Peter Cheese: “Businesses must focus on what’s truly important to life, and that’s not productivity and profit”

Peter Cheese Low Res

You’d be hard-pushed to find anyone who has thought about the future of work more than CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese. For him this is not only a professional area of expertise – he’s written a book entitled ‘The New World of Work’ – but it’s clear, talking to him, that this is a personal passion for him too.

If you come along to our sister event the Watercooler on 25-26 April in London, you’ll hear his enthusiasm and visionary outlook on how business could be a force for good, as well as profits, if we ask ourselves key questions at this crucial point in time and focus on what’s truly important to the whole of life.

We caught up with him ahead of his keynote session on ‘The Future of Work and Wellbeing’ to find out more.

Why do you think it’s so important that we have a debate about the future of work at this point in time?

We’re at a profound point of change, a real inflection point.

Definitely part of the vision of the future is more flexible, so we’re better able to balance work and life, which is really exciting. But the reality is we’re still in a learning phase. There’s still a lot we’re trying to figure out: what’s the right balance? How does it work for individuals, as well as working for the organisation?

And there’s resistance, still, amongst leaders sometimes. After all, we haven’t grown up with this and for many  there is still a strong sense of ‘if I can’t see somebody, then can I trust what they’re doing?’.

How do organisations address this resistance?

On one level, it’s about education. The expectations of the workforce have shifted, and they’ve shifted significantly. So whilst we will, of course, want to understand factors like productivity outcomes, the truth is that this is fast becoming an issue of attraction and retention.

We can see from our own surveys that many people are saying that flexible ways of working are very high on their list of what they want from employers.

Do you think organisations are too focused on productivity?

It’s an important part of the equation. But, in all honesty, in many organisations, it’s not an easy thing to measure directly. But we can understand the balance between costs and resources and overall financial outcomes of revenues and profitability.

Our attitudes to productivity and working patterns have changed significantly over the last 50 to 100 years. For instance, it’s an extraordinary paradox to think that the economist John Maynard Keynes, back in the 1930s, said that by now he expected us to be working 15 hour weeks. Our working patterns instead have barely changed from those times for most people, and with work pressure and stress increasing rapidly, we now see many more issues of mental wellbeing which is something we now see on the business agenda.

Why do you think this has happened?

Two reasons.

One, we still struggle to organise work and create the working practices and culture in the best, most efficient way to get the best out of people.

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Two, we’ve created a world of intense consumerism, where we never seem to be able to produce enough and consume enough, which was not the world that Keynes predicted. And it is something we have to think about for the long term in the context of sustainability.

Can we keep going this way of ‘intense consumerism’?

No. Which is why the debate about the future of work is a really important one.

Many organisations create products with built-in obsolescence and constantly are encouraging people to buy new things and throw away stuff endlessly, from food to technology. That is not sustainable, which is why we need to create more sustainable and circular economies.

And, of course, all these trends are interlinked with the environment.

Infinite output is not sustainable environmentally, economically or for a whole host of other reasons.

Capitalism has measured success in the past on productivity and profits. How should we measure ‘success’ in future?

A single critical measure of success in our societies and economies that we should be striving for in future?

Well, I would say wellbeing is a good measure because it can include all these things, from a sense of mental and emotional wellbeing to physical and environmental wellbeing.

I love the quote from Bobby Kennedy in the 1960s (the brother of John F. Kennedy and a lawyer and politician) that the trouble with GDP is it measures everything but that which is truly important to life.

I think that’s true. Over the last 50 years, we’ve been very driven, and continue to be very driven, by hard metrics like economic output and short term profit.

Of course, nobody’s saying that profits are not important. But they need to be better connected to the responsibilities businesses have to all their stakeholders . Now, thankfully, we are talking much more about what it means to be a truly responsible business. There’s this growing recognition that a responsible business understands all its stakeholders – not just its financial stakeholders or shareholders – but knows the importance of looking after its employees, customers and suppliers, too, as well as acting in the wider societal good and being responsible to impact on the environment.

So, we need to be measuring all these others facets better, then?

Yes. Which is why I’m happy to see the growth of ESG.

It’s not just about profit, we have got to take a much more holistic view in future of what we’re building for. We need to build from key principles and embed ideas like wellbeing as a critical societal outcome, as well as at the micro-economic level, the responsibility of a business to take care of its people.

You’ve quoted Maynard in the 1930s and Kennedy in the 1960s… so let’s say the debate has been going on for at least 100 years about the future of work – do we still have enough time to make these crucial shifts, given the many challenges our world is currently facing?

Yes. I’m an optimist. But we do have a collective responsibility to make that shift.

So many of us agree that the trajectory that we’re on is not sustainable. We can’t just endlessly consume.

Yet we know, if you look at all the research and motivational behavioural data, that the things that make us content are not things. Beyond satisfying our basic needs, it’s about a sense of societal support, a sense of purpose, community, family and these type of things that make life worthwhile.

But if we only ever say that the sole purpose of business is to make money, then we’re going to compromise these other factors. As we’ve seen happening. What’s interesting now is that the younger generations in particular are coming into the workforce saying ‘I don’t just want to know how much money I get paid, I want to know what the purpose is’.

What questions would you encourage, then, employers and, particularly, any professionals involved in employee wellbeing, to ask themselves?

What are we all here really to do?

How do I articulate that, whether I’m a bank or a charity, or whatever?

How do I articulate my purpose, so that it engages people, and that they feel that what they’re doing is actually creating some good?

I love the expression ‘doing well by doing good’.

It’s great to see these ideas being debated around what we measure such as ESG, and greater clarity of purpose and more debate about responsible business.

Much of the current debate about the future of work is around automation. That’s part of the debate but there’s a more profound consideration that sits behind all of this, which is how we create work that is good for us, that is inclusive and helps us all thrive and grow, benefitting people, organisations, and our economies and societies.

Ultimately, I think, the question we need to ask ourselves is:

What are we all here to do, to create a better world and future for those that follow us?

Click on the video above, or here, where CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese explains why businesses must focus on what’s truly important to life and why people must join the urgent debate on the future of work, society and our planet.

To meet Peter in person, and contribute to the debate, come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023. He will be speaking on The Future of Work.

The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work.

Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape. 

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here.

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