The future’s got (tech) talent

Download The AGSM Business of Leadership podcast today on your favourite podcast platform.

The Business of Work (episode 3): What will the future of work look like in a world increasingly dominated by technology?


  • Professor Nick Wailes, Senior Deputy Dean (External Engagement) UNSW Business School and Director AGSM @ UNSW Business School
  • Professor Barney Tan, Head, School of Information Systems and Technology Management, UNSW Business School
  • Lee Hickin, Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft ANZ 

Find out more about Professor Barney Tan’s research below: 



What will the future of work look like in a world increasingly dominated by technology?

Today, every company is a technology company, meaning every workplace needs people with technical skills and understanding to thrive.
Technology is no longer the sole domain of the IT Department – every function from accounting to recruitment is built on technology.

This doesn’t mean the CEO will need to learn how to code. It does mean that leaders and other decision-makers in the organisation need to understand the role of technology in their business and be able to interpret data and leverage technology to make informed decisions, to keep ahead of the pace of change.

How can they do this while motivating everyone in the organisation to adopt an always-be-learning mindset and a willingness to upskill and reskill in today’s technology-enabled world of work?

In this episode of AGSM’s Business of Leadership podcast, we discuss how leaders can navigate the world of technology and use it to innovate and grow.

Professor Nick Wailes, Senior Deputy Dean and Director of the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School is joined by Lee Hickin, Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft Australia New Zealand, to discuss what the tech giant has found so far when it comes to measuring the impact this acceleration of technology is having on companies and workforces.

We’re also joined by Barney Tan, Head of School and a Professor at the School of Information Systems and Technology Management of UNSW Business School, who will be sharing his research findings on how technology can be used to enable – or weaken – successful connection in workplaces and beyond.

Nick Wailes: Hi, my name’s Nick Wailes. I’m the director of AGSM, and thank you for joining us for the latest in the AGSM Business of Leadership podcast series. Today, we’re going to talk about the business of work.

Particularly, issues around technology and how that’s changing work, and the changing talent requirements in organisations. I’m joined with two great guests today, to join me in conversation.

Lee, maybe I could throw to you to get you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your role?

Lee Hickin: For sure. Thanks for having me, Nick. My name’s Lee Hickin. I’m the chief technology officer for Microsoft Australia, New Zealand. I also hold the seat as the responsible AI lead for Microsoft across Australia and New Zealand.

I’ve been with Microsoft since about 2005, but I’ve also worked at Amazon Web Services, I’ve worked at IBM. I’m basically a lifelong tech person, having been in the industry for just around 30 years or so.

Nick Wailes: And Barney, thanks for joining us.

Barney Tan: Hi, Nick. Thanks for having me. Hi, everyone. My name is Barney Tan. I’m a professor and head of the School of Information Systems and Technology Management at UNSW Business School. Now, unlike Lee, I’m a career academic, but I’ve spent the last 12 years studying how organisations have used technology to improve what they do.

In recent years, I’ve especially looked at how technologies, such as AI, blockchain, has really changed the way that businesses work. I’ve been looking at how technologies impact the future of business and work.

Nick Wailes: Okay, great. So I thought we’d start the conversation with an issue that we often hear, which is the shortage of technology talent and the changing requirements in organisations.

Lee, you’ve been in the industry a long time. What is the technology talent that organisations are looking for, and what role does it play in those organisations?

Lee Hickin: Right. Straight to the difficult questions, hey Nick? Right into it.

Lee Hickin: Look, it certainly is evolving and changing, and it has evolved over the years. It’s accelerating almost in a hockey stick style of acceleration of change in the last five to 10 years. What we’ve really seen, has been this shift from the idea that people are bound by the qualifications they have, the achievements they’ve made, to this move towards a set of skills. Skills being somewhat hard in the sense that people that have got skills because they’ve got experience in particular technologies.

We’re still seeing that. We’re seeing a steady uptick in a real need for data-focused AI or scientific, skill-based roles. But there’s always a continual need for what I call are management leadership roles, but it’s roles or skills that are about orchestrating and leading teams. But for me, when we think about the skilling piece and I’m sure we’ll get into a lot of the details of this. It’s hard to communicate it in job requirements and job listings, but it’s really the soft skills.

The adaptability, communication, critical thinking and that sort of people with initiative skills. Those are actually the in-demand skills that we see, married up with experience in some of the key technologies that I mentioned earlier.

Nick Wailes: Great. Barney, maybe I could turn to you because your school is educating technology leaders of the future. What are the skills that you’re focusing on and that you know employers are looking for?

Barney Tan: Right. So, I feel that the skills that are most in demand in this day and age, are really related to how to make sense of that incredible amount of data that businesses are now able to generate, collect and store about their customers. So in the decades past, business schools maybe training all business students to read financial statements.

I think we have moved on since. So like here, our approach at UNSW Business School, is to really focus on teaching our students basic skills and data analytics to really get them to be able to make sense of the data that their future organisations will be generating. That’s key for us.

Lee Hickin: I find one of the interesting factors of this skilling and in demand skilling issue, is that is perhaps that balance between how are students developing capabilities today? I hear a lot of talk, Barney, about micro-credentialing and micro-skilling, and small-scale packets of knowledge that build up to this bigger picture.

There was an article recently that Ryan Roslansky, the LinkedIn CEO put out about, which was essentially saying that skills are the new currency. From an education point of view, because I don’t see that world, are you seeing that thought around micro-skilling as opposed to big skills, if you like?

Barney Tan: Well, I think increasingly, we are trying to build more flexibility into our curriculum. To have a number of different neatly packaged skills that we can offer to our students, and perhaps we can leave discretion for the students. Of course, we are not there yet.

But what I’m envisioning as a way forward in the future, could be that students are able to choose packages of skills that they can put together to form a formal qualification. That could be the way that business course in Australia and around the world move in the future.

Lee Hickin: Interesting.

Nick Wailes: Okay. But that is also quite interesting if you think about people in the workforce now and people in managerial roles. Lee, a few years ago people were saying that every manager should learn how to code. I thought that was interesting because it really showed how important technology and software was becoming, but it didn’t seem to me, to be a great use of time. But what’s your view about that?

Lee Hickin: Yeah. I’ve heard that a few times. Look, I’m an ex-coder so I used to do it, and I can see the value of coding, but should every manager learn to code? Gosh, no, I don’t think so. I think we’d be in a terrible position if we were trying to get everybody to be capable of doing every kind of role. But I think it points to, at least in my view, Nick, it points to this idea that it’s leaders and managers. I said those terms interchangeably, but they’re quite different roles really.

But leaders need to understand how businesses really operate today. The truth of the matter is technology is not this thing that happens as a segment of a business. Technology is actually how a business runs today. It is built on technology. Core functions of how a business runs is technology-based. That technology is quickly evolving to become less about running software but actually about building software and operating software. At some point, yes, tech leaders need to understand the art of programming perhaps, but don’t think they need to be programmers.

They need to understand things like Agile, as a methodology for programming. They need to understand how software’s developed, but I wouldn’t expect them all to be Python coders.

Nick Wailes: Right. Okay. The analogy that Barney used before, which is we have been teaching finance and accounting to business school students because that’s a core part of business.

You’re effectively saying that the technology stack and software are becoming such an integral part of how business delivers value to customers, that managers need to understand that process in the same way they do accounting or something like that.

Lee Hickin: I think so. In fact, I’ll flip it around another way. In fact, my nephew’s 18, finishing his HSC, trying to think about his career courses and study. He loves technology, he wants to do technology. He’s asking me the questions, “How do I get into tech?” My response is, “Every job is a tech job. If you’re going into finance, you want to be an actuary, you want to be a financial planner, you want to go into real estate. Whatever you want to do, you’re probably going to find that tech is a core part of that.”

To flip that model around, it is really the case that every job, whatever function you’re doing, if you’re any part of the business, marketing, finance, sales, technology is going to be a tool that is going to enable you to do that job either better, or in a different way or in a more modern way. Yeah. I think the short answer is absolutely. There’s a clash of the two or a coming together of the two, if you like.

Barney Tan: Lee, I’m going to disagree with you there.

Lee Hickin: Excellent

Barney Tan: I also started off in computer science so I can code as well. I don’t think that leaders, business leaders, need to be code in the sense that they should be able to write programmes and apps. But I think that at some point, leaders will be expected to be able to use code to query the data that they have stored and that they have gathered within their organisation. I think some degree or some basic level of coding knowledge will be inevitable at some point. It might not be code in the sense that we know code, as we type into a text file and we type everything from scratch.

It might be using code-free interfaces to actually develop those queries. But I think at some point, leaders will have to think about what is it that they have within their organisations. This huge, valuable repository of information that they can potentially access to extract insights for themselves, to help with their decision-making. I think they need to be able to translate that ability to query that data to derive insights for themselves.

Lee Hickin: Now you see, Barney, and I was so, halfway through what you’re saying, I was ready to jump on you and say, “I disagree with you, I disagree.” However, what you said in the second half is right.

Barney Tan: Yep.

Lee Hickin: Well, sorry, I disagree about the coding thing. But then when you mentioned the point that actually what we are describing is that old mentality of coding, which is sitting in front of an IDE and editor and writing code.

Barney Tan: Yep.

Lee Hickin: Whereas when you talk about what coding might be, and we throw around terms like low-code, no-code, citizen coding, development platforms, I think what we’re seeing is actually the evolution of software democratising the complexity of coding into human syntactical interfaces. It becomes something that a human generally can interface with, so that yes, a manager needs to ask questions of data.

But they don’t have to write an inference model that then works that out. They can just in the absolute future, they’ll just ask the computer, “Hey, what’s going on with that data? Why are we seeing that?” But today, maybe it’s a case of using low-code platforms to develop simple tools. We agree in the middle somewhere that maybe some kind of coding, but just not the coding we used.

Nick Wailes: I think I’ll call that a truce and so one point each. I think it’s really interesting to carry this conversation on because we talk there about a fundamental skill, but there are new sets of technology related skills and insights that organisations are having to develop all the time. Lee, I know you do a lot of work in the AI space. Cybersecurity is a critical issue for most organisations.

What it really implies is that organisations need to be able to upskill their people consistently over time, to be able to embrace and use new technologies to be able to effectively deliver value to customers. Lee, I’m interested, if you look across the organisations you deal with, who’s doing that well and what’s the approach they’re taking?

Lee Hickin: What you’re really describing is what digital technologies bring to the table, which is resiliency. Because we often look at people use technology to protect their assets. We think about cyber resiliency, about being sure that you can protect your customer’s data, and privacy and all those things.

But there’s an element to resiliency, which is actually building organisational resiliency to market shifts, competitive disruption, supply chain challenges. How does your business continue to thrive in that scenario or in that situation? And so that resiliency is about a combination of skills in technology, and empowerment of your people to be able to take that technology and run with it.

Your question of an example, Domino’s Pizza, a customer of ours at Microsoft. We’ve been working with them for a while. You would assume that in a field like Domino’s Pizza, their focus would be on the product, the pizza. How do you make the pizza the very best pizza, so that people continue to come back to buy the pizza?

I’m sure I’m not going to question Domino’s intention to make the very best pizza. But when they started their digital strategy, what they looked at this from a resilience point of view was we actually need skills in building the end-to-end customer experience of how do they get to that pizza? That starts with the app and it starts with the service, and how they connect to the platform. Because they’re in a highly competitive, low margin, high-volume market, where you need to delight customers with that experience.

They actually invested in decoupling some of their architecture, so that things like pizza delivery, pizza operations, as in the process of making pizzas, the customer experience about what you order on the product and how you build things, are decoupled enough so they could quickly iterate and innovate in those sectors. And then at the same time, improve their product as they choose to as the pizzas. But so all the work they did in things like I guess if you’ve ever ordered their pizza, you get the pizza picture. It shows you a picture of your pizza as it’s going into the oven, so you know what you’re going to get. You order on the site and it tells you a bit about the driver, and the who they are, and what they’re interested in, and it builds a connection. That to me, is thinking about they didn’t invest in technology to make better pizzas. They invested in technology to make a better pizza experience, which is adjunct to the actual product but very important to it.

Nick Wailes: And Barney?

