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CIPD Festival of Work 2021- a virtual event with meaning

By Kirsten Buck & Perry Timms

An atom. The smallest unit of matter. The building blocks of structures across our Universe and of life as we know it on Planet Earth. All matter is composed of atoms, but not all atomic matter has meaning. And it is this meaning that we, as human beings, deem a legitimate area of exploration as we conduct our daily lives on this one, relatively tiny planet…floating in the Milky Way galaxy…surrounded by billions of other planets, stars and galaxies, unexplored…which may also have conscious life striving to give their lives and planet meaning.

This is all said to paraphrase the brilliant Professor Brian Cox, who delivered a mind-bendingly meaningful closing keynote about ‘meaning’ at CIPD’s Festival of Work, 2021. Yet to understand how the conference got to this profound keynote, we must start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

As conscious, sentient beings, we are obsessed with what the future of humankind, animalkind and our planet may look like. Of course, some of us are more interested in this than others. This difference amongst many other variances makes us human. Gives us each unique meaning. To quote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:

“Life must be understood backward. But it must be lived forward”.

To revert back to Prof Brian Cox’s closing keynote for one brief moment in time, it can be said that Cox alluded to this notion that Kierkegaard declared when describing the human fixation in the study of the Universe’s creation: the event that gave us all meaning! If we understand this, we are better informed to predict and plan for our future.

Within the business community, we are concerned with the future of work. And within the business community, HR practitioners are specifically concerned with the future of our discipline and how this can and will shape the organisations we work within.

And so we have the CIPD’s “Festival of Work”(FoW). A three day long exhibition and conference, with attendance open to both CIPD members and non-members alike. This event has gone virtual for two years running now, and as a first time attendee to their virtual set-up, I can say that the experience did not disappoint.

With the headline of “Building better – leading a new era of good work” and the conference’s 31 sessions being categorised into one of the following three streams: 1) Are you ready for revolution? Changing the DNA of your organisation, 2) In with the new, Embracing new ways of working, 3) Powering people, Developing the workforce of the future; it felt from the offset that this year’s event understood our planet’s reality, and ways in which HR leaders can progressively and positively impact the future of work.

Across the three days there was an abundance of learning and networking opportunities; with 85 speakers to be heard, 33 virtual exhibitors, 24 free learning sessions and over 5,500 visitors in attendance, to boast some key stats. I sampled all aspects of FoW, and there were some pleasant surprises along the way, as well as expectations met.

It was however of little surprise that the keynotes and panel sessions more often than not referred to the catalytic Covid-19 pandemic as an external factor changing the shape of our organisations and role of HR. The state of lockdown, forcing us to work remotely, in dispersed teams, abandoning our offices and reassembling over Zoom has accelerated organisation design challenges.

The challenge of a generation thrust upon us by Covid, as CIPD CEO Peter Cheese poignantly said, will be judged by future historians. How will we be judged? We have made progress when it comes to adapting our organisations, working in agile and more inclusive ways, role modelling behaviours that are more human to each other. Yet with this “real sense of optimism we must not be complacent.”

(We will return to the conference sessions and the overtone of localised triumphs, success celebrations, the call for sustainability and human respect for difference, on display for all attendees to see and hear. This atmosphere of optimism was so vibrant, it was as if I could feel it: it permeated my laptop screen).

The exhibition itself felt lively and as real as CGI created exhibition stands can get. Each stand had its own resource library, and options to interact with the exhibitors – these features were intuitive.

Complimentary learning sessions were truly complementary (!) and a nice resource that I can still access although the live event has passed. This is a definite perk of virtual conferences- the option to join and rejoin, asynchronously. In fact, to write this piece I am referring back to the speaker sessions as I type.

As hinted at above, I, Kirsten, attended the three days of FoW 2021. I was there as PTHR’s representative, and as we like to do at PTHR, we learn by proxy. Therefore, I wrote notes avidly, and shared insight with the team each day. Proxy learning, if done well, should mean that learners not present for the learning-event, take as much from it as the person attending, i.e the ‘proxy’. Having shared my notes, insights, and overarching feeling I had from attending, PTHR’s Perry Timms will now take over this written piece to deduce my key takeaways, as well as his personal predictions. What is the future of work for HR at this irreversible and challenging time in the history of our planet?

