Forget crystal balls, tarot cards and tea leaves. Fortune-telling has no place at a futurist’s desk.
“We’re not in the business of predicting the future,” says Laura Schlehuber, a futurist and a manager at consulting firm Kalypso LP in Houston. “But we do like to question our assumptions and prepare for alternatives.”
While organizations consult with futurists on everything from technology to climate change, research on the future of work dominates the field, says Schlehuber. That’s because employment is rapidly evolving with the rise of the gig economy and the decline of North American manufacturing jobs. “It’s just going to get more disruptive,” she notes.
For futurists, a key role is to help plot the advantages and challenges of the various scenarios for organizations looking to stay ahead of the curve. In terms of bridging employees to retirement, for example, “you can spin out different stories about different possible relationships they could have with the person in the future and what the cost benefit would be to the company,” says Katherine Green, a futurist and the president of Futures at Work in Chevy Chase, Md.
“For instance, a worker could return as a full-time consultant immediately after they retire, work for a few weeks during the busy season or simply be available to answer questions via email or app as part of a brain trust.”
Some Canadian organizations have, in fact, retained the services of a futurist. In 2015, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra hired a futurist on a six-month contract to explore the future of listening and how its audience is changing. While the futurist is no longer working with the organization on a daily basis, permanent employees in the marketing and fundraising departments are adopting some of his principles, says David Postill, vice-president of marketing. For example, after the futurist highlighted the growing interest in the link between music and health care, the orchestra performed a concert benefitting the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and raised $50,000.
Everyone’s a futurist
Preparing for the future involves not just being aware of likely changes but also managing them as they happen. For Morneau Shepell Ltd.’s Paula Allen, thinking like a futurist needs to be “more of a core competency” for managers. Disruptive technology and new business models will affect company structure, which in turn will have an impact on employee well-being.
“You can have the best-laid plans in the world, in terms of what your business objectives are, but if your employees are floundering as a result of the fact that they’re going through the change, you won’t achieve what you hoped to,” says Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell.
Adopting a futurist’s mindset can be important for a range of human resource issues. Schlehuber, for example, predicts hiring practices will change radically in the future as they’ll increasingly involve using information beyond the resumé, such as a candidate’s tweets. Employers may eventually skip hiring humans for jobs all together. Schlehuber points to McCann Erickson Japan Inc., an advertising agency that appointed a robot as its creative director in March 2016. “HR is going to have to figure out, is a human best suited for this role? Is artificial intelligence best suited for this role?” she says.
“What does succession planning look like for an AI?” she adds.
And as businesses face rapid change, “one critical business decision has to be how you communicate with your employees,” says Allen. She points to studies that link positive culture with improved employee performance and well-being during significant change.
“If you don’t pay attention to how people adapt to change and how they support employees with resources, with manager training, with attention to their culture, the organizations aren’t going to be that successful in the change.”
Sara Tatelman is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.
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