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STRATEGY SPOTLIGHT

Rethinking the future of work - now

Observers say AI, robotics, virtual reality, the Internet of Things and sharing economy platforms will displace labour like never before.

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"To remain relevant, Singaporeans, businesses and the government must embrace change and transform the way they think, learn and work - and the sooner they do it, the better." - Philip Yuen, CEO of Deloitte Singapore and South-east Asia

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"With globalisation, people are no longer confined to one's own country to find work, which can be a good thing in terms of work opportunities ... Bosses also need to rethink the processes required for work." - Tan Kay Kheng, a partner at WongPartnership

STRONG leadership is key to enable organisations to break out of old ways and embrace the future of work at a time when business disruption is expected to come in waves, say industry leaders.

But employees must also take ownership of their professional development to acquire and enhance the skills required for the jobs of the future.

"To remain relevant, Singaporeans, businesses and the government must embrace change and transform the way they think, learn and work - and the sooner they do it, the better," said Philip Yuen, CEO of Deloitte Singapore and South-east Asia.

The gig economy is also changing how people work, with fixed-term contracts and short-term work gaining popularity especially among millennials.

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These trends significantly impact both employees and employers.

"Short-term contracts provide opportunities for companies to assess people who are worth keeping and then be employed indefinitely on full-time contracts," said Tan Kay Kheng, a partner at leading law firm WongPartnership.

A contingent workforce also offers businesses flexibility to scale their manpower resources based on demand and control costs.

"Businesses are also better able to access specialist capability on a needs basis to drive specific projects, innovation or change," said Dilys Boey, Asean People Advisory Services Leader at EY.

Those working in the gig economy gain greater control of their time.

"Contingent workers look for flexibility and better control over what, when and where they work. The notion of "jobs for life" is lesser of a proposition," said Ms Boey.

With technology disrupting many aspects of modern business, observers have said that artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, the Internet of Things and sharing economy platforms will displace labour like never before.

But Mr Yuen said, at this stage, the predicted tsunami of job elimination is still not visible.

"There are more jobs being created, augmented and partially replaced today than are being eliminated outright," said Mr Yuen.

Still, the question remains whether organisations are ready to harness new skills and reskill individuals to build a future-ready workforce.

"One data point that we have noted from a Deloitte survey is that only about 11 per cent of business leaders are confident they can build the organisation for the future," said Mr Yuen.

"With new skills and reskilling in demand, we need to also think about the future of learning," Mr Yuen added.

WongPartnership's Mr Tan believes that disruptive technology often affects specific sectors rather than across the board, and even within sectors, it does not mean the human element is entirely being displaced.

"Together with globalisation, people are no longer confined to one's own country to find work, which can be a good thing in terms of work opportunities," he said.

EY believes the future workforce is moving away from traditional hierarchies built around business units, functional lines or geographies.

"The future workforce will be organised in networks of teams with a mix of skills, expertise, permanent hires and contingent workforce," said Ms Boey.

The total team talent is a co-mingling of business and industry sector knowledge, deep functional expertise, data scientists, digital strategists and technology architects working to solve specific business or customer issues, she added.

Observers say to succeed in the future of work, employees will need to leverage the value they can provide to their organisations.

"We need to move away from thinking of industries as sunset or sunrise and think rather about the nature of work that will be done in the future," said Mr Yuen.

"The essential human skills of empathy or understanding a consumer, defining and calibrating a problem into a problem statement, solving it creatively and collaboratively for the user, and designing solutions that create impact are all skills of the future," Mr Yuen added.

Leaders too must hone new leadership competencies to manage, communicate, inspire and succeed in a global, digital economy.

"Intellectual curiosity, 360-degree thinking, cultural curiosity, empathy, connectivity and adaptability are among the important competencies a leader must have to lead in the digital age," said Ms Boey.

The human resource or talent development function can help leaders and the workforce redefine jobs, upskill people, and enable employees to embrace change.

Strategies would include retraining employees to work with technology and data, rather than to fear them, said Ms Boey.

Mr Tan added that employers also need to rethink and redefine the processes required for work.

Mr Yuen believes Singapore's business ecosystem needs to equip its workforce with the tools and knowledge to transform habits, workflows and processes without disorientating people or reinforcing their fear of change.

"This includes creating more lifelong training and learning opportunities in both professional and academic settings, as well as encouraging cultural change by ensuring the new frameworks value people with varied skills and experiences, and diverse backgrounds," said Mr Yuen.

But individuals must also be self-motivated and willing to reskill and retool.

"We need to actively inculcate the ability to learn and relearn while students, on the other hand, must be willing to tolerate more ambiguity and uncertainties, and be nimble enough to pick up additional skills in adjacent fields," said Associate Professor Themin Suwardy, Dean of Postgraduate Professional Programmes at Singapore Management University.

Citing the example of accounting students, Prof Suwardy thinks they should acquire skills in data analytics, forensics, valuation and artificial intelligence to complement their accounting knowledge.

Professions such as accounting have long encouraged a culture of lifelong learning to continually develop new skills and keep existing ones updated.

"This should be something younger professionals take to heart - if you don't invest in your own learning, and you stay constant, you will be left behind," said Prof Suwardy.

"The change brought about by technology is an exciting time, but only to those who can embrace it and use it to propel them forward," he said.

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