularly those they engage in on a semi-regular basis. For example, when I need to do an expense report for something that occurs infrequently, I can ask the bot how to correctly classify the expense or provide me with the appropriate billing code, and within seconds I have the answer.

The bot learns from every interaction with me and my colleagues so you’re pretty sure that it will have the answer you need before you even ask. I think it is really useful for undertaking processes I don’t do regularly and the result is immediate, so it’s been a positive experience for me.

There are many current job activities that will be automated in the future. However, we are also seeing the birth of a range of new roles, particularly those that are heavily focused on innovation, design, entrepreneurship, problem-solving, leadership, creativity and collaboration. So, I think AI, bots and humans will co-exist in the future work environment, where the organisation and employee will ultimately benefit by leveraging the strengths of all parties.

What are the sectors of the future? Where do you believe we will we be seeing job growth and development?

I think the sectors of the future will largely remain the same: agriculture and food, banking, education, energy, finance, government, health, leisure, media, pharmaceutical, technology etc. However, within each of these sectors, roles will change or become obsolete. New roles will emerge and existing roles will transform across all sectors.

We can expect to see a rise in computer and mathematical roles such as data analysts; information security analysts; a range of new and changed human resources and organisational development roles; a growth in engineering specialities, including biochemicals, nanotech and robotics; along with new or revised regulatory and government roles; and commercial and industrial designers and researchers.

In addition, organisations will require specialised sales professionals skilled in commercialising and explaining their offerings to clients, and consulting professionals who understand the changes taking place in industry and can partner with clients to successfully navigate them through that change.

What will companies need to do to attract and support the best talent?

Know what your organisation is about, your brand and your culture, and publicise it. Discerning prospective employees look for an organisation that will meet their needs beyond compensation, including: challenge, opportunity, security/stability, culture (including your purpose, values and D&I), L&D and flexibility. These should be transparent to prospective employees.

Hiring managers should be able to articulate each of these areas, know what people like about the organisation and why they feel valued. Having a plan for the prospective employee so they have a vision of what those first 12 to 18 months will look like is very important.

Engage with third-level institutions and use your employee network to broaden your search for talent.

Back to technology: organisations need to have a hiring system that is easy to use and can be accessed via a mobile device so the candidate can engage in the hiring process at a place and time and on a device that suits them.

Your process needs to be streamlined – the best candidates will not wait around for weeks for you to get back to them. If the process is going to be a bit more protracted than expected, keep in contact with the potential candidates.

How do companies need to change right now to be ready for the future of work you have envisioned here?

I think, firstly, dialogue is really important. We know the future is changing and that change is likely to be rapid. No one has the silver-bullet answer so we need to be discussing what we think the future of work will mean for our organisations and employees, and, more importantly, decide what we need to do to best position ourselves to succeed and grow.

We need to have this dialogue inside our organisations and outside with other organisations in our sectors, across sectors, with the Government agencies that support industry (IDA, Enterprise Ireland, IBEC and others) and with the education sector.

We will all face similar challenges and we need to ensure we are ready and adapting to change, so that Ireland continues its economic growth, continues to attract FDI, and continues to innovate and foster the growth of indigenous business. It is in all of our interest to make that happen.

Internally, we need to determine what roles the organisation will continue to require, what new roles will need to be created and roles that will require significant change or become obsolete. From there, we need to invest in defining the skills and competencies needed to broaden and strengthen existing roles, and those required for new roles.

A continued investment in upskilling, reskilling and new skills will be required, and this may need to take different formats beyond L&D courses, including providing employees with wider exposure to roles, new opportunities across the organisation, focusing on attracting female talent (including ‘return to work’ options), partnerships with clients and partners to mutually grow skills, and collaborating with the education sector to provide graduates with the skills that will be needed in the workplace.

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