Working on Future-Proof Work
It is perhaps not that surprising that the participants in this roundtable are constantly concerned with being employers in the company of the future. Amazon has been criticized in recent years for zero-hours contracts and working with sham freelancers, and at Schiphol last year the shortage in the labor market became painfully visible. But country manager Roeland Donker of Amazon.nl and CHRO Esmé Valk of Schiphol Group emphasize that their organizations are working diligently on future ways of bringing in and keeping employees, especially on permanent contracts. The discussion, led by Hilde van der Baan, partner at Allen & Overy, takes place above the entrance to shopping center Hoog Catharijne in Utrecht, at the headquarters of VodafoneZiggo. Its CHRO, Thomas Mulder, with 7,000 people in permanent employment, can also not sit back. ‘It is estimated that in the coming years a group of 7,000 people will disappear from the labor market in the Netherlands every month. A labor force potential therefore the size of the whole of VodafoneZiggo! The shortage really is not over yet.’
The labor market is and will continue to be in motion. Looking to the future, there is now much discussion about the rise of generative artificial intelligence, which can generate its own text, images, or other content, and how this is going to shake up the labor market. In your view, what will really be different in 2035 from what it is today?
Mulder: ‘I think almost all the jobs identifiable in companies will no longer exist in 2035 or will be fundamentally different, partly because of the application of artificial intelligence (AI). One example: our consultants who help customers with problems can handle one to a maximum of three chats simultaneously. With the help of AI, tests show, one advisor can handle 1,000 chats at a time, with a higher first-time fix as well. That will bring a huge change.’
Donker: ‘We are automating tremendously in operations. In our old logistics centers, people often still had to walk 10 to 20 kilometers a day. In the new centers, the stock comes to you. Sometimes automation is seen as something negative from a labor market perspective, but we see it as a way to make work more interesting, lighter and more varied.’
Valk: ‘We too are putting a lot of effort into automation and robotization to reduce and lighten heavy workloads. In the baggage basements, for example, the physical load really does need to be lessened and as quickly as possible. With proven concepts from around the world, we are investigating how best to approach this. For example, a Danish company is now running a project with co-bots, robots that work together with people. We invite employees from the baggage department to come and see it daily. At first, they are often skeptical and concerned about what it will mean for their work. When they see that the physical part is eliminated, but that they are still needed for the mental and human part, they do get excited and see how the use of co-bots can help them.’
Donker: ‘I also find the impact of AI on white collar work fascinating. There, the control function is becoming increasingly important. While enormous efficiency can be gained with rule-based systems and algorithms, what comes out is not necessarily correct or desirable.’
Mulder: ‘The way I see it now, you will always need people for things like control, questioning, morality, and ethics. At the same time the acceleration is so rapid and so difficult for us to keep up with, that we cannot really foresee what will be possible in 2035. For employers, therefore, there is an enormous development demand. We must include people in everything surrounding digital transformation and the application of AI.’
How do you support employees in moving from disappearing jobs to new jobs?
Mulder: ‘We have introduced a kind of Netflix in training. All permanent employees have unlimited access to more than 10,000 courses and training courses, online, offline, and blended. These are not only focused on their current job, but also on future jobs - whether within VodafoneZiggo or not. We have also built career tracks that provide insight into the skills you need to develop if you want to take a particular step, such as from salesperson in the store to account manager in the business market.’
Valk: ‘We always believed in ‘directing your own career’ and did not have career tracks in the past. Yet we recently started doing so, because in practice it is incredibly difficult to gain insight into the jobs of the future and into the bridge between what our people are doing today and what they will be doing in the future. Employees are now assisted with this, for example with regular career consultations and coaching.’
Donker: ‘The working environment will continue to change, even in ways that cannot be foreseen now. We will have to continue anticipating this. And because jobs are constantly changing, people will have to keep switching between functions. The beaten career paths of the past no longer exist. I have colleagues who move from HR or legal to business, or vice versa. You hardly ever saw such switches in the past. That flexibility makes working more interesting, especially in large companies with many and varying opportunities.’
Are the training courses at Schiphol and Amazon only for permanent employees, as with VodafoneZiggo?
Valk: ‘We make little distinction between permanent people and freelancers, both when it comes to training and onboarding, team outings and gifts. But we do strive to get people on a permanent basis for permanent work. Even if someone starts in a niche role as a freelancer, we quickly start the conversation about permanent employment. If after a while it turns out that the person really does not want that, we look for a replacement in a parallel process.’
Donker: ‘Our development program is also only for people with a permanent contract, but we also try to employ as many people as possible on a permanent basis. In the public debate it is often said that employers only want flex workers, but we benefit from a large group of people with good skills who join us and also stay with us.’
Is it possible to find people with the right skills? You also hear that working people themselves often no longer want permanent employment.
Valk: ‘We have had more success lately. It helps that we are back in the office more often as people do want to be part of a team. Nevertheless, in several functions, such as cybersecurity, management support and recruitment, it remains very complicated. With services we as Schiphol Group hire in, such as security, we do indeed see relatively many freelancers who consciously choose to do so, because they can determine their own program. The fact that the remaining less popular shifts go to the regular people is not okay with me. We try to make agreements about this when we contract or outsource work.’
Mulder: ‘There is a school that has the opinion that labor is utilized more efficiently if people contribute to different companies from a specific expertise. I find this hard to reconcile with what we also want: namely for people to commit themselves to the purpose of an organization, to take wider responsibility, able to be flexibly utilized and to build lasting relationships with colleagues, thereby making creativity and innovation possible.’
Traditionally, ‘the paycheck’ has been an important tool in engaging and finding staff. Is that still true? Or are we talking instead - or at least more - about purpose?
Donker: ‘Compared to 20 years ago, we now have much more discussion with employees about lifestyle. How can things be done better or differently? What fits or does not fit their life? Purpose - working in a team toward a goal - appears to be an important motivator at all levels in the organization.’
Valk: ‘Agreed - provided the basics are in order and you can make ends meet on your salary. At Schiphol Group we employ 3,500 people, but we are also the client of cleaning and security services, for example. In those sectors, labor is now very fragmented: cleaning does cleaning, transport does transport. People often have short-term contracts, because we have a peak period company and because nobody wants to drive 300 meters up and down in a bus to an airplane the whole day, especially not for years on end. We are therefore in discussion with the companies we hire about how this can be better organized, for example by structuring work in such a way that people have a varying schedule and a full salary.
I currently spend 80 percent of my working time encouraging development in the sector. Organizations are still reasoning strongly from their own perspective: how to solve their own problems. They need to make the shift to reasoning from the employee’s perspective: how do you make their work, life, and income easier or better? The employer can no longer dictate. We must continually examine what employees find important and adjust our policies accordingly.’
Mulder: ‘The paycheck is of course important. If you can earn a few hundred euros more in a somewhat less fun job, a switch can be very rational. For this reason we are increasingly opting for a fixed increase instead of an increase as a percentage of the salary in our collective bargaining agreements. Relatively, this benefits those on lower incomes most. With our budget options you can also exchange time - i.e., leave days - for money. That helps somewhat. Still, in the end, employers can no longer distinguish themselves with renumeration. Development opportunities is one of the top three reasons for people to join us and also stay with us. It is also the primary reason people return after they left us. For your position as an employer in the labor market, it is incredibly important.’
Turnover within organizations is high, especially among younger generations. A cynic might say that investing in the education of someone who will leave again in two years is a waste of money.
Mulder: ‘That cynic might also say: imagine you do not invest in them, and they stay? You have no choice.’
Donker: ‘Truth is: if there was enough labor available, there would be less incentive to make the investment. We make it happen because it is so vital in finding and retaining talent.’
The companies you work for are quite large and therefore have many opportunities, for example, in offering training. Smaller companies often do not have that opportunity. Should the government play a role in this?
Mulder: ‘Central direction is needed to ensure that the large group of one and a half million people outside of the labor market develop relevant skills. For those working in business, the business community must take the lead. It does help if the government supports us in this with measures that focus on impact and minimize fragmentation and overhead costs in industry. There are thousands of training institutes, institutions, and coaches in the Netherlands. That is where economies of scale are needed. If we bring supply and demand together more efficiently, for example by sector, we can make a much bigger impact at substantially lower costs, and it becomes feasible even for smaller companies. That way, we as society will be far better able to maintain continuous development towards 2035.’
Valk: ‘We already have that sectoral approach with the so-called Aviation Community Schiphol, a network of companies in connection with education. Here we try to translate current labor market themes into programs and projects in education, inflow, and throughput. That works very well.’
Donker: ‘The government specifically can make a difference when it comes to relevant digital skills, such as teaching critical use of AI. We have seen that the STAP budget was used mainly for skills that are not directly useful for the development of people in relation to working in the future. Those courses are more for people who want to do it, but to me is more hobbyism.
Finally, a quick round of ‘crystal ball’. What major themes will, or will not, HR departments be concerned with in 2035?
Mulder: ‘I expect much will need to be done about well-being. Absenteeism is increasing and employers will increasingly be expected to help prevent it, even though the causes to a large extent lie in the private sphere.’
Valk: ‘I find the lack of mental resilience in younger generations worrying. We need to do more research into that and set up more finely tuned programs for it. I also think that we will be working very differently on purpose in the next decade. A considerable amount of thinking has been done in recent years. How do we see our company’s role in society? In the coming years we will need to actually implement it: put your purpose into practice. Clear choices will have to be made, and that will sometimes hurt companies. The genie is out of the bottle, now we must act accordingly.’
Donker: ‘In terms of diversity and inclusiveness, my company has made giant strides in recent years, and hopefully that is the case in general. It would be great if in 2035 we do not have to talk about this issue anymore, as the problem no longer exists.’
This article was published in Management Scope 06 2023.
This article was last changed on 27-06-2023