Looking Ahead to the Future of Work

A successful organization in 2023 will look, feel and operate very differently than one today.
By: | November 21, 2018 • 5 min read
future of work

In this Instagram age of texts and tweets, it should come as no surprise that the most important and complex workplace challenge facing CEOs and CHROs is neatly summarized by the acronym FoW. Forget YOLO, FOMO or even VUCA, the Future of Work is top of mind for global leaders as they wrestle with exactly what it means and how to best prepare their organizations for a future that is increasingly hard to predict.

The good news? An April 2018 study by Catalant found that 63 percent of surveyed companies had a FoW plan in place. The bad news? By the time the proverbial ink is dry, those plans may be out of date or misaligned to the changing dynamics of the FoW.

So, what, exactly, is FoW? It is the realization that dizzying advances in technology, coupled with significant changes in workforce demographics and required skill sets, necessitates a widespread overhaul not only of our organizations, but of the very definition of work itself.

FoW: Right Now is Our Tomorrow

Unlike previous generations, today’s talent isn’t enamored by the prospect of full-time employment with a single organization. Work is something you do, not somewhere you go. And being able to determine how, when, where and with whom you work is paramount. Conventional wisdom suggests that over the next 10 years, the number of freelancers will surpass the number of full-time employees in the workforce. Workers, especially millennials, are more interested in ‘tours of duty’ or career experiences that build their personal skills portfolio and marketability.

This shift in thinking is accompanied by a similar seismic shift in technology. From robotics and chatbots to AI and predictive analytics, this digital focus has transformed jobs from the C-suite to the shop floor. The way we engage with colleagues, meet customer needs or develop and sell products and services has radically changed. Single departments are dispersed across continents, managers provide feedback via mobile apps, global meetings are simulcast from home offices and robots serve our coffee. Today’s workers not only need to be expert in their respective fields but also in the technology platforms required to serve and support their colleagues and customers.

So, what does this all mean? If we were able to peek inside the (transparent, virtual) walls of a successful organization in 2023, it will look, feel, and operate very differently than today.

A Compelling Brand

The FoW requires organizations to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. With talented workers choosing where to bring their skills, a compelling company brand is a must. Savvy companies in 2023 have established a brand and a reputation consistent with the organization’s culture and employee experience. Leveraging insights from multiple functions (including marketing, HR/talent management, sales, IT) is the best way to develop and market an authentic brand. Smart people want to work with smart people. Investors want to connect with organizations that are solidly managed. Consumers want to support socially responsible global citizens. And they look for data to support their choices. By aligning and actively managing their brand internally and externally to showcase their culture, the company of the future will significantly enhance its ability to attract and retain the necessary talent.

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Agile Pools of Talent

In 2023, successful organizations will have turned their approach to talent on its head. The lines between contractors and employees will be blurred, as the focus shifts to leveraging agile, blended teams to get work done. The company culture and mind-set embrace talent, regardless of where it is found. A tight link between the company’s business strategy and workforce strategy serves as the primary driver behind how, where and when talent is needed, acquired and engaged.

The majority of the company’s workforce will be on-demand, consisting of freelancers or contractors and employment will be reconstituted into projects or gigs. Various labor sharing platforms offer assignments and opportunities, open to bid by a global network of talent. The company has created an On-Demand Talent COE (or Gig Management Office) which works hand-in-glove with workforce planning and senior leaders to create an integrated talent-management strategy.

New and Different Skills

A quick review of a 2023 competency model reflects the strategic capabilities required to thrive in the new world of work. Rather than a laundry list of traits or functional skills, the organization has shifted its focus to behaviors that apply regardless of function, role or geography. Critical constructs such as abstract thinking, networked collaboration, data literacy, iterative experimentation, business analytics, communicating insights from data, and collective decision making are paramount. Whether the decision is to develop, or buy or rent talent, a careful mix of skills and expertise aligned to each project will be required.

When bringing together blended teams, the successful global 2023 company will provide a customized, interactive playbook to give employees tools for learning and development as part of their day-to-day responsibilities. Part employee handbook and part virtual mentor, it enables teams to quickly accelerate their time to productivity. Helping mobile teams collaborate and connect, this tech-forward approach includes social-recognition tools and feedback mechanisms to fluidly manage individual performance as well as overall measures of gig success.

Redefined Concept of Leadership

Companies thriving in 2023 will have different structures. Organizational charts will be flatter and leaner. With more matrixed and networked teams, managers will need to be more coach and catalyst than ever before. Leadership credibility will not derive from role or title but from the ability to create a vision, articulate clear standards, and create an environment of diversity and inclusion. The best leