ABOUT MY GUEST
In this conversation, I speak with Lewis Garrad – an occupational psychologist, and Partner and business leader for Mercer’s Singapore Career business. Voted a top 101 Global Future of Work Influencer, he is regular contributor to publications such as the Harvard Business Review and Talent Quarterly and he speaks on the subject of people science, HR data, employee engagement and leadership.
In his commercial work, Lewis leads a team of economists, social scientists, engineers and consultants to help clients and customers implement data-driven reward, talent, leadership and employee engagement programs to help improve organizational performance.
Chartered by the British Psychological Society (BPS) as an Occupational Psychologist, Lewis graduated from the University of Nottingham in the UK with an MSc in Occupational Psychology and a First Class Honours BSc in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. He is also qualified by the British Psychological Society to use both ability tests and personality questionnaires to assess talent.
Having supported the development of several organisation and HR capabilities programs, including a leading role in the development of the national Skills Frameworks in Singapore, Lewis has deep expertise in making people programs relevant for C-level executives in global companies as well as facilitating senior leadership teams to help them unlock leadership effectiveness.
Recorded on 21st January 2021.
Nathalie: Lewis, thank you very much for joining me in conversation today.
Lewis: I’m excited to be with you, Nathalie, yes. Thank you very much for inviting me.
Nathalie: My pleasure. I’m going to launch with a big question which is the one I always ask my guests when we open those conversations. And feel free to answer this in whatever way you feel moved. I’m curious to ask, what you feel or think is happening in the global human psyche right now?
Lewis: Wow, that’s a really big question. So, the global human psyche… Actually, my first instinct was to say fear. And I think that’s probably heavily influenced by the pandemic which is causing a lot of anxiety, the political situations in many countries. You know, you see a lot of tension. But also I think the volume of change people are experiencing, so they’re scared about their health and the health of their loved ones. I think you see a lot of fractious fighting and this anxiety about the health of society, more generally.
And then I think a lot of people are experiencing this sense that, “Wow, everything is going to very different for me,” even just the transition to working from home for many people, I think. It’s that complete change in routine, isn’t it? So, I would say that the overarching tone must be one of a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. I wish I could be more optimistic than that, Nathalie.
Nathalie: And it’ll be interesting to revisit that question in September when this comes out, because I think if the last year has taught us anything it’s how rapidly and unexpectedly things can change.
Lewis: No doubt, yeah.
Nathalie: So do you think that the pandemic, the changes that we’ve had to adapt to, have influenced what we prioritize, whether as individuals or within businesses?
Lewis: Yes, definitely. Absolutely. I think, actually, when I talk to organizations, I have to talk to a lot of different companies, and I’ve noticed that they’ve moved from some things, you know, this whole conversation about the future of work, for example, or maybe more practically digital transformation in its various guises. That was previously sort of just an academic exercise, intellectually stimulating. But impractical for a lot of companies. “Oh, yeah, we’ll get round to it.”
It’s become a lot more urgent, and frankly, it’s a bit like, “Whoa, hold on a second. We really need to get this done right away.” On the personal level I think people in many cases have sort of stepped back from their lives. I’ve seen a lot of people make career changes or moves. Living in Singapore it’s quite a transient community. There’s a lot of people here who are not from here, and it’s been very interesting to see the number of people who have decided that perhaps that they should maybe return to where they’re from and move onto their next destination as a result of some of the things that have happened around this.
So, it’s a time of real change, and I wonder also if people have given up a little bit on city life. The advantages of living in a city, particularly if you’re outside of your… I was going to say hunting days, that’s the wrong language. but, you know, when you’re trying to find your partner-
Lewis: …people who are a bit more settled start to step back and think, “Huh, actually, maybe there is a different lifestyle for me.” So, it’s causing a lot of people to reevaluate their priorities, for sure.
Nathalie: And I think that piece around being in a different chapter of life and wanting to maybe have a different lifestyle if you’re settled down, also the possibility of maintaining one’s career without having to be at the heart of a city, that’s an interesting proposition right now. I imagine that remove working has made it possible for a lot more people to envision a different life for themselves.
Lewis: Yeah, absolutely. And they’ve started to see the advantages of flexibility in the purer sense. If you’re working at home, if you want to, you start at 7:00 and you take a break at 11:00, maybe go out for a run or a cycle, have a long lunch, get back at 2:00. If you are in the physical space where your company’s asked you to go, you don’t really have those options, and you start to see people really realizing that, “Actually, this is maybe a lifestyle that I want.”
