I was invited to be the Keynote speaker at the recent IES Conference – Shaping a Fairer World of Work – and my brief was to highlight the really big issues and challenges that will affect the world of work over the next 5 years and, indeed, those that might present barriers to achieving the aim of fairness. 

When I think of where the world is at this time, I am reminded that the Japanese symbol for ‘crisis’ is also the symbol for ‘opportunity’. We are seeing significant global challenges at the same time as major geopolitical shifts. Some of these challenges may also represent some of our greatest opportunities.  


A new significant issue we are facing is ’ChatGPT‘, an artificial intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI and released in November 2022. In 2023, Australian MP Julian Hill advised the national parliament that the growth of AI could cause "mass destruction". During his speech, which was partly written by the program, he warned that it could result in cheating, job losses, discrimination, disinformation, and uncontrollable military applications. I have no doubt that ChatGPT will have a profound effect on the workplace and I am not persuaded that job displacement is the major challenge we face. I am also convinced that Generative AI can help us solve some of our greatest challenges, for example Climate Change.

Science is at the very core of how we can tackle climate challenges. Our response to dealing with carbon emissions, particularly from big industrial complexes, will demonstrate how, for example, the chemical sector is adapting. Science is crucial in how we tackle food crises and in feeding a growing population. A significant side effect of  Climate Change is the growing gap between rich and poor and how this will affect migration flows

Diversity & Inclusion

My third major issue is Diversity & Inclusion. In a war for attracting the very best talent, recruiting, retaining and promoting is the key to innovation, growth and winning. But, more importantly, it’s about living the values. I am one of many people who saw the tragic death of George Floyd during 2020 and had to ask myself what more can be done to change things for the better. Back in the days when I worked for ICI, women’s equality was a priority issue. I would say it still is, but thankfully after many decades of talking we are making real progress in boardrooms across the UK.

I have always felt it was important to try to understand the issues that are faced by the most disadvantaged in our society. Having served as Chair of Teach First for six years, an organisation that is focused on ensuring that the education system benefits every child, I am still sad to see so few Principals in school for who are from Black, Asian & other Ethnic Minority backgrounds. I think that it is fair to say that many children from ethnic minorities are falling at the first hurdle, as they are still finding it hard to see themselves represented in many parts of society and business.

I believe that great sponsors and mentors are key to increasing visibility and building the confidence of underrepresented groups within all work communities. I know for sure that while building my career at ICI it was those people who saw my potential that gave me the support and confidence to develop my career. One of the things that some sectors are great at, is getting the most out of their built assets. Surely we can apply that skill set to develop people so that we get the most from the incredible and diverse talent base that this that this country has? The joy of meeting and getting to know people with different perspectives, beliefs and ideas has certainly highlighted and taught me the importance and value of embracing diversity.

Role Models

I strongly believe in appointing under-represented groups to the top table and the value that adds to everybody. Also having great role models and active sponsorship of talent is essential for any business looking to develop its inclusion and diversity strategy. Timpson, Diageo, the NHS and many media companies are taking action. However, the Parker Review would suggest that in terms of public companies in the UK, none are far enough ahead. Diversity, in all its forms, must also remain an essential part of everyone’s ongoing work. Without doubt, diversity in terms of thought and perspective are needed to help drive the innovation that is required to deal with the challenges we are aware of and those that are yet to emerge.

My fourth issue is around executive capability and whether they are ready for the new world of communications where one single word can alter how an organisation is perceived either positively or negatively. I have observed that executives are now working in an environment where the speed of loss of trust from clients and employees is supersonic, happening overnight.

Young people in the workplace

We also have to consider younger people entering the UK workplace, their presence is now significant. It is clear that millennials require a different approach to management, but the effect of Generation Z will be to transform the basic challenges of leadership. For them, work/life balance and working from home is not an area of compromise. It is likely that this generation will halt the relatively easy ride that employers have had from their staff over the last two decades whilst at the same time requiring a different type of nurturing – one that takes into account the comparatively more difficult world they have inherited from previous generations, those who now populate most boardrooms.

In closing I would say if the UK is to truly ‘level up’ in the broader sense of the phrase, it must start with schools, and skilling youth for the future. There will be no ‘levelling up’ if we do not have the skilled people to engage in an increasingly competitive world. To this end, I believe that science, digital and essential skills are absolutely fundamental in this endeavour.

Written by Paul Dreschler, CBE