How can employers combine an ‘unfair advantage’ with good employee relations?

Lawyer Filip Tilleman invited Carole Lamarque to talk about her most recent book, ‘Unfair Advantage’. The author states that a company can stay relevant, unique and successful today by thinking and acting like a cheetah. What is the impact of this on the relationship between employees and employers? The quest for answers leads us from Silicon Valley to Shanghai and then to Antwerp. 

1. The speed of a cheetah.

As an organisation, you need to recruit enough people who can deal with change and want to work in a rapidly changing environment. With that said, Lamarque immediately points to the potential negative effects, such as mistakes being made more quickly. Automation and robotisation can help to reduce this margin of error. We should not be too quick to take fright, she says: there will always be a need for the combination of the efficiency of robots with the creative minds of humans. Lamarque sees the future in a positive light as regards the quality of work and life: intelligent technology is set to enable both labourers and office workers to work less, while doing so with greater efficiency and flexibility. “Burn-outs will evolve into bore-outs: what are we going to do with all this extra free time?”, Lamarque wonders. 

2. The focus of a cheetah.

The cheetah has very sharp vision for a good 3 miles. Two black strips under the eyes help with clear eyesight despite the blinding sun in the Savannah. Companies are looking less far ahead today than they used to. Plans for the next 10 years have become plans for the next year at most, combined with quarterly thinking. We have lost this long-term vision, while Lamarque continues to see it in Shanghai or Shenzhen. When you think far into the future, you start to think differently. For her, the ideal mix is quarterly thinking, combined with developing a vision for the long term. Lamarque sees another big problem of focus with people who are easily distracted today. She calls this the sickness of our time. 

3. The identity of a cheetah.

A cheetah has a clear profile. Telling stories is one way for an employee and employer to profile themselves and get noticed. However, people feel inhibited from giving a positive opinion of their employer on social media. This comes from the negative stories about employees who are sacked for speaking out on social media, Lamarque believes. “These are only a few extreme situations, but these appear at the top of the search results and get passed around a lot,” she explains.

Filip Tilleman refers to the area of legal tension between the duty of loyalty from employees to employers on the one hand, and the right to freedom of expression on the other. “Either way, respect is the fundamental basis and it must exist in all circumstances, including beyond the business context,” Tilleman asserts.

4. The nimbleness of a cheetah.

There is no car out there that can move very fast, while also suddenly changing direction without losing speed – but a cheetah can.  Nimbleness is missing among Belgian companies, according to Lamarque. “We usually chase after the facts.” Filip Tilleman gives the example of working hours: “Instead of 9 to 5, you could start to look at that more flexibly without taking away from people the protection of getting enough rest.”

Another example would be combining different jobs. Lamarque sees a future for giving people more freedom in this, particularly to carry out voluntary work or other work with a social goal without running into problems with their employer or the Treasury.  Filip Tilleman adds that technically, from a legal perspective, it is perfectly possible to combine different employment contracts or forms or work, as long as you can meet the contractual obligations of the various separate contracts (you cannot work for two companies at the same time) and as long as there is no question of unfair competition.

5. The territory of a cheetah.

“Where do we work? This is becoming more and more vague.” Lamarque uses a self-driving car to illustrate this. These will totally change the workplace. Distances will begin to matter less, as you can work while the car is driving you. Think of the impact on the insurance world, the transport industry, the hotel sector, etc. Entertainment in the car will become very important to keep the boring journeys interesting, Lamarque believes. This could also have an enormous impact in terms of work, when distance and travel time play a less important role. Tilleman also sees some potential consequences for the concept of working hours once your company car becomes part of your office. There are companies out there already experimenting with a company bus, but self-driving vehicles are going to cause exponential growth in that market. Labour law will need to follow suit and abandon the classical concepts of commuter traffic.

Lamarque also remarks that an employer’s controlling instinct leads to a great many commuters. “Bosses want to see their people, while this is not always necessary,” in Lamarque’s view. A mind shift in this respect could partially resolve congestion issues, she thinks.

6. The skills of a cheetah.

“What do you want to be when you grow up? Parents should replace this question with: what are the five things you enjoy doing?”, says Lamarque. After all, it is highly likely that people will end up having more than one career, just as you should not ask someone over 65 to become a fireman. Lamarque gives the example of a Financial Management student who is also developing their own clothing line. The possibilities that could be combined are endless, both for employees and employers. “At the same time, these creative combinations are also our best defence against the rise of Asia as an economic superpower, as well as a way of arming ourselves against bore-outs,” explains Lamarque.

7. The ecosystem of a cheetah.

Duval Union (the company that Lamarque helped to found – Ed.) is an example of an ecosystem, whereby various companies and start-ups work together under one roof and for a shared clientele. Lamarque recruits people with this ecosystem in mind. “The State of California has special legislation for this,” says Lamarque. “In California, non-competition clauses do not apply. You can go and work for a competitor company with a short notice period of 7 days. That also means the companies there put in a lot of effort to keep their talented people on board.” In Belgium, this is not in play and so there is less incentive here to keep people tied into your organisation beyond their contractual obligations. 

Carole Lamarque concludes that Human Resources and Labour law will need to prepare for the changes we are heading for. She is already visiting China along with other businesspeople to take photos of how they approach this there. “It’s the world turned on its head (smiles).”