How the world’s biggest societal changes will impact business

Inequality, climate change, values and technology. Alison Watson, Head of School of Leadership and Management at Arden University, delves into four global challenges and considers what they will ask of tomorrow’s business leaders

Society is constantly evolving. In the past two decades alone, there have been some remarkable feats that have inevitably changed the way we live and how society works.

Little changes can also cause big waves in our everyday lives, such as the shift to remote working and the emphasis on wellbeing brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

If we understand how the world is changing, we will know what problems to expect and can help prepare the next generation of leaders to deal with them. Here are four major trends to consider.

* 1. The great rise of technology

The pandemic has sped up the use of technology and inevitably shifted the skills future jobs will demand. Staying competitive in this changing business environment requires new strategies and practices, with findings suggesting that most executives recognise technology’s strategic importance as a critical component of the business, not just a source of cost efficiencies.

Despite worries that certain jobs will become obsolete, many future roles will be created by, and revolve around, the fourth industrial revolution and the digitisation of the workplace. These in-demand skills will result in business leaders needing a set of foundational skills: cognitive, digital, interpersonal and self-leadership (including self-awareness, self-management and entrepreneurship) skills. With AI, tech developments and automation assisting the labour market, the talents employees bring to the table need to complement digital advancements.

We are already seeing the benefits technology brings. Being able to work remotely has changed the way people view the working day; rightly so, there is now more importance on maintaining a good work-life balance and more freedom to apply for jobs that were once out of reach simply due to location and inability to commute. It has given those with disabilities more options and has allowed parents to progress in their careers without having to sacrifice precious time with their children.

Technology, among many other things, should be allowing businesses to welcome a more diverse team. It will allow business leaders of the future to engage with people from a range of specialisms and sectors, allowing them to broaden their horizons and continually inform their developing worldview.

This interaction will help leaders adjust their perspectives, enable them to build strong, long-lasting relationships with key stakeholders and reinforce an understanding of people across various cultures and backgrounds, allowing them to become a keen advocate of diversity and flexibility.

At the heart of this, therefore, the businesspeople of the future must have a deep understanding of people – they need to know how to empower and get the best from their teams and have a deep emotional and social intelligence which enables them to understand and gauge the impact of the decisions they make on the people around them.

* 2. Values matter

One change that has gathered pace throughout the pandemic and shows no signs of slowing down is that people want to be involved in something that matters, something that aligns with their values and something that fulfils them.

This ‘awakening’ that successive lockdowns brought on has resulted in society wanting more purpose behind their decisions – whether it is deciding to be more sustainable for the environment or changing jobs because they want to work at home full-time. This means businesses of the future will need a more holistic approach. There will be more emphasis on impact and inclusivity; it is not solely about profit.

Business leaders will need to keep this in mind. In order to survive, they will need to consider what people – consumers and workers alike – want. They will be held accountable for decisions that do not align with ethics, just as we have seen with some fast fashion brands, for example, in recent years.

As technology allows us to connect more easily, it will become simpler and more feasible for consumers and employees to go elsewhere if a business does not meet their needs. Things will become more competitive, so the business students of today need to prepare and think about how they will conduct strategies with people’s needs in mind.

*3. Climate change

A change we cannot ignore is climate change and its impact on society. It will undoubtedly cause colossal changes that span different areas, including business. For example, as the effects of climate change become more prominent, more and more consumers are looking to buy goods and services from businesses that operate in ethical and sustainable ways.

According to McKinsey, companies need to take climate considerations into account when looking at capital allocation, development of products or services, and supply-chain management, among other things. This will require a change in mindset, new operating models, and tools and processes to integrate climate risk into decision-making.

So, what does this mean for the business leaders of tomorrow? As mentioned earlier, they’ll be expected to be holistic leaders who make decisions based on sound moral and ethical principles. They’ll need to empower their teams and be innovative in order to revolutionise business strategies that will maximise sustainable and ethical practices.

The future business leader will be a sustainable leader – someone who will drive change by addressing the core social, environmental and economic issues affecting our planet. Instead of getting caught up on ‘everyday’ business matters, the leaders of tomorrow that have sustainability at their core will need to be able to ally short-term business objectives with longer-term, strategic plans that consider objectives relating to economic health, the environment, people and society.

They will need to have a comprehensive worldview that contemplates and understands humanity’s place as part of a global ecosystem and will need to be able to lead and influence others.

*4. The widening gaps in the workforce

Disparity in the workplace remains a big topic with many conferences dedicated to closing the gender gap, for example, and many movements trying to showcase the importance of a diverse workplace.

This final trend is continually evolving and impacting businesses and, as such, is also one that is influenced by the aforementioned points. As climate change takes its toll on Earth’s physical planet, for example, it will cause social, economic, and political chaos as refugees flee areas that can no longer sustain them.

Society is likely to become more polarised due to the impacts of climate change. With some areas losing natural resources, such as drinking water, and conditions either too hot and dry, or too cold and wet, livelihoods will be threatened and citizens will be displaced, causing a rise in people seeking asylum. A rise in floods and increased pollution will also cause public health concerns. Research has shown that social inequality is characterised by a vicious cycle, whereby disadvantaged groups suffer a disproportionate loss of their income and assets from the effects of climate change, resulting in greater, subsequent inequality.

With the rise of technology, we will again see disadvantaged groups missing out on key developments due to financial constraints. As life expectancy rates grow, many will continue to work long past the traditional age of retirement and yet they may fall behind if not included in the rapid developments that allow economies and businesses to thrive.

All of this will result in disparities if development and inclusion aren’t key aspects for businesses. Business leaders will need to consider how best to deploy this older, more experienced workforce, how to react to the movement of asylum seekers and disadvantaged groups, and how they can close the inequality gap.

What traits do you need to be a ‘sustainable leader’? Alison Watson, Head of the School of Leadership and Management at Arden University, looks at qualities to embrace and develop, and outlines why businesses will need them

Alison Watson is Head of School of Leadership and Management at Arden University. Alison has a wealth of experience in business and management having worked for a number of large retailers as an operations and project manager. Her recent research interests focus on inclusion and encouraging wider access to higher education.

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