The future of work is.. to focus on a diverse workforce.

Friday, February 10, 2017

You may know this riddle: A father and a son were out mountain climbing and they both fell and were badly injured, they were rushed to hospital and wheeled into surgery. They took the son in first and the surgeon looked down on the boy and said “oh my god, that’s my son!" How is this possible? Have a think for a second before you read on.

Many first ask if the other father was a priest or whether the child is adopted, but the obvious answer is that the surgeon is his mother. While this is a great case of unconscious bias, this riddle doesn't work as well now, as the dad as sole breadwinner is no longer the norm. Kids when asked may even say, “maybe he has two dads”, especially in Ireland given our recent historic legislation on gay marriage! We may have become a more inclusive society but we also need to start to see this reflected in work if we are to succeed in the future.

If you ever hear anyone say that they have no bias, they are incorrect. We all have it and because it is unconscious we are unaware of it.  Put them on an unconscious bias training program and I guarantee they will change their mind very quickly – it is part of our human nature.

Secondly you often hear people arguing about quotas, and positive discrimination. The phrase I heard recently which stuck with me is - Privilege is invisible to those who have it.  So when we start to see things changing and the talk of diversity we can see people getting uncomfortable and saying that it's unfair.  However, they rarely question the current system and perhaps that this has been unfair for 100's of years and they benefitted by being one of the privileged e.g. a white, male, heterosexual and the benefits gained from this.

Diversity in business however is not a word that gets people that excited. It generally provokes more of a defensive reaction or a rolling of the eyes like when the word compliance is mentioned. However, enlightened companies are putting a huge focus on diversity, not because they should be seen to do this, although they should, it is because it is benefitting their profitability. Here is why:

It is good for innovation: Many failed companies have suffered from groupthink, some of the famous recent examples would be Enron and Lehman Brothers.  Dr John Coates found that young men which dominate trading floors have large gains in testosterone and cortisol levels rise which can cloud their judgement and fuels their appetite for risk. He argued Lehman Sisters may have done better than Lehman Brothers! The Catalist report report in 2011 found a 53% increase in return on equity for companies with higher representation of women board directors – so the data is strong and companies are seeing this and taking note. There is an excellent program developed for men called MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) which Dell among others have adopted with great results.

Your customers are global: they do not all look like us or think like us. How can we possibly understand what they want or how they want to buy it, if we do not have a varied workforce. Diversity can be about gender, ethnicity age as well as many other things. IDEO a design firm have hired a ninety year old woman Barbara Beskind, they say the designers think differently when she is in the room. They have started to look at who their customers are and have a team appropriate to this.

Millennials will expect it: Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000 will make up 75% of the workforce in ten years’ time. They have always had access to the world through the internet/ smartphone. They expect diversity and they have grown up with it and they will choose diverse companies. Given how many millennials you will need in the future of work can you afford to ignore what they will want in the ideal future organisation?

So diversity is good for business, not just because it will help you attract more talent to your organisation but they will come with different mind-sets and points of view and hopefully improve on the ideas and creativity all businesses will need to survive and thrive.

Peter Cosgrove set up the Future of Work Institute in Ireland and has written many research papers which you can find here: