The new world of work

While driverless cars, robots and drones are grabbing the headlines there are major changes underway transforming the world of work. Kevin Empey, a HR specialist and chartered fellow of the CIPD, explores the emerging workplace challenges facing talent management strategies.

Every week brings new stories about how the world of work is changing. Driven by forces such as advances in technology, global inter-connectedness and growing consumer expectations, new disruptors and innovations are appearing across every business sector. At the same time, terms such as gig working, zero-hour contracts and underemployment are commonplace in any commentary of today’s labour market.

While we have always adapted to continuous changes and cycles in the business and work environment, the general consensus seems to be that this digitally empowered period we are now moving into, labelled loosely as ‘the future of work’, will see the biggest transformation to working life since the Industrial Revolution.

There is a fundamental shift happening in the very nature and structure of the world of work – a shift that organisations and policy makers need to take notice of now and lead rather than finding ourselves in catch-up and reactive mode. As is constantly reported, this shift offers great promise and human benefit. However, it also brings potential risk, inequity and downside in the form of unemployment, underemployment and the devaluation of work. The spill over from these realities into the political arena has also been plain to see all over the world. The issue of where work is going therefore matters on all kinds of levels.

Organisations of the future

So, what are the real and practical implications for those leading and working in organisations today and tomorrow?

Early adopters to the new world of work point to the need for organisations to be more strategically responsive, more organisationally agile and also more comfortable in dealing with constant change. They need to be responsive to a new employee and a multi-generational workforce with different (and sometimes not so different) expectations regarding work and the workplace. The advancement of technology means that work can be delivered and customers reached from virtually anywhere. The relentless pursuit of reducing cost is also translating this technological potential into less of a need for traditional organisational structures and systems – and people.

The organisation of the future will be less about creating a fixed, physical entity in which work gets done and will be more about an open and flexible construct that facilitates the fulfilment of goods and services through a mixed ecosystem of employees, partners, alliances and free-agent workers.

While the benefits of such organisational flexibility and agility may be clear, the challenge for leaders will be how to manage and balance the operational, talent, cost and regulatory issues arising from a very different world of work.

Talent management in a new era

These new business and organisation models clearly challenge many of our assumptions regarding traditional talent strategy and HR management. All aspects of talent management from entry to exit will be ripe for disruption and new thinking. For example, if an organisation is to be re-configured to take advantage of the business and cost benefits of a ‘blended’ mix of suppliers, outsourcing partners, free agents, automation and a core, full time workforce, a new work design and workforce planning strategy will be needed to map out the organisations short and longer term talent needs.

What is ‘core’ versus non-core, where will the skills come from and how will we manage the operational risks of having a significant number of the workforce not under the direct control of management. How will employee and machine complement each other’s strengths and respective advantages? The management of the non-core workforce becomes a highly strategic function and greater consideration will be needed as to how the different parts of the organisation work together and deliver an optimum service to the customer.

Once the work design and workforce planning aspects are worked through, the rest of the talent ‘life cycle’ processes needs to come into play. For example, recruiting for the right people needs to account for likely and possible changes in skills requirements further down the line. Therefore, attracting people with agility, the right attitude and a learning mindset could arguably be as important as their immediate skills. As work evolves, training and development needs to be continuous and provided through a mixed set of mobile, online, on the job and formal methods that align with the changing business needs as well as the different learning styles of a modern workforce on the move. Rewards will be more flexed and individual with a ‘consumer standard’ employment experience being demanded by different generations of employees. Even how we exit employees is changing with employers seeing their alumni network as a talent pool for the future as well as important social advocates for the organisation when they leave. The physical workplace is also changing to accommodate new ways of engaging staff working and collaboration.

The role of culture

Central to this new talent management story is a clear, deliberate and honest picture of what the desired culture and employment ‘deal’ need to be for the organisation. There is a risk that some employers will over-promise to attract highly sought after employees in traditional ways only to find they cannot deliver on their promises as new work models and skill requirements change the employment prospects of employees and their jobs over time.

 

“The one thing we can do today is basic scenario planning that considers different business and technological scenarios ranging from incremental change to radical disruption. We can then set about having a deliberate talent management strategy.”

These new talent management realities will clearly be a challenge to the profile and role of the ‘future of work’ manager and leader. Embracing this new work environment, managing and engaging teams consisting of potentially five generations of worker as well as integrating employees with non-employees will require considerable leadership skill and agility. We therefore need to re-think what we demand from our leaders and managers and what qualities they need to succeed in their careers. This leadership ‘profile’ is possibly quite different than what we have hired and trained for in the past.

The human factor

Then there is the human factor. For those with the right skills and abilities to take advantage of the new world, the potential gains and rewards will be high. However, the decay of the traditional employment and physiological contract, particularly to those increasing numbers whose jobs are vulnerable to automation, is clear. This has led commentators such as Martin Ford to note that, “crafting a future that offers broad based security and prosperity may prove to be the greatest challenge of our time”. Progressive employers are proactively preparing their employees for the future of work, but many may be left behind.

While the precise nature of the changes in areas such as emerging business models, jobs, the role of technology and automation are difficult to predict with precision, it could be argued that the human qualities that have helped leaders and individuals to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances in the past will become increasingly important, prevalent and relevant into the future.

Individual ‘agile capabilities’ such as having a learning mindset, adaptability, resilience, collaborative skills and purposefulness will be key adaptive qualities which will be under increasing demand and scrutiny when it comes to recruitment, promotion decisions and succession planning. Not only will such adaptive qualities help individuals to develop their own career agility, they will also help organisations remain to agile as well.

Scenario planning

We may not have all the detail about what our organisations will look like tomorrow, but the one thing we can do today is basic scenario planning that considers different business and technological scenarios ranging from incremental change to radical disruption. We can then set about having a deliberate talent management strategy for having the right people in place to deal with changes that will inevitably come.

Maybe the first step is to simply acknowledge that the future of work is already here and to ask what this might mean for me and my business.

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