I see technological development as an important part of the solution for everything from demographical shifts to environmental sustainability. That also includes HR, where AI will replace a lot of manual work processes and incorporate better quality into others. Yet the work cannot be done without the active presence of mature, ethical and knowledgeable HR and leadership professionals
As an economist and technology optimist, Even Bolstad, president of the EAPM, managing director of HR Norge and board member of the WFPMA, has a lot to say about current trends in skilling and reskilling, telework, the use of artificial intelligence and experiments with work time. Many of his thoughts are provocative and contrary to current flows, yet they are well supported. That’s why this interview represents an intriguing journey into the present and future of work.
How have rapid technological changes and the adoption of AI changed the supply and demand of skills & competencies? What skills & competencies do employers want the most and what can and can’t they receive?
There are skills gaps all over the place. If we don’t invest in and prioritise basic education, higher education, reskilling and upskilling, we will all suffer from that – individuals, society and companies.
Certain kinds of engineering and ICT skills are the most obvious answers when it comes to the question of where demand is most urgent. The demand side is massive, and for some skills the salaries are just going through the roof. In this area, the skills gap is global, and companies are conducting global talent searches. Some stay and continue living in their home countries, while others might very well work for international employers and also migrate. Many of those who are mostly sought after are quite young and willing to move. This might create a brain drain, especially from countries where the salary level is generally low.
Searching for talent globally also creates the global convergence of salary levels. Cheap engineers from country X get a salary increase, but at the same time they put a cap on salaries for similar engineers in country Y. This again stimulates automation and digitalisation in country X, which again often means higher overall productivity. On the other hand, migration, the brain drain and limited access to competencies might be devastating for a home industry and services in the development of their countries.
What challenges does Europe’s shrinking and ageing population create for employers and HR managers?
Demographic changes come in tandem with increased demand for personnel with STEM competencies (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). There is nothing new in this; we have known it was coming for decades. But companies have been short-sighted and governments, universities and others have not been able to build capacities in the education system. Many also consider STEM education more challenging than other studies, and students choose studies that are less challenging. Given that at least some STEM education is also more expensive to deliver, one might say that customers and producers have found each other in short-termism.
An ageing population, with the medical ability to prevent and cure more and more, and the increased life expectancy of inhabitants, also creates pressure on health services. Some of this pressure might be alleviated through the increased use of technology. But you also need a higher share of the total working population employed in professional and public healthcare services. As a society, it is pivotal to retain the participation rate – i.e., the percentage of the potential workforce that is actually working – at a high and increasing level. If this is not achieved, we are unable to finance healthcare, education and other elements in modern welfare systems.
As a society, it is pivotal to retain the participation rate – i.e., the percentage of the potential workforce that is actually working – at a high and increasing level, otherwise we won’t be able to retain our welfare systems
How have the massive shift to work from home and telework impacted the world of HR? Is it your view that employees will return to offices like before or not?
The toothpaste is out of the tube, and you will never put it back. The home office period has been tough and many have struggled, but it has also been a blessing for many. We don’t like a home office if it is imposed upon us; we want to choose it for ourselves. And most of us want a combination, often not more than two or three days per week. Moreover, preferences vary with age, position, size of home, the distance travelled to work, family situation, job type, job seniority, personality and a lot of other factors. In general, increased flexibility is a blessing.
But, again, a warning: it might also be a trap for equal opportunities. If flexibility means that mum is staying and working at home, while dad is forging a career, a lot of what has been achieved over the last decades will be lost. Bad for mum, bad for companies and bad for society. Equal rights and equal opportunities often start with inherited expectations on how to divide responsibilities at home. If we are not able to cope with that, it is difficult for work life to compensate.
Telework also created opportunities for companies to hire workers from abroad. How massive is this trend?
Telework, at its core, has to do with the price differences between markets opening up to each other. Translated to HR, it’s about labour being cheaper and more available in one country than another.
As an economist, I would say that, if labour was in short supply, these price differences would be settled primarily through increases in wages where demand is concentrated, as we have seen happen when it comes to skilled ICT in the Baltics and elsewhere.
This, again, creates several new challenges. Firstly, as employers cynically might state, salaries are conterminous. If wages within one group increase, that has a knock-on effect on other groups that might not be able to produce enough value to defend the pay-out through their individual productivity.
Secondly, international competition in wages might drain the whole community for the essential competencies that are necessary to raise the community in general. As an example, if municipalities are unable to hire engineers or teachers, free labour competition might be regarded as sub-optimalisation put into the system. As one Norwegian politician once put it: “It is like peeing your pants to keep warm”. Rather short sighted – not very sustainable. And, of course, if the market has sufficient labour resources, the free movement of services opens up a “race to the bottom”. As such, I personally strongly support the underlying idea of the EU minimum wage.
We have seen a surge in new apps for worker surveillance during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of these apps proved to be invasive and detrimental to the psychology of workers. What are your standards with respect to surveillance apps, either in the workplace or in telework?
Here I am obviously influenced by the fact that I am a Scandinavian, where workers rights go hand in hand with trust and mainly constructive dialogue with unions and workers’ representatives. Although we struggle from time to time, most of us feel a strong commitment to go from parties to partners. By that, and through transparency, we uphold, gain and strengthen trust.
Data protection laws and the GDPR are integrated parts of balancing the need of individuals with the effective distribution of labour. Let’s be honest, ethics is not always a beacon of behaviour. There will always be bandits out there. Although most leaders are trustworthy and understand the concept of psychological safety and trust-based leadership, we have to impose barriers on those who aren’t.
With demographic shifts – an increasing elderly population with more need for care – I struggle to see how the idea of “less need for work, we need to share” is valid for the decades to come
HR companies intensively test AI in their search for the right candidates. What are your concerns and principles regarding the ethical use of AI?
At my core, I am a technology optimist. That means that I see technological development as an important part of the solution for everything from demographical shifts to environmental sustainability. That also includes HR. AI will replace a lot of manual work processes and build quality into others.
At the same time, we know that no technology is better than the people that develop the systems and the data you enter into that system. AI might, as an example, accelerate discrimination, let’s call it cumulative, negative stereotyping on steroids. Although AI and its use have been here for decades, it is still immature. But let us embrace it and stay positive, without letting the use develop into a “technological home-alone party”, without mature, ethical and knowledgeable HR and leadership professionals present and active.
When it comes to ethics, my perspective is that not making use of AI could easily be unethical. Not only because AI will make better judgements than humans in many cases, but also from the perspective of the humanisation of working life and value creation. Let humans concentrate on what humans do best. In general, that will create more interesting work and better workplaces for each and every one of us, increased value creation with more to share at the company level – and with that also better communities and societies securing welfare and prosperity. It’s a win-win-win. Remember the Luddites from the first industrial revolution. Let’s not follow in their footprints.
We have seen many people in the U.S. resigning from their jobs citing dissatisfaction with the way they were treated by employers. Meanwhile, some employers in Europe are testing a four-day workweek and the EU is pushing for the right to disconnect to protect workers from overly pushy employers. Are we on the cusp of changing the work environment in favour of workers’ wellbeing?
As far as I see it, there are two main reasons to impose a four-day week. One has to do with the work-life balance, health, wellbeing and workers protection; the other is based on the idea that work is a limited resource and has to be shared among employees. From there on, and secondly, there are two alternatives: a four-day week with full wage compensation, or – as in Belgium – a four-day week without reducing the total number of weekly hours and thereby more a matter of flexibility.
The four-day week might be seen as an alternative to the “six-hour day” and other discussions on societal reforms. There have been experiments ongoing for decades, but I don’t see proof that one can balance increased productivity with a better work-life balance. That leads to the unpleasant question: are you willing to have reduced wages and welfare in order to get shorter working hours? Most people will answer “no” to that question.
With demographic shifts – an increasing elderly population with more need for care – I also struggle to see how the idea of “less need for work, we need to share” is valid in the decades to come.
Sorry… Some of us are privileged and could – if we wanted – reduce the number of hours we work and thereby also live a comfortable life with lower salaries. Countries with high GDP per capita seem to lead the way, while those with lower value creation are stuck with longer days. Another paradox, at the individual level, is, of course, that those of us who have the opportunity to have more free time often feel strongly fulfilled by working – and often a lot. As an example, I seldom work less than 50 hours per week – often more. Not because I have to, but because I enjoy it. With kids having flown the nest and good health, meaningful work with a high level of flexibility is a totally different situation than the alternatives. Those who are really in need of more time are those who struggle to handle expenses that exceed their income. If society wants to do something about this imbalance, the tax system would be an appropriate tool, in combination with the opportunity to work fewer hours, but to do so with a salary that’s proportionately lower.
If we don’t invest in and prioritise basic education, higher education, reskilling and upskilling, individuals, society and companies will all suffer
If the market has sufficient labour resources, the free movement of services creates a “race to the bottom”. As such, I personally strongly support the underlying idea of the EU minimum wage
Not making use of AI could easily be unethical. Not only because AI will make better judgements than humans in many cases, but also from the perspective of the humanisation of working life and value creation