Barney Tan: I think the key to getting employees to continuously upskill and be willing to upskill. As with any organisational objective, there are always two parts to it. I think firstly, is to ensure that the employees have the willingness to do it as well as the ability to do it. Now usually in these situations, the ability is less of a problem. I think willingness and really getting employees to be motivated and willing to upskill themselves, that is the bigger challenge. I was just reading an article published in the Harvard Business Review today.

The title of the article is called What Motivates Lifelong Learners and it’s by this person called John Hagel, III. He was actually saying that to motivate your employees to upskill by fear, fear of being obsolete, fear of being made redundant, that is a bad way and a poor way, ineffective way to go about doing it. Instead, what you really need to do is to really inculcate in the culture of an organisation, a passion for lifelong learning and also more importantly, exploring new knowledge.

Because if you are able to inculcate that value in an organisation, then all of that is going to happen organically and it’s going to be self-sustaining. That spirit, that culture will drive itself.

Lee Hickin: Barney, it’s an awesome point.

If you’re skilling people but they can’t do anything with that skill, it’s really disempowering. In fact, it’s probably more disempowering than if you didn’t skill them at all. Creating that place for them to actually grow, which is then a bit about the organisational change is so important. But I think you made an excellent point, Barney.

Barney Tan: Absolutely. I think the worst that an organisation can do is to mandate training. To send employees for all these courses that they don’t see the value of, they don’t see the necessity of. Then firstly, they’re not going to want to learn and drive that learning for themselves.

Then secondly, it just feels like it’s another part of their job. Their daily responsibilities that they’re just going to execute at the bare minimum level just to get by and that’s not what we want, of course.

Nick Wailes: Lee, I wanted to really focus in on an area that I know that you’ve done a lot of work on, which is deployment of AI in large organisations.

If I take the conversation we’ve just had, is that you really need to create an environment where organisations are prepared to innovate and experiment in the use of new technologies to solve business problems. What’s your advice to organisations that are thinking about building their AI capabilities and understandings, and where do they start experimenting?

Lee Hickin: Well, there’s a very, very simple, short answer that could of close it all down, which is clarity. Clarity is key and clarity comes from leadership and leadership drives that, but I think the question alludes more to that. Clearly, we want to be clear and bring everybody on board, but then how do we do it and what are the steps we want to do? With clarity comes inclusion. I don’t mean inclusion in the sense of the diverse inclusion piece, or that’s actually going to be very important ironically with AI, of course, as well.

But more about inclusion of everybody in the journey that you’re going to take with AI. I’ll tell it through the lens of a story because that tends to make it light up better. We worked with a customer, this is now a few years ago I was involved in it, at Downer. Downer EDI, operate some of the train infrastructure here in New South Wales at least. They were investing in new technology to self-monitor the trains. A whole bunch of sensors on trains to measure and monitor wear and tear on running gear, on the train itself, on doors and lights and everything about the train.

They also are a company with 30-year, 40-year veterans of that industry, who are engineers who know these trains better than they know their own family, and live and breathe for these trains. You can imagine the clash of potentiality of bringing in a tool that just does it for us automatically, with machine learning and AI that tells us when a train’s going to fail. Then this body of people, whose skills were actually built based in this idea of having a real sense of when that’s going to happen.

What they did was, the shortened version of it is they essentially gathered all the data, started collecting all the information. Put it into a big data set and created tools to do analytics of the data. But did nothing with it, other than spent six or eight weeks with the train engineers teaching them how to use, as it was, Power BI and Power platform to look at the data. With no intention of saying anything’s going to change but look at this data, tell us what this data tells you. What do you see here?

You’re the experts. You can see now what we wouldn’t be able to see, just because the machine learning system can tell us what’s going on. It was that empowerment moment, the story I got told was they would do this, they set this up. And after about six weeks or so, the engineers were now coming in on their own time and sitting down with the databases and looking at the information because they were learning about these trains they love so much. They were learning about how battery failures were really taking place, how various bits and pieces.

I’m not a train expert, as you can tell. For me, when I think about inclusion, I mean AI typically is going to bring about some automation, some acceleration or some change to a way in which your job is done. The language we always use is it’s going to replace people’s jobs, it’s going to replace what you do. Technology like AI doesn’t create less employment for low skilled people. It creates a higher demand for higher skilled and therefore, higher valuable skills.

It almost moves humans up the value chain and it means that as a human being, if you are growth mindset, willing to adapt to that change, look at the new tool, you actually become more valuable to your employer. You more potentially have a potential to grow and earn more money, and you create better outcomes. The technology’s been your leaping path to get there.

Barney Tan: Yep. I completely agree, Lee. I think there’s a lot of misconception about what AI is going to do and its impact on society, and the future of work in the future. The thinking always seems to be that it’s going to replace humans. But really AI or at least the applications that we are seeing emerge, are really there to augment what we can do. It’s removing the boring, repetitive bits that humans will not have an appetite for in any case, but it does really, as you say, move humans up the value chain.

What is probably going to be interesting as well, is the fact that with some of the more analytical, strategic type jobs, we are also seeing that being supported with AI. I read an article quite recently about how even chief executive officers are likely to use AI extensively in coming up with the later strategies and direction for their businesses. I think what AI is helpful is that it really helps to overcome the cognitive limitations of human beings. Human beings typically are only able to store up to four things in their mind at any given time.

So cache in our brain is actually very limited so we can only consider four things at once. If you have more parameters, more pieces of information that you’re dealing with in your head, we do a poor job of handling all that information. There’s a lot of overload. And also, as human beings, we also do get emotional. Sometimes we may make impulsive decisions. We make decisions based on emotion that may be suboptimal. AI can actually help us overcome some of these limitations that we have. I think it’s useful and it’s important to think of AI as a tool to support, as opposed to replace human capabilities.

Lee Hickin: You mentioned that humans can be irrational and emotional.

And this is, I think, one of the interesting things that we often notice most when we put AI right out at the front, to where it touches a human being’s lived experience in some ways. That actually life is about some element of irrationality and emotion. The decisions that we make sometimes I think it’s a Spock quote, isn’t it? But sometimes the decision, the good of the many doesn’t always outweigh the good of the one.

But sometimes a human will make that decision and it needs to be in there. I think that’s where today, AI hits its limitation wall is that it is very unemotional, heavily biased but unbiased by its emotion, in a decision it makes. We need a bit of that, I think, in certain elements of where AI’s used.

Nick Wailes: And also creativity, I think. One of the things is that a machine is very good at doing the same thing over and over, but hopefully humans are good at thinking of a new way to do things or an alternative way to do things.

And so, just to pivot the conversation and talk a little bit, just get you to look backwards and think about over the last two and a half years, which is we’ve lived through this extraordinary time, how technology enabled us to work differently and to keep working through this period. Lee, when you think from your point of view, what was the experience running a technology practice during COVID? What did you see happening with your customers, that you might not have expected to happen during that period?

Lee Hickin: One of the interesting things that we did see happen, is there’s always this challenge in a technology proposition to a customer. Hey, you need to think about adopting, I’ll use a product example, but Office 365 empower your employees to work remotely, work anywhere, work smart, have access to the tools on any advice kinds of mentality. There’s always the pushbacks of cost, challenges of deployment, how do we operate and manage it?

It’s different to what we have today. Then, of course, when COVID hit and that became not an option, it became the only pathway forward. All those barriers of red tape, shall we call them, all the challenges of procurement won’t allow us to do it that way or we haven’t got the money to do it, or we don’t operate that way, they disappear, and you quickly adapt. We prove that actually we are very adaptable as a species. We can work differently and work smarter.

For me though, the technology piece that’s been most interesting and we all experienced it in the setup for this conversation, is how much nuanced we’ve gotten at improving the interactive experience of online and hybrid types of conversations. We think about the quality of the audio settings we have now, which is all the echo cancellation, management noise, all that stuff. It’s AI driven.

The swing in the last two years towards cognitive, AI experiences built into the devices we work on, phones and laptops, has been monumental in creating a far more democratised experience for those that have found a new lease on life working from home.

Those that want to go into the office again to regain that experience. It’s not created a them and us kind of scenario. It’s created a rich experience that we can both participate to our best in.

Barney Tan: So I’ve had the privilege of studying a nationwide food delivery platform that uses AI to manage its delivery workforce, its delivery workers, and that’s against the backdrop of COVID. What we found was that a lot of them are reporting things like workload intensification. They’re saying that they’re feeling more isolated than ever before because they don’t even speak to a human manager now. It’s almost the app telling them where to go and what to do.

For some of them, there’s a lot of resistance and mistrust because sometimes you’re getting instructions from an app. You don’t actually get to question the rationale behind it. You’re just being taught to follow the instructions that you’re getting from an app. This is a huge thing, I think, for especially employee morale and also the level of attachment an employee will have towards their organisation. With COVID, with everything in lockdown, I think those negative feelings were just amplified even more.

Especially with these employees, they’re not even being afforded the opportunity to connect with one another right now. It’s just everything is through the app. What we found really with our study, was that there’s a way to make management by AI or algorithmic management, as we term it, a little bit more humanistic, a little bit more humane. Firstly, to really get the buy-in of the employees that are being managed algorithmically, I think there’s a need to demonstrate the benefits and the rationale behind what are we doing with AI, and with algorithms, in terms of how we are managing them.

I think we also need to adapt existing incentive systems, so that employees are more accepting of getting instructions and getting their daily to-do lists from an app. I think also very importantly, actually AI gives us the opportunity to personalise our support to employees. With the data that each of them will be generating with the system, you can actually know what are some of the challenges, the context that each of them may be facing. And you can actually personalise your support for them.

At the same time, there’s absolutely a need to build platforms for them to connect to one another so that they feel connected to the organisation, they feel connected to a pool of colleagues, and they can seek support from one another if needed. It cannot be that even with algorithmic management, that the machine becomes this core, faceless front that they interact with and they get their daily briefings from, but rather that we need to build connections between employees.

Lee Hickin: The other thing that we’ve been doing some research into and found that is potentially one of the challenges is people who have joined organisations during this time and have worked in that disconnected way, it’s not just the people. They actually want to feel connected to the purpose, the organisational version here. If you’re so disconnected, you don’t even know why you’re there or what you’re doing. You just become literally the cog in the machine and you don’t feel connected to the purpose, which isn’t about meeting people so much as feeling like you are contributing to something bigger and more impactful. I think there’s a nuance to that and there’s probably continued to be research in that area.

Nick Wailes: I think that’s quite interesting because Lee, yours was a bright side of AI. Barney, yours is a more apocalyptic vision, but effectively what you’re saying is success is really around creating human connection.

I was talking to a senior leader the other day and they said to me what was really interesting about COVID is we didn’t deploy any new technology. We had all of this stuff, we had all of this technology available to us, just we didn’t use it.

I think that change was a really interesting change that it wasn’t a technological leap, it was people learning to use the technology that was already deployed. I wonder if you got any observations on that?

Lee Hickin: Well, when my 15-year-old son, 16-year-old son says to me, “I don’t like Teams, dad. I prefer Zoom.” In some ways, you’ve hit the zeitgeist of well, if a 16-year-old kid even knows what your product is, that’s a win in some ways. These things have turned from nouns to verbs and we use them as ways to describe our lives now. I think that there’s a certain amount of, you’re absolutely right, these things were there but we just never really took them on.

I live in a bit of an ivory tower bubble, if you want to call it, however you want to spin it, because I work for Microsoft. We’re a tech company that has for so many years, built technology that allows us to do that. We saw that change in the pandemic as being not really a change in our work, but what we did see so significantly and I work, largely in public sector customers so a lot of our government customers. A jarring change in this expectation of the employer-employee relationship in the mechanisms by which people work because suddenly it did two things.

You saw people suddenly realise that actually they get more done in these new ways of working because they have the space and the freedom. But at the same time, the reliance on actually the brainstorming process to get things done in a business. To think about this from the AI lens again, human cognition, our ability to think through a problem far outweighs anything that technology can do. But we do it best when we’re collective in groups, and we come together and have that. That still today, I think, is best done in a physical space.

There’s so much more about the human experience that is not just the words we say. It’s the way we show up and physically be there that completely changes the way in which we can iterate on an idea and a process so much faster than if we do it over Teams calls.

Barney Tan: I think one of the quotes that I picked up and really like, is that for all the pain that COVID has wrought over the last two years, it has done for the digitalization of business and work, what no CIO or CTO have managed ever to do. No offence to CTOs and CIOs like yourself Lee.

Lee Hickin: None taken.

Barney Tan: But it has such an effect in accelerating the digitalization of businesses. Yes, there are tools that happen there, Teams has been there for a long time. But at the same time with COVID, we have also seen the capabilities of teams evolve very quickly.

Lee Hickin: And create new economies. New businesses have started up in the payment systems, in the online booking systems, in websites and just general digital presence.

Barney Tan: I think what’s especially exciting for me, is that all of these platforms are learning from one another.

Nick Wailes: Lee, if I think about it, there’s just been this incredible flowering, high-level of adoption of tool sets, and lots of experimentation taking place to allow organisations to manage through this challenging period. You talked about before that you think that the best way often, is to get people together for brainstorming and those type of things because there’s something about that. How do you see that playing out in your organisation and in the organisations you work for in the future? Do they start mandating certain ways of working? What’s the approach that you think that will emerge over the next couple of years?

Lee Hickin: Well, I’ll refer back to a point that Barney made earlier about this idea that you can’t instill fear in people to tell them to do something that you need them to do. Certainly, you must return to the office, that we’ve seen in some organisations, in some industries. I’m not going to question the reasons why that might come about. There are many, many factors, economic, real estate, other issues, customer challenges, but you can’t mandate that.

I think what we’re starting to see is a shift in what the workplace looks like. We are doing it ourselves at Microsoft. I think you’ll see Atlassian do when they build their new Atlassian town. I think largely we’re seeing it across that. Certainly, in New South Wales, the Tech Central precinct, this idea that we’re building places where people can come and collaborate but not work. Let’s define those two terms. Work is the art of sitting down and just getting stuff done.

Collaborating is the art of getting together with people and creating new ideas, or new IP or new thinking. They’re two different things and for a long time, I think they were conflated. We just called them the same thing and you were expected to do them both in the same place.

Nick Wailes: Barney, you and your colleagues must have been looking at these type of issues as well. What do you think? What’s your view about what’s going to happen?

Barney Tan: Absolutely anything that is mandated is going to be resisted. It’s absolutely bad practice to try to mandate the new normal. I unfortunately don’t have a clear answer of what’s the way forward, but I would just urge everyone to just let things settle. I think we can all give this a little time to let society settle into the new norms of this new digitally enabled way of working. Let the norms come together on its own, and we will always find an equilibrium that will work for everybody.

I do not believe personally in anchor days, making everyone come back to offices on certain days and not others. I think the key is really to create these incentives and the desire for people to want to come together. We work for organisations and we aspire to be part of organisations because we believe in the organization’s purpose. Now, that is very hard to translate while we are detached and working remotely.

But I feel like as a collective, we will find a way in the end. And it might be more immersive, more engaging type technology as what Lee was alluding to. Maybe that’s one way forward. But I have no doubt that as a whole, we will find a way where employees will still feel as attached, as connected to the organisation’s purpose as before. So just give it time is my message.

Nick Wailes: I think that’s a common theme that’s come across the whole conversation, which is about the critical role a purpose plays in adopting new technologies and deploying them in organisations, but also getting people to work effectively in the new world we are. I think that might be a great place to stop because this is a podcast about leadership.

One of the critical things for leaders is establishing purpose in organisations. I just wanted to thank you for what’s been a really engaging conversation. I think we’re still going to be grappling with these issues for a while, but you’ve given us a great entree and insight into them. Thanks very much.


Thank you for joining us for AGSM’s The Business of Work: The future’s got tech talent

Want to learn more about our research and work in the area? Check out the show notes on our website to get more information on the research discussed on today’s podcast. Just search the-business-of-podcast online.

Or, drop us a line if you have feedback at

New to the podcast? There’s a whole catalogue for you to explore. From conversations on the ethical issues of sustainable food to the financial opportunities of blockchain, you can check them all out today.

Please share, rate and review and subscribe to AGSM’s leadership podcast on your favourite podcast platform and look out for future episodes.

In the meantime, follow AGSM at UNSW Business School on LinkedIn and Facebook for more industry insights for an accelerating world or find us at


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy