by Phil Wilson

My 10 Top Takeaways from CUE

I am flying back today from the 40th anniversary CUE conference. If you aren’t a member of CUE you are really missing out. It is simply the best conference around for people focused on creating positive workplaces. I enjoyed presenting on two panels around the future of work. And today I had the honor of teaching some incredible leaders the ins and outs of Approachable Leadership.

The two panels on the future of work (and the future of unions) were thought-provoking for both the audience and the panelists. I don’t know what it felt like as the world shifted from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial one, but I think we’re all about to find out. The intersection of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented reality (not to mention robots and autonomous vehicles) feel ready to shift workplaces (and the world) unlike anything that has happened in my lifetime. The Internet and email seemed big and revolutionary. These new technologies feel much, much bigger.

My 10 top takeaways?

  1. Humans are not going to be replaced (completely) anytime soon. Instead there will be a massive shift in what humans will be called on to do. Most tasks (and I use “tasks” versus “jobs” intentionally) that are repeatable or reasonably easy to learn are very likely to be done by bots, learning machines, and algorithms. These tasks - which can often be monotonous and less engaging - are also likely to be done more efficiently and with higher quality in this new world. The tasks that remain will be ones that humans can do better. Tasks that happen in an uncertain environment or require a lot of independent judgment, empathy, and connection, will remain in the hands of people. Those jobs will require a lot more soft skills (like approachability).
  2. Not everything that can be automated or done by a robot will be. These technologies are often not cheap. Just because a robot can make a bunch of hamburgers at one time doesn’t mean it makes financial sense to do it. The job tasks that are at the highest risk are ones that are currently expensive but repeatable (like accounting, law, financial planning, and dare I say many Human Resources tasks).
  3. The shift in jobs will be massively disruptive, requiring learning and adapting at a scale not seen since… I can’t think of another example. It may be because I’m living so far on this side of the industrial revolution, but I think this will be much more disruptive than moving from farms to factories and cities. To keep a job (especially one that is valuable) many people will have to rapidly develop completely new skills or dramatically improve skills they already have. Many people will have a hard time making that shift. Those people will suffer and feel left behind. If there is a silver lining it’s that I believe these new technologies will be more democratized. People who want to do the hard work of improving their skill set should be able to do it. Perhaps we will figure out a way to help people successfully make the transition but if history is any guide I am guessing we will see a lot more use of technology to protest and disrupt during these shifts (if I’m not depressing you enough check out Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class and Roy Williams and Michael Drew’s book Pendulum).
  4. Unions are not about to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes. Pendulum suggests that as we enter the apex of a “we” cycle (that happens in 2023 - like I said, read the book) union membership should be exploding. That’s what happened in the 1940’s (the last time we were in this apex of a “we” cycle). But that’s not what’s happening. Unions may yet steal victory out of the jaws of defeat, and the conditions are certainly ripe for it. However, the same disruptive technologies that are transforming our economy are also short-circuiting the perceived need for unions. This is not good news for companies, however. One of the points I made during the panel discussion is that unions are a lot more predictable than mobs. Unions have a profit motive and support one half of our traditional power structure. Angry mobs don’t. It’s a major threat to stability, not just in America but throughout the world.
  5. All is not gloom and doom. One of the things I love most about CUE is seeing all the innovative work employee relations pros around the country are doing to make their companies great places to work and - be human (that’s why I agree with China Gorman). There is a real glass half-full story to tell about how companies are using data to connect deeply with each other, identify problems early, and help employees achieve their goals (at work and in life). I believe the future of the workplace is in good hands as I look around the quality of people thinking and working in this space.
  6. Connection is the killer app. It was suggested to start a drinking game where people take a drink every time I say the word “connection” (others suggested a better game would be drinking every time Zev Eigen says a word you have to look up in the dictionary – either one would test your bladder if not your liver). Either way, the importance of connection is only going to grow. It will be the key differentiator for organizations, especially since this is one thing machines won’t be good at. Companies that do the best job of delivering connection will attract and retain the best talent. Those that don’t will be in trouble.
  7. Speaking of connections, if you are putting on an event and want to blow your folks away, invite Greg Hawks to speak and emcee. Just do it. You won’t regret it.
  8. Don’t leave your new boss stranded at the networking event. She won’t let you forget it.
  9. Read all the emails leading up to the event. Who knows when you might be called up on stage?
  10. People will do the craziest things at work. No, crazier than that. Even crazier. Just stop guessing.

I am so appreciative of the time I get to spend with the best labor and positive employee relations pros in the business. Can’t wait for the next conference this fall. For those of you who went, what were your key takeaways? Let me know in the comments!