Building a workplace of the future starts with inclusive growth

By Fiona Macfarlane, Vancouver Sun |

The phrase “digital disruption” is all the rage among business leaders these days. And it’s easy to see why. Technology is rapidly reshaping business models and waving the disruption flag signals that a company is committed to leading in this new economy.

There are risks, however. The world of work is turning on its head, and the days of relying on decent salaries, benefits and faddish perks like ping-pong tables to satisfy people are gone. As eager as companies may be to throw new technologies at traditional business practices, they must be careful to not disrupt the important relationships they’ve forged with their people or lose sight of why they exist, and the good they produce.

Companies who strive to treat their people well in a world facing growing income disparity and grappling with radically new definitions of work will not only gain a competitive advantage, but they’ll build stronger social currency as well.

To get there, organizations must adopt an “inclusive growth” mindset.

It starts by creating a welcoming environment for every employee, regardless of how they like to work. We’ve seen an explosion in the number of gig workers, a trend we expect will continue for years to come. This is particularly relevant to British Columbia, where the technology, life sciences and service industries – each brimming with gig workers – are expected to fuel job creation.

The reason for this is clear: organizations get access to badly needed skills minus costly, long-term commitments, while freelancers enjoy greater levels of autonomy. Whether this is ultimately a winning proposition for workers, however, is entirely up to employers. A workplace based on 20th century norms will, by default, reward full-timers, and gradually create a culture of haves (full-timers) and have-nots (gig workers). Gig workers are left with little incentive to do their best work or develop a sense of loyalty. It’s a recipe for disappointment. To avoid this, businesses must build in safety-net structures and design a workplace that gives priority to ideas over hierarchy, so everyone feels valued.

One small step we have taken at EY is the creation of a talent marketplace called GigNow. This has made it easier to match freelancers with the right projects so they get to work on exciting opportunities suited to them.

Second, companies must get better at tapping into the brilliance of their people. Today’s economy demands fresh thinking that breaks from corporate norms, and business savvy alone isn’t enough. Teams need an injection of creativity, an understanding of analytics, top-notch people skills, and structures that reward and nurture them. As a global organization of more than 230,000 employees, cognitive diversity is critical to EY’s success. Where once most of EY Canada’s campus hiring focused on commerce or accounting students, nearly half of our 2018 hires come from science or technology backgrounds.

Third, the concept of employee training needs a rethink. No one can predict with accuracy what hard skills will be in demand five years from now, so the best training companies can provide is to give their people the ability to pivot quickly. The once-a-year goal setting session familiar to many Canadians must be replaced by lifelong learning, anchored on people’s career aspirations and the skills they will need to get there. Always-on learning encourages stability and helps people get a fair shot at the jobs of the future as they evolve. At EY, we are striving to build such a culture. We have implemented a system called EY LEAD that shifts the emphasis from retrospective performance evaluations to real-time feedback. EY Badges is another program we introduced to help our people develop new skills by earning digital credentials, paving the way for their long-term success in the organization and elsewhere.

The new world of work may seem unsettling, but it doesn’t have to be. Canadian businesses have a tremendous opportunity in front of them. By figuring out an innovative model in which we attract, hire and retain the best and brightest talent, businesses will thrive. Businesses that thrive have the ability to scale. And scaled businesses invest in people (job creation) and R&D (innovation), and export more (adding to our country’s wealth).

Change and disruption can create uncertainties, but by embracing it, being inclusive and applying fresh thinking to new problems, Canada can begin to create a culture that will withstand challenge.

Fiona Macfarlane is chief inclusiveness officer and B.C. managing partner at EY Canada.

This op-ed series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2018 Community Summit: Brave New Work, running February 26 — March 7. Find out more at

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