A Brave New World - An interview by Barabara Harvey with Jessica Symes

The future of work is a topic widely discussed and debated throughout the world.  

In 2016 Mark Zuckerberg announced there were three things that he was focused on moving forward: Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality.  The leaders of Silicon Valley are following suit – the robots are coming. What does that mean?  A string of articles, thought leadership and documentaries are emerging about the future of work and what anthropologist David Graeber refers to as the death of useless jobs.

Our clients are concerned: Which jobs are safe? Which industries will remain? How can we future-proof our careers?  

We have a different perspective at Symes Group.  We are excited and embrace a future of technology of artificial intelligence as  potentially creating a brave new world. 

Futurist Rutger Bergman argues we need to rethink what work is. He supports the notion of a universal basic income for all: "... not because robots will take over all the purposeful jobs, but because a basic income would give everybody the chance to do work that is meaningful." He goes further: “I believe in a future where jobs are for robots and life is for people.” Symes Group are fans of Bergman’s philosophy and Barbara Harvey sat down with Jessica Symes to find out her thoughts on the future of work and what businesses need to be doing to stay relevant in the years ahead. 

"I believe in a future where jobs are for robots and life is for people."

Futurist Rutger Bergman

BH: Why is everyone talking about the future right now? 

JS: In less than a century our average IQ has increased by 24 points – known as the Flynn effect.  

Our capabilities as students, workers and leaders have catapulted beyond what we could achieve prior to the industrial revolution.  The leaders of our business world are thinking about and focusing on worlds beyond today or tomorrow – beyond earth as we know it. Richard Branson wants to go to the moon, Elon Musk to Mars, Bill Gates suggests that artificial intelligence should be top of college students' agendas and Stephen Hawking predicted we only have 1000 years left on this planet – then adjusted that figure to 100.  There’s a fear that something big is going to happen, that "I might not have a job soon", there’s the threat of artificial intelligence –   and to some extent the threat is real.  It certainly is if we keep doing what we did 50 years ago, or just jazz things up with new ways of doing the same old things – working agile, sitting on bean bags and having walking meetings.  

The speed of change is mind-boggling.  It can’t be fought, resisted or stopped.  And the potential that technology has to disrupt, detonate and reinvent industries is so great that it’s possible that the future business landscape will look  nothing like today's. 

Being future-focused is vital.  If organisations are too inwardly focused,and continue in the old way, there is a real risk they will become redundant. But the better focus of our energy, time and thoughts is not on fear or the threat of artificial intelligence, but the potential it brings. The potential we have to do better than we did before, in protecting the environment, in our relations with each other and in our ability to work with purpose and joy.

BH: What does the future look like?

JS: I join the many individuals in the world who see the future as exciting, positive and holding enormous potential for the human race.   

As Bergman says: “Jobs are for robots and life is for people.”

The hangover from the industrial revolution  is still with us. It seems ludicrous to me that for the most part we are all bundling into cars and trains at 7am to get to work at the same time, creating gridlock and chaos every day – all to mill out of offices after 5pm and return the next day for more of the same.  We spend the best parts of our day inside, we see our children at night and on weekends.  We are over-scheduled, overworked and yet what are we actually doing? What are we achieving?  Time is no longer the currency of work and we no longer need to be tied to desks from 9am-5pm.  

There are so many industries that could re-think the way their people work – the benefits would go beyond the individual worker and the organisation. In the future I envisage people are excited to go to work, the mundane work will be taken over by artificial intelligence and instead we will be left to solve problems, challenge the status quo and to create, innovate and imagine what could be.

BH: What is the biggest threat to big business?

JS: Procedures and a lack of autonomy.

At Symes Group we are surprised by the cumbersome procedures in organisations. Organisations often need procedures to eliminate procedures. Disruptive companies, big and small, are seducing entrepreneurial spirited workers away from traditional industries and organisations, because they can offer freedom, autonomy, excitement and meaning. Corporate Australia is losing entrepreneurial individuals to the start-up world and this is dangerous. It’s no secret, start ups are winning the technology race.

The term disruption is so apt – look at Netflix’s impact on the video stores, Amazon on the book stores, Uber on taxis. And there’s more coming – insurance, banking, law. No one is safe.

At Symes Group we are huge fans of the start-up model and as a small company writing its own rules, we refer to ourselves as a start up too. I see two ways start-ups are a threat to big business. Disruption as an operating model.The start-up operating model is of disruption. It’s one of turning challenges and problems into opportunities, questioning the status quo, cross pollinating industries, breaking tradition and rules.

The start-up model asks: Why are we satisfied with five large companies running the internet? The model says "Let’s try something different, see if it works and lets not worry too much if it doesn’t work."

That’s what Hans-Juergen Schmidtke, Facebook's director of engineering did when he suggested to Mark Zuckerberg in 2014 that they create their own mode of transporting communication which would disrupt the US telecom market. After two years they single-handedly disrupted a US$350-billion industry. An industry that no doubt was trying to be innovative and to future-proof itself. But it didn’t see that coming.

The model of disruption is not orchestrated or formulated. It’s a result of passion, necessity, creativity and innovation. Asking new questions, looking at problems differently, trying things out, moving fast, removing hierarchy, and removing rules and regulations are all essential to the disruption model. But at its heart, driving the disruption, is passion, focus, and goals.

This means entrepreneurs and teams of start-ups will work twice as hard with greater productivity, effort and gusto than any employee. Which is of course the greatest threat – human potential. Poaching entrepreneurial talent.Start-ups tend to have few rules, restictions and organisational procedures.

Start-ups attract individuals who are rebelling against the establishment, rules and restrictions and old ways of doing things.This is especially prevalent with women after maternity leave.

Some women with extremely high powered and successful careers are hesitant to try and combine that career with their new role as a mother and start to ask what else can they do? The annual Mumpreneur awards celebrate women who have answered that question. Obviously this is a great loss to big business, many of these Mumpreneurs are capable of coming up with big profitable ideas and having the guts and energy to see it through.

Big business is losing great people. As organisations slowly wake up to the news that diversity is the key to innovation, and autonomy is the key to productivity, I predict we will see a huge overhaul of procedures in organisations, which will be of great benefit to individuals and to society as a whole.






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