Restructures Future of Work Neuroscience

Redesigning jobs after automation: don’t give up on your employees

We regularly read in the press about large companies laying off hundreds or thousands of employees, only to hire other people. 

Unfortunately, the most prevalent approach to these changes appears to be the least effective. If a significant part of a job is changed due to automation, most organisations believe it is quicker and easier to retrench the person in that role and hire someone new with the skills required. There are three flaws with this thinking:

  1. The negative impact on other staff and morale because of the redundancies is often overlooked. People start looking over their shoulder wondering when they will be next.
  1. There is an assumption that the skills you need can be found easily in the market. If the whole industry is changing then the demand for people with the same skill sets is huge. The Disability Services sector is a poignant example of the difficulty of finding staff.
  1. It is assumed that people will not, or cannot, adapt to the new types of activities that are required of them.

There remains an inherent bias in our workplace that people can't change. In fact, the early scientific evidence was that our brains were 'fixed' as we moved into adulthood and therefore our capacity for change was marginal. Recent evidence has refuted this belief showing that the adult brain is 'plastic' and can re-wire itself to learn new skills.

Yet when it comes to job redesign after a significant part of a role is changed due to automation or restructure we assume that people won't - or can't - change to the new role.

We tend to give up on our employees too quickly.

There are a few trends that, if taken together, indicate that a better outcome may be reached if we focus on our existing people.

Employees are capable of learning new things!

First, our understanding of neuroplasticity mentioned above shows that adults are capable of incredible feats of learning. Dr Norman Doidge's seminal book, The Brain That Changes Itself is the poignant example of a man who had his left arm amputated after a crush injury at work but three years later was still experiencing such chronic pain in his phantom limb that he was hospitalised. As a last resort, a doctor created a mirrored box that, when his right hand was put in, mirrored so that it looked like his left arm. By looking at this image of his seemingly intact left arm, his brain formed new neural pathways and his pain disappeared.  If our brains are capable of such incredible changes, could we not learn a few new skills in the workplace?

The importance of believing in your employees

Second, research by Rosenthal and Jacobson found that simply believing in your employees made them improve. Called the Pygmalion Effect, staff with leaders who believe they can change and improve will in fact change and improve. This is a profound leadership lesson. The original study was conducted with grade 7 teachers. They were told at the beginning of the year that a group of students (chosen at random) were 'late bloomers' and would do really well this year. At the end of the year the teachers reported that they were indeed late bloomers and did really well. The only thing that changed was the teacher's belief in those students. Moreover, a pre-post IQ test showed that those same students improved on average at a faster rate than their peers.  So, if we believe our employees won't adapt to the new technological environment and can't learn new skills then guess what? They won't. We tend to give up on our employees too early, thinking they can't make the change.

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The expectation that jobs will change

Third, there has been so much talk about the changing nature of jobs that people expect their job to change. It is impossible to miss as almost every day there is a new article about automation, AI or other technology advancements that change how work is done. There is an acceptance (albiet a reluctant one at times) that they will have to adapt and learn new skills. People largely acknowledge that they must take some responsibility to adjust to these changes.

The pendulum has swung from a person's career being entirely organisation-managed in the 80's and early 90's through to being self-driven in the 2000's to today where career development is a co-creation and joint responsibility between the individual and their organisation. 

The main issue is that people feel trapped as they don't know how to adjust to the changing nature of work. It's a wicked paradox: What if you invest in learning new skills but those aren't what your organisation wants? But if you don't learn something new then will your skills be redundant in the future? It's the organisation's responsibility to identify the skills they will require for the future and help their employees learn these new skills. It's the individual's responsibility to adapt.

Technology and getting closer to your customers

Finally, job redesigns occur most often because of a technology or process that enhances the customer experience. The 2017 Mercer Talent survey found that 93% of companies will make organisation design changes in the next two years with the key reason cited being a desire for closer relationships with customers. The opportunity to help others is one of the key motivators at work as it provides a sense of meaning especially through the connection with others. Few organisations appreciate how valuable this rationale is and how much people will adapt and invest discretionary effort to help customers.

It is this final point that provides a real impetus for investing in helping people adapt to a new way of working and learning new skills rather than using redundancy as the first option. People want a sense of meaning from their work; the opportunity to learn new skills and be part of an improved way of operating. These contribute to a deep sense of meaning in their work.

It is likely that many of your staff already believe in the organisation and are committed to the core purpose. This culture takes a long time to develop, perhaps longer than it does to learn the new skills of a re-designed role. It makes sense therefore to start with the assumption that people want to contribute and give them every opportunity to do so when roles are significantly changed.


What can the private sector do generally, and what can the attendees do specifically, to help meet the need for massive skilling/training/retraining needs of the workforce for the new world of AI-assisted work, which may be one of the defining challenges of our time? 

                                               -  Davos Forum CEO Dinner Conversation Topic for 2018


There are two discrete steps involved in bringing people along on the journey. 

  1. The first is to build their adaptability: Career adaptability is the capacity to think of oneself differently and be open to changing contexts. It is a mindset of being open to learning new things, exploring new ideas and being willing to try (and fail sometimes!). This step often missed in culture change processes where the emphasis jumps straight to the technical learning rather than the mindset required to succeed with the acquisition of new skills.

    Recently we worked with a large organisation following a significant restructure where the middle manager roles had changed significantly. They were now asked to implement the customer choice strategy, champion the new processes and technology which supported them, and embed the refreshed values. Moreover, the restructure resulted in a greater span of control and a new quasi-matrix structure. The first part of our process to help this cohort was not to address any of these issues directly, but rather to start by building their adaptability. The key thing this group had lost through the restructure was their sense of who they were as a leader; their identity. Understanding who they were was the first step in adapting to what they had to do.
  1. The second step is to build the new skills that are required: Great advances in combining adult learning principles with technology allows for innovative delivery mechanisms for learning. Two of these are micro-learning and augmented reality.
  • Micro-learning is the process of drip feeding content in small bite sized chunks. For example, 5-minute e-learning modules that people can do at any time. What's fascinating is that when such a technique is implemented, the take up rate of learning outside of normal hours is huge. People want to learn, they have a thirst for learning and take the opportunity when it is in a format that is easily digestable.
  • Augmented Reality: When the Harvard Business Review does a special edition on a topic, it’s a pretty good guess that it’s a burgeoning trend. November 2017 was a special edition on Augmented Reality. It showcased how jobs can be improved through the addition of augmented reality. The example of a factory worker assembling complex machinery is the most obvious, however, incorporating augmented reality into the medical field has huge potential. But what about other professions?

There are unlikely to be many jobs that won't change in the next few years because of the impact of automation and technology.  As jobs are redesigned on an increasingly regular frequency, let's not give up on our employees too soon. Help them adapt and evolve to the new roles first and only use redundancy as a last resort.

Now we would like to hear from you. What are your experiences with changing roles and how - if at all - could it have been handled better? Has technology affected your role? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Dr. Edwin Trevor-Roberts
Dr. Edwin Trevor-Roberts

Edwin is the CEO of Trevor-Roberts. His journey has seen him work in the UK and Canada, and he regularly delivers keynotes to a wide range of audiences in Australia and internationally.


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Restructures, Future of Work, Neuroscience