John Lewis boss Charlie Mayfield's plan for the future of work

Mayfield says employers need to have more difficult conversations and ramp up their training efforts.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 16 Jun 2017

We all know supermarket self-checkouts are annoying, but they’re nonetheless popular. Waitrose’s robotic tills account for 30% of all its in-store transactions, up from 12% just 18 months ago. In its small stores it’s more than 50%. Dealing with the impact of that on the workforce is just one of the challenges facing Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership (which owns Waitrose as well as its eponymous department store chain). 

Mayfield took to the stage at MT’s Future of Work: Digital conference today to tell delegates about his plan for dealing with the technological challenges businesses have on the horizon – from robots to AI.

While everyone remembers the benefits that sprang from the first industrial revolution, he said, people tend to forget what happened in the immediate aftermath – the so-called ‘Engels Pause’.

‘It lasted 70 years, during which time most people's lives were substantially worse than they'd been before. It's called Engels’ Pause after Marx & Engels, who wrote their thesis on the flaws of capitalism at around year 50. In these politically febrile times, I feel I must say that I don't believe their remedy was the right one. But I can see why, based on the data they gathered and the challenges facing those around them at the time, they felt there was a problem.’

It’s not just checkouts that have changed at JLP. Its garment sorting centre in Leicestershire near Milton Keynes used to employ 167 people, but thanks to automation that’s fallen to 27. Algorithms at its head office automate data capture and data entry between one system and another 30 times faster than the manual equivalent. Most other large businesses will have similar changes underway, and the implications for employment could be severe. So what’s to be done?

We ‘cannot look to politicians to provide the answers,’ he said. ‘They can of course help by creating the right environment, infrastructure and support in areas like education etc. But the simple fact is 9/10 of the people who will be in work in 10 years’ time are already working. The lion’s share of the work must fall to business.’

He has three specific suggestions. First off, employers need to be more honest. Too often companies keep schtum about the way their requirements for skills and roles is going to change through fear of unsettling people and damaging short-term output.

‘However in my experience people are usually a lot more resilient than you think and a lot more capable, even than they realise, given the chance. What they need though is time. If you plan in secret and execute fast, you deny people that precious enabler.’

Secondly, there need to be better opportunities to retrain. ‘It's important to recognise that the greatest barrier for many people to getting new skills can be themselves and self-confidence particularly if they have been in the same job for many years – they can become convinced that that’s all they can do.

‘It’s absolute rubbish, people are far more capable than they sometimes believe they can be. Simply giving people the opportunity to have another go in a different role in a risk-reduced way to try out new jobs is a really important thing to do.’ Training money should be spent on improving existing workers as well as through recruiting new apprentices, he added.

The final factor is better leadership and management processes. ‘Going after this needn't be too taxing,’ he said. ‘It involves common practices like better target setting. More focus on coaching and development. Every business in the land can be better at this. In JLP we've just torn up our performance management processes – it had become too process heavy – and we will relaunch it soon with much more focus on regular conversations, good communication and monitoring.’

Workplaces shouldn’t just be economic spaces, he added – they need to be social too. ‘The workplace is...where we figure out what we're good and bad at. What our prospects are. Whether we're valued. What we're worth. The workplace is where much of our hopes and dreams are realised, or not.’ Consequently, ‘If you don't like the idea of being a bystander, and I don't think we do, then we, as business people, need to embrace the economic and social purpose of work and act on it. ‘

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