Over to Perry…

Thank you Kirsten for a really powerful review of what was clearly a well constructed virtualised experience – perhaps setting the tone for future events being a mixture of live and online, synchronous and asynchronous consumption of content and reflection.

And it’s that immersive nature of work itself that I want to start with around the future for HR. As a profession, we have been tasked with the people side/factor/element in work. Not just the architecture that houses either the machinery of work in a place or the convergence of human beings in collective endeavour, but the soul, spirit and essence of that meaning you opened up with. Immersed in our work, not submerged by it.

Our search for that meaning – making a difference, doing something of worth and value and being able to live a life of experiences and material gain through the exchange of energy in those systems of work – is where HR sits.

We may have processed that experience into a series of legally-compliant, inclusive practices and attempting to create standardised, consistent approaches but we humans are notoriously variable, varied and unpredictable at times.

So in the near future of HR’s offer to the world of work it feels there is a recalibration of the gears, cogs, and flow of work. Into something more organic, adaptable and fluid.

HR is now tasked with creating that mixture – or the ubiquitous word of 2021, hybrid – of online, virtual and real-time presence-based experiences of work. Synchronous and asynchronous. And yet, that’s no new phenomenon. We’ve had globalised organisations with people working and connecting remotely for some time now. We’ve had alternatives ways to cut the working week being experimented with by people who want to pioneer their approach as much as pioneer new products and services.

It’s that pioneering that HR has a chance to emerge into. Not just tired and predictable, orthodox practices. More agile, responsive and varied “routes” into work, through work and into performance, fulfillment and to that ultimate goal – flourishing people and flourishing organisations. For too long we’ve created mathematical equations on people+effort=productivity and thereby financial stability and success.

Now it’s more the chaotician over the mathematician (but in reality, a combination of both).

How do we consistently design for variable and adaptable approaches to work as the world changes and people’s needs, demands and desires change with it and because of it?

How do we formally apply informality that allows for more discovery, inventiveness and creativity that are the hallmarks of human beings over the logic and expedience of digital technologies?

HR’s next stage evolution is to become the artists and engineers of the alignment between heart, soul and spirit of people and the processes and predictable and efficient application of systems that generate value and sustain an enterprise’s place in the world.

At PTHR we are aligned to the cause of better business, for a better world. We believe that through more enriching working experiences, people have a chance to improve their prospects in life and contribute to a better society of more care, compassion and community spirit.

HR’s role in that artistry and science is critical. Be it organisation design that arranges all the component parts in an adjustable, optimised system. Of the values and principles we believe in, that guide us and shape our attitudes, behaviours and ways of being with each other. Of the accountable, clear and together ways we get things done that add value to the planet, to people and to communities.

It’s time for an evolved spirit of good work, that is the essence of good organisations made up of fallible but well-intended people who pull together and make their individual mark on what matters. It’s HR for that good. And evolved HR will become a most significant factor in reinventing the experience of work after the shockwave of a pandemic and civil unrest.

Back to Kirsten…

This is just our interpretation of the brilliant FoW 2021, combined with deductions on where the speakers, and we at PTHR see the future of work going. We are a collection of 12 self-proclaimed business activists, with the mission to create better business for a better world. To go full circle back to Professor Brian Cox, our world is “paradise” and a paradise we have been shaped by, and one that has been shaped by us. Yes, we may be able to look out to the universe and in the future extract resources from places beyond our planet to ensure survival, yet we must respect earth- it is the perfect planet for us. This planet has allowed us to evolve through its relative stability, giving us an abundance of life, and with this life, meaning. We must all respect our place in the universe and bringing the message closer to home, we must understand the meaning we share as human beings. As a place where we spend a large proportion of our time, this respect belongs in the workplace- whether this be in the office, virtually, or in a hybrid set-up.

Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître coined the day of creation, the big bang, as: “the day without a yesterday”. Let’s use our collective meaning and purpose in work and life to ensure there is always – for our planet – a day with a tomorrow.