TNW Conference: Navigating the future of work

TNW Conference: Navigating the future of work

At this year’s The Next Web conference, which focused on the changing nature of work in a digital world, Heidrick & Struggles presented its initial research findings on the boardroom of the future and its challenges and priorities over the next five years.
Heidrick & Struggles

The recent TNW conference in Amsterdam was billed as “Europe’s leading tech festival,” with 17,500 people from the digital and business community in attendance. Start-up companies and entrepreneurs in the tech sector from across Europe were heavily represented. Heidrick & Struggles sponsored the future of work track and hosted a series of sessions focused on innovation; the impact of technology; smart ways of living and working; and the boardroom of the future, discussing the preliminary results of our new research that explores how the role and makeup of boards will change in the future.

Several important themes relating to the future of the workplace emerged from the conference, including the nurturing of innovation and the use of data to improve the quality and performance of the workforce.

Many speakers touched on the changing nature of work in a digital world. Flexible ways of working and communication tools that allow greater collaboration can both have a significant impact on workforce engagement. This may be particularly true for younger workers, some suggested. The flexible working patterns enabled by digital technology chime with their desire for a healthy work-life balance, which itself stems in part from the importance they place on safeguarding their mental health. Younger workers were also said to crave a sense of purpose in their work and to prefer flat organizations with few levels of management between staff and senior leaders.

Meanwhile, some speakers argued, continuing technological change will result in current roles being tweaked or displaced and entirely new jobs created. Companies will need to introduce or develop training programs that equip existing staff with the necessary skills for the jobs of the future, while also strengthening the workforce with judicious recruitment.

Innovation was discussed extensively. A constant refrain was that innovation is a natural human behavior that companies need to foster rather than stymie. Indeed, new ideas will flow from a combination of personal ingenuity and passion, on the one hand, and organizational culture, on the other.

“If innovation is to flourish, leaders must create an entrepreneurial environment in which everyone feels encouraged to experiment and where failure is viewed as something that can be learned from,” said Alessia Sterpetti, the head of open innovation and idea factory for Enel, an Italian multinational energy company. She added that new ideas must be sought from all reaches of the organization: “Real leaders promote diversity, as innovation can come from anyone.”

Another important area of focus was the impact of data analytics proliferation, beyond enhancing customer service. The right data analytics tools can enable companies to understand what it is that influences employee performance, thereby helping to improve people management. “Few companies have been thinking of data as an asset that can cement the engagement and productivity of the workforce and create an environment that allows people to operate at their best,” said Tim Luedke, the global managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ Disruptive Innovators Team.

In a broader sense, the advent of technological innovation can of course present a threat to certain jobs. Jamie Page, who leads Heidrick & Struggles’ innovation hub in Amsterdam and is the regional managing partner of the Industrial Practice in Europe, was pleased to see a contrasting perspective being aired. “When much of the discussion on the relationship between people and technology focuses on disintermediation and job losses, it was inspiring to hear something more positive—that technology can in fact be used to help people maximize their potential,” he said.

To take advantage of these opportunities, the right leadership must be in place. Heidrick & Struggles presented its interim findings on the boardroom of the future—its challenges and priorities over the next five years and the critical skills and experience that board members should possess to govern effectively.

The survey investigated the opinions of executives both in traditional, established companies and in start-ups. Inevitably, the major priorities for start-up boards were value creation and growth, whereas in traditional companies, directors were most focused on CEO and C-suite succession and building a relationship with the executive team (Figure 1).

When planning for board succession, established companies value executives with experience in organizational change and digital transformation. Start-up boards were more likely to seek executives with specific experience in the same industry sector (Figure 2).

The most pressing challenge for start-ups, according to the survey, is the adoption of artificial intelligence technologies, suggesting a strong focus on digital innovation. However, both traditional companies and start-ups were concerned by the increased pace of digitization (Figure 3).

“Established companies and start-ups will face similar challenges over the next five years, albeit to different degrees,” says Sam Burman, head of the Digital Practice for Europe and Africa at Heidrick & Struggles. Once again, a broad range of perspectives is essential. “To face these challenges with imagination and insight,” continues Burman, “boards need a healthy diversity within the boardroom—different backgrounds, skill sets, networks, and knowledge.”

The right leadership will ensure a culture of openness and experimentation, which can unleash the power of human creativity, allowing companies to flourish in the digital era.

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