I find it very interesting that many of the most senior business leaders I talk to really want people back in the office. There’s this sense that, “Well, I need to get the people together and reenergize them.” Like, okay. But, many people have now adjusted their lifestyle and their expectations, and frankly we’re going to need to think about that very differently in future, I think. What does it mean to have a community within an organization that doesn’t actually see each other very often? How do you build that sense of belonging? It’s become a very interesting problem.
Nathalie: And actually, yes, as we emerge from the pandemic, and it’s likely to take longer than we expect, as well. I mean, I know, in the UK, that’s the third wave happening. In many parts of the world there are still very stringent restrictions, so it’s likely that this is going to be a longer-term climb than we maybe anticipated at the beginning. And I’m sure that certain practices, the longer we’re in a situation, they’re going to stick, including the ability to work more flexibly and remotely.
And I guess when it comes to managing a more blended workforce, I’m curious what you feel are some of the ways in which organizations can deliver a positive employee experience, both virtually and in person. And also find a way to maintain that sense of workplace culture.
Lewis: Yeah. It’s topic du jour. There’s one thing that I want to say, which is that the inequality, I think, that gets created as you start to separate your workforce into the roomies and the zoomies, you know, the people who are… Yeah, it’s an amazing term, isn’t it?
Nathalie: I like that.
Lewis: You get the people who are allowed to be in the room, and this is reserved for a very special group of people who are permitted to, I don’t know, let’s say travel, because you can’t imagine travel budgets coming back even when, let’s say, travel opens up again. The companies have just saved far too much money to start to return travel to, let’s say, 2019 levels. But, of course, if you are the person that’s in control of the budget, you’ll have no problem approving the budget for yourself. And so, it becomes sort of an elite status thing that you can go somewhere else and meet with other people in person, and the rest of us are relegated to the tenuous relationship of Zoom and other video conferencing-type platforms.
I think we should be very thoughtful about that because, you know, therefore, relationships accrue to the people already in power, and the rest of us are just trying to build bridges through these digital mediums. And I think the research, I find it very interesting that organizations are investing a lot right now in this concept of organization network analysis. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that before?
Nathalie: No. Please go ahead, describe what it is.
Lewis: So, basically, it’s looking at the connections between people in a community group organization based on their digital interactions, which are fairly easy to track. Email, calendar invites, even through some kind of approved company system, which are pretty reliable signals of relationship strength, at least within a work context. And that data is very intriguing because as people really start to look at it, they’ve also then, or they were before the pandemic, at some companies who were adding badges that geolocate you and figure out who you’re close to.
I think this technology will become more common, actually, because even on my phone here in Singapore, I have a app called the TraceTogether app, which tracks who I’m close to for contact tracing purposes. It just looks who’s close to me in terms of Bluetooth and stores that information locally on my phone.
Lewis: And so, if I was a case, the government would be able to look at that data and contact people who I’d spent a long time sitting next to, or something like that. It’s very clever. So as we get used to that technology, then seeing it turn up at work wouldn’t be so surprising. And looking at that data, I was listening to a researcher the other day saying that, to build a trusting relationship in person takes five or six… It’s a relatively small number of interactions before you’re like, “This is a person I kind of know and I’m familiar with.” Whereas, over technology, it’s like three times that.
So you have to have many more interactions with the person for that person to feel like, “This is a person that I know and I’m familiar with.” So we have to try a lot harder. It takes a lot more effort if we’re connected via tech. I think that’s quite interesting to see companies… I’m sure there might be some variability in that data, but the companies are really starting to use technology to explore this because they realize that you need people to be connected to carry ideas, to feel bonded.
We have that deep-rooted human need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, to be part of a community. That’s why people like working in big companies, even though, perhaps, it’s much easier to work for yourself. You don’t have some crazy narcissistic boss gloating over you, but at least you can make some friends at work, if you go to work. And so, I think we’re starting to see the emergence of much more data-driven practices where companies are trying to study this.
Now onto your question, I realize that I digressed a little bit, which is what… So, how do you actually create an environment that does this well? I mean, the jury is still out in my view. I think what we will see is that people will want to have a bit more of a mix of time with other people, physically together in an office space, and some separate time where they can work independently at home. And I think the actual in-person connections cannot be understated in terms of their level of importance for serendipity, for casual interaction, feeling like you really know and understand a person.
And for building trust with other people, to see them as part of your tribe and that this is a person that you can rely on. It gets incredibly difficult to do that if you only have an email and video conference relationship with a person. So, I think we definitely will see companies and organizations starting to return to a bit more of a hybrid model in the future. Yes, absolutely.
Nathalie: There’s so many fascinating things I want to pull on from what you’ve just said, and I think one of elements, obviously, I tend to do a lot of speaking at conferences, or at least I did, and now much of that work is remote. But one of the things that strikes me is, for the companies wishing to retain and attract the best talent, I imagine that they’re going to be the ones that are able to give people a much more rich cultural experience within the organization, so it may be that in-person experiences, events, while in some companies might be reserved for the roomies as opposed to the zoomies, I imagine that for those companies being able to invest in that for their people will be much more attractive to those wishing that level of belonging and meaning from their workplace.
What are you thinking about how companies can attract that sort of talent? Is that something that you’re seeing? Do you think we’re going to end up potentially with larger organizations having local hubs to create that sense of, I guess, like a nodule ecosystem form of work where there’s local teams that come together so that they can still maintain some form of contact?
Lewis: Yes. It’s very much, I think, going to be based on the business strategy that these organizations pursue, because we are, right now, looking at some organizations who are saying, “What we need is a much more distributed location base where people, as you say, can kind of go into like local hubs.” Others are saying, “What we need is a big, central location that’s kind of the place where everybody turns up if they need to go to that place.” And it’s going to be centrally located so the commuter populations of the outside-of-towns can easily reach it.
So, it depends on what kind of organization you are. When it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent, this really high-value, incredibly-skilled rare talent, and many people are seeing the expectation that they want to feel like they are in an elite community and they are able to access that community and learn from other people. That, usually, accrues a lot of value to them in terms of their employer relationship, so they sort of prioritize that. But, I think, we will see actually people putting more focus on flexibility as well.
So, we’ve seen chronic workaholism where you have these offices where people are almost encouraged to live there, like these tech campuses where, well, the gym is there, and the canteen has free food, and the sleep pod’s downstairs. Why… If you don’t have a partner, why leave? Maybe you’ll find your partner here. That’s why all these people are finding their mate at work, because they spend so much time. And now, it’s a bit like, if you’re going to do that more, work in a more flexible way, I think people will start to say, “Well, actually, my expectation is that I can take a bit more of control over my own life.”
The other thing is interesting, Nathalie, is, in terms of compensation, as well. We continue to see quite a wide spread of compensation inequality, and so I think for the people at the top top-end that we’re talking about, the really elite talent, they can basically demand anything they want and their office is a playground. But for the vast majority of other people where, frankly, because labor productivity has been very slow to grow, that sort of net compensation increase over the last 20, 30 years, has been very, very slow, a lot of the GDP value, economic value we’ve generated has gone to capital and therefore the most wealthy.
You can see people saying, “Well, is it worth it for me? Why don’t I just take more flexibility and have the lifestyle I want? And, frankly, why do I need to the hub?” So maybe the relationship with work will entirely change, also, because of this, because people will feel that they have that option.
Nathalie: That’s such an intriguing point. I think, in some of the work that I was doing looking at research around what younger people are valuing, one of the interesting trends that came out was the way in which people seemed to be relating to money differently. And so, if you’re young and you’re living in a city and you cannot afford to buy a house, and there’s insecurity and instability in your future due to the climate crisis, et cetera, why would you choose to go into a work that is unfulfilling, that pays well but then still doesn’t pay enough to provide you security?
So that’s kind of the shift away from the more extrinsic, maybe hedonic rewards of great money, the promotion, the car, et cetera, more towards the more meaningful eudaemonic drive of, “Well, how do I actually engage in something that is purposeful that does make me feel like I’m contributing?” Do you think there are certain values or shifts in values that we’re starting to see in this current moment in time in potentially the younger workforce? Is this a very niche thing that I’m observing? And maybe it’s through my own filter bubble.
Lewis: I think it’s interesting to think about… When I hear you say you’ve observed this, and the transition from fast-paced, high-paying jobs with fast-track careers, to become a senior person earning a lot of money, that’s about status, right? “How do I become an important person quickly, and have other people look at me and say, ‘Wow, that’s an important person and a valuable person’.” And I think we underestimate that, particularly early in life, as a driver, both for men and for women, because, again, I think, people have different priorities at that part of their life.
They want to be attractive to others, and perhaps that equation is changing, and what people consider to be high status is a very different lifestyle. It’s like, “You’re the loser who spends all your time at work, but for what? For money? God, look at you. You look terrible. When was the last time you did yoga? What’s your Instagram account? Let me see. Oh, you’ve got no posts. What a terrible life you must be living.” And the people who are respected and who are revered are the ones who are quite the opposite. So they don’t need to be wealthy, but, wow, look at all the fun stuff that you’re doing.
So, it’s a slightly cruder way of perhaps articulating what you said, which is the shift in values, but the root there, I think, is interesting because technology is almost facilitating that change by highlighting aspirational lifestyles that are not so much about wealth but far more about the quality of life that you’re living. And where’s that come from? Perhaps it’s like I said, the opportunity to become a highly-paid wealthy person has maybe diminished. You know, like let’s just say, competition growth has declined or become just the opportunity of a very small elite. That’s possible.
And so people are like, “Well, what other opportunities have I got to find meaning in my life?” I’m a big person for looking at the social science around how people experience meaning. As a psychologist, someone was saying to me, “You always must have your… The thing that makes us unique and human is blank. And fill in the blank. And you’re always wrong, but you have to have one.” And mine is, the thing that makes us unique and human are, is that we see meaning everywhere, or we search for meaning everywhere, even when there is none. So people have that very deep need, and as a result, I think, the current modern equation really changes how people search for meaning. Perhaps they’re looking for it in different places, perhaps even much more focused on themselves. You know, finding myself becomes much more important, so it’s interesting.
Nathalie: Yeah. I love the picture that you paint of the modern person seeking status and looking at the post for that reflection there. Also, coming out of this crisis, then, what do you think businesses can do to better meet our desire for purpose and meaning and connection? Are there certain things that you think businesses will be looking to do in order to really tap into that, or provide that?
Lewis: Let me start with this. Meaning is about connection. The meaning of meaning is that it connects things, connects concepts, connects ideas, connects people. And I think that increasingly people will have the expectation that when they go to work, what they do feels like it is meaningful in the sense that it’s clearly connected to something that’s important. So I think many organizations can start to think of their drive towards stuff like automation. We’ve seen a big surge and interest in automation and the use of general-purpose artificial intelligence because it’s a great way to be able to do a lot of work with fewer people, because people carry a health risk right now, so you get not just an economic driver but also a public health driver to be adopting those technologies.
But then what you recognize is that, well, the advantage of the AI is that it’s far more disciplined and conscientious than any human being could ever be. But usually needs some supervision, right? So the human being can then supervise the process that the artificial intelligence is looking after, and start to think about, “What is it doing?” It’s a bit like, if you think about sitting down and watching another person do something, it’s much easier to spot what’s wrong or what could be done better. So imagine that you are the person supervising the computer, you’re basically just trying to nudge it in the are direction. And I think we will increasingly see that. And that can be very meaningful, because it allows you to redirect your energy to another set of tasks and activities.
The other thing, is, of course, communities are important for people. They experience meaning through belonging and connection. And I think we’ve seen over recent years that companies have stopped thinking of themselves or the business model of a company as a machine. The engineering model of business is starting to fade a bit, and much more of… As a company, as a community, or a biological organism, that model, which… That’s not new thinking, but I think it’s now, you’re really starting to see it dominate. It’s starting to come through a little bit and you start to realize that, in order to nourish that community, you actually have to start investing in it and looking after it in different ways. Just paying people and giving them a desk to sit at is not enough.
So, redesigning the work that people would do, thinking of the opportunity to use technology to make work more interesting, giving… I do think we’ll see a much more focus on that sense of an organization as a community. And so, how do I belong here being very important. Yeah, a lot of work, I think, going that direction. And then, the last one, which we’ve been very interested in recently, is mental health, and is starting to recognize that the primary tool that you have for economic contribution, in the certainly, definitely, in the next phase of our economy, is your mind. If your mind is not well, then you cannot be productive.
There are loads of things that can get in the way of you having a mind that is fit, and it’s starting to look at mental fitness in the same way that you might look at physical fitness. I mean, you can be unfit but not unhealthy, and you can have an unhealthy lifestyle but not be sick. And so, using a similar framework for mental health, I think, is something that many people are starting to do. And organizations are starting to realize that, actually, one of the things that makes people unhealthy in the mind is work, not least, people they interact with. So they’re like, “Wow.” So, I think we’ll start to see that much more as well.
Nathalie: There’s just so many directions we could go in this. I think I’ll start with this, then. So, you mentioned, obviously, that you’re based in Singapore, and it’s a place that is renowned as being a world-class technology hub. Are there any technological advances that you’ve seen there that fit within the domain of work that you’re really excited about? That you think are going to be picked up elsewhere in the world?
Lewis: I think here, like I said earlier, because it’s a society that is much more trusting of its government, we do tend to see much greater adoption of technologies and shared data, let’s say, with institutions. And then that data is, frankly, used productively to kind of start to make better decisions about how to make the society operate effectively. So, there is a lot of very competent use, I think, of data about citizens. It’s one of the most surveilled cities in the world because technology is incredibly good at collecting data about what people are doing.
Of course, there’s an ethical concern there, but I think Singapore does lead the way trying to understand how to use that data to improve the quality of life of people. And it’s really basic things, like the design of the city and public transport and how people move around to make it easy. It’s very hot here so you can’t spend too much time outside, so a lot of thought gets put into, “How do we make it easy for people not to spend too much outside?”
Or, it’s also very wet, by the way. It rains a lot. So, just by understanding how people move was always a master plan here. In the work context, I would say adoption of technologies in Singapore is more evolution than revolution. And by that what I mean is, is that you see a lot of fast-paced, small, incremental change rather than blowing something up and replacing it with a completely new way of doing things. I think that’s just the way that the economy has developed and the way that companies and business leaders here have learned to think about innovation and improvement in the economy.
So, we don’t tend to see these kind of revolutionary technologies turning up. We tend to see these very fast-paced, little incremental constant changes that sort of nudge us in the right direction very quickly. Yeah, so, I think that it is an advanced city but as much, in terms of the way it’s organized, socially, as it the technology, because those two things need to go together in order to function effectively.
Nathalie: Yeah. And I wonder, certainly, in a lot of the spheres that I’m looking at, people are speaking increasingly about the use of automation. You mentioned earlier generalized AI, and we’re talking also about HR tech. What are some of the advances that you’re seeing in that space, that you feel have the potential to transform or support how we work?
Lewis: Yeah, well, so automation and AI are general purpose technologies that basically remove transactional work. Anything that is predictable at scale is an opportunity to start to use these kinds of new technologies, and here we do have a lot of automation. In fact, again, the government here will fund you to automate your factory. They will pay for it.
Nathalie: Oh, wow.
Lewis: Yes, it’s incredible, because with that, they’ve got a productivity and innovation credit, so they will enable you to invest in your factory or business in order to make it more productive. But of course the question then becomes, “Well, what is the change in the human equation at work there?” And what we’re seeing is, those technologies will permeate many aspects of life, but it makes the softer skills that people bring to work far more important.
We’re starting to see now that the focus here is much more on your ability to collaborate effectively and interact with other people, to be able to make sense of a large volume of information quickly. Machines are transformative in that they are really good in moving big bits of information to you very fast. But people seem to struggle to process all of that information to prioritize effectively. So we’re seeing a lot more focus now on work being designed to try to simplify and create more focus.
And then, of course, the last area is around personal and self-management. So the technologies that I’m most excited about are in this last category, which are learning technologies where increasingly there’s this sense that people need to constantly be on top of new trends and changes, and to be able to reskill multiple times in their lives. We’re starting to realize that the internet is a wonderful resource for this, but we really need to start thinking about how we help people make decisions about how they spend their time on their learning and on their personal development.
So you get these technologies that we’re working on one right now, that’s an AI, that tries to predict skills that are going to be valuable for the next phase, let’s say, of your business. So, pay for skills models. They’re valuable right now, ones that are emerging or growing very quickly, so you can use the AI to do that. So then, if you think about that, that helps you define how you’re paying people in your organization, but then, it also enables you to teach people… These are this kind of capabilities you should be learning because they’re in demand.
I think those kinds of technologies can be very powerful because they really help individuals stay productive and democratize, really, that kind of learning. I think what to invest your time in is a huge problem for many people right now. They just don’t even know where to start.
Nathalie: And I’m wondering as you’re saying that about the automation of repeatable, predictable tasks, what it means for many, many people who are in industries where there is still automation to be done, and the reskilling of those populations and the challenge that sits there. I mean, do you think that there’s going to be pushback against reskilling? I know that some people… You get to a point where maybe you don’t want to have to completely start from scratch.
So you’re in your 50s or 60s and you don’t want to invest heavily in going into a completely different direction because you spent 40, 30 years of your career in one specific domain. What do you think the challenge is going to be there in terms of getting people, convincing people to reskill? Is it possible? Or do you think some people will just be left behind?
Lewis: I think some people will be left behind. I always look back to the Industrial Revolution. If you think about how similar, where we are now in 2021, is to perhaps where some people were in 1921. So, you’ve got a pandemic that’s just happened, a very traumatic World War, but a huge amount of economic and industrial innovation transforming the industrial economies from these kind of workshops or very different ways of working. You had the electrification and industrialization of many economies, and a completely new way or organizing.
So, you look for the manufacture… The way that the economies just completely reshaped themselves. Then you had the booming ’20s, which was mostly about the roaring financial markets and everybody making money and having a great time to try and recover from the terrible things that happened the previous decade, and then the Great Depression. And when I look at the Great Depression, I’m like, “Well, perhaps a big driver of that was that the technologies and the organizations that forms the new economic equation were too far ahead of a lot of the workforce that didn’t have skills and capabilities to really contribute.”
So I think you do tend to see technology moving faster than people, if that makes sense. And we’ve seen this before, and usually results in the people who are not ready for that transition, or are not able to keep up with it, getting into some pretty difficult circumstances. And I think we’ve got that to come. So I think, actually, maybe we’re even starting to see some of the outcome of that, even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic where so many people, the people who really lost their jobs, who are out of work, were people in hospitality and retail, in jobs that perhaps are becoming less common, and certainly less well paid.
We really have to think about what to do about that because I think it’s a really difficult problem to solve, particularly because the only two aspects of work that are left after you teach the machine to do all of these wonderful things, all the predictable tasks, even if they’re very complicated, as long as they’re predictable, this many inputs give you that many outputs, you can build a machine-learning algorithm that can handle it, who can make decisions, so that leaves us with building trusting relationships with others, so the relational aspects of work, and solving problems where data is limited, which is the expertise aspects of work.
So, the three aspects of work are transactions, relationships, and expertise, driven task and activities. Transactions decline very quickly. Some aspects of expertise are transactional, you know, “I know this so I can do it,” but, okay, they get automated, too. So we are left with work that requires quite a high level of functioning, frankly. These are things that are complex, dealing with other people and solving problems, and we really need to think about how we can help everybody contribute to that, because it’s probably what’s going to be left.
Nathalie: In my mind, I’m envisioning a sort of like this as an ancient Greek kind of… Envisioning of what we would do if we had loads of free time, but of course we find things to fill it with.
Lewis: That’s an interesting point because sometimes I have the idea of asking people what they think the future of work is, and very few people, very few if… maybe one in all the times I’ve asked this question, have said, “There will be no work because we’ll basically have machines as assets that will be doing the work for us.” And over time human beings will figure out that they don’t need to invest in the toil of this kind of labor, and actually the economies functioned just fine as long as you accrue some assets that these machines that generate economic value for you and you are part of that system, and you could spend your time on something else.
Now, there’s all sorts of problems with that idea, not least, actually, that looking at the people who have the resources not to work, let’s say the wealthiest people in the world, they tend to work more. And people who are paid very little, who seemed to and therefore would have no incentive to work, tend to work less, so it was not worth it. So, actually, that’s kind of interesting to think about how the economics of this works. That people whose hour is worth a lot more tend to actually find it more rewarding to work more often.
Nathalie: So I realize that we’re coming towards the end of our conversation and the end of our time, and I’d love to ask you, if you had to choose one or two qualities that you felt were absolutely vital to the long term success and resilience of a business, what would that be?
Lewis: Business attribute or personal attribute?
Nathalie: Actually, let’s go with the personal attribute. That’s perhaps a more interesting question.
Lewis: Fair enough. Self-awareness is, I think, probably the most important aspect that somebody I think can have right now, or just generally in life, not least because many people do not have it, so currently, is a competitive advantage for many folks who are really able to understand particularly how other people see them, but also understand themselves. There’s no shortage of people who are unhappy because they have made decisions that haven’t given them the personal outcomes that they want, or they underestimated their own needs and feelings. It’s surprising to me how many people don’t really recognize when they are even tired or burnt out.
Our internal mechanisms for recognizing our own thoughts and feelings are pretty weak, so, really a strong understanding of self. And if you read a lot of Harari’s books, Noah Yuval Harari, he talks about, this is an important competitive advantage against machines because if you know yourself better than the machine does, then you can maintain your humanity and it can’t manipulate you. So, there are many reasons for self-awareness and personally… I think the other one which I think is underestimated and undervalued is self-control, because increasingly we will find ourselves self-directing, no matter what level we’re at.
The new shape of work where you’re working remotely at a time of your choosing, wherever you want to be, doing whatever task you fancy doing, requires you to have far fewer boundaries. In fact, one of the wonderful things that technology does is it removes boundaries. So, because there are fewer boundaries in our lives, we have to install them ourselves. And this requires a lot more personal effort, I would argue. And going back to our point earlier about learning and the drive and motivation to learn, very often the incentive to learn something new is there. It’s quite obvious. If I learn this, something new, that I could then learn a new or better job.
But the personal motivation and discipline isn’t, and so I don’t think we can underestimate the value of self-control in the new economy, certainly that is emerging now. And even when we’re dealing with others, particularly in the age when everybody who’s in charge seems to be impetuous and have no self-control at all. They’ve got access to Twitter, they’ll yell at anybody who comes near. So role models are not there for this. It’s incredible how successful people can be. I had a reflection on an earlier question that you asked me, and I wondered if I could also offer a thought on an emerging technology that I think is very interesting.
Nathalie: Yes, do.
Lewis: So, one of the technologies that I think is very intriguing, that we don’t talk about very much because it’s a bit odd, is the anti-aging technology.
Nathalie: Huh, I was not expecting that.
Lewis: So the reason I think this is interesting is because longevity, as a theme, is important. The population is getting older, which means we have… The average age of the working population is increasing. So, that has all sorts of implications. We’ve been talking about the young people wanting this, et cetera, but really we should be worried about, “Well, what do old people want?” Because those are the ones who are going to, maybe, dominate the future of work.
So, if that’s happening, then that has all sorts of implication for society and the kind of work these people could do, even ambitions to learn, and ambitions generally. Now, there’s also an interesting movement in the Silicon Valley, this really out-there kind of idea that a lot are investing in, that actually aging is not something we have to accept. If we start to think of it like an engineering problem, you simply need to just refurbish cells, so the reason why cells start to die and aging happens is because of the metabolic process wears down aspects of yourself.
So it’s a little bit like an old car where the bits get worn down and eventually break down. So it’s the wearing out of the reproduction of cells that causes aging to occur. So, the projects, the sort of science here, is, “Well, if we can’t stop the wearing out because otherwise the person would be dead,” metabolism wears out the car, so to say, metabolism wears out the cells, “How can we just refurbish? What is the possibility of that?” And there are real people working on this problem, and while it’s interesting to think about how work is changing and how some of these technologies are changing the short-term of work, there’s also a bunch of projects that are looking at the long-term future of humanity and saying, “Well, how could we just double our life span?”
Lewis: Wouldn’t that be fun?
Nathalie: As if we don’t have enough problems as it is. We need a living, thriving planet before we can do that. Oh, my God. Yeah, that’s quite a thought experiment.
Lewis: Isn’t it just? And all the things that it could change. But there just seems to be no limits to what people… And that these people have real funding, will spend money on. And of course, if you’re an elite professional and you have a lot of money, more money than you’ll ever spend in your lifetime, and you don’t fancy dying, that’s your investment. So, there’s some really interesting stuff going on.
Nathalie: That’s such an interesting flight of fancy. So, on that note, then, thinking about the future and the imaginal and what potentially we could create, I’d like to end by asking you, in your wildest dreams, with regards to the future of work, what kind of world would you like to build?
Lewis: I’d like to build a world where everybody can reach their potential. I mean, I think that right now… I love this idea that talent is everywhere but opportunity isn’t, and I think it’s just so true, and we have this incredible opportunity in the current environment, you know, even you and I just talking from opposite sides of the planet, basically, to connect people with opportunity at unprecedented scale. And that was really the promise, right, of the internet and of the early internet companies, to connect people with opportunity at scale.
And think of how that went. It went so badly. Who turns around and says, “Wow, we found the most talented people in Africa and we gave them incredible opportunities without having to spend fortunes, to be able to contribute in ways that we never imagined.” No one is saying that. So, I think that the future that I would like to build is a future where that opportunity becomes real. And frankly I think we might have to go backwards before we go forward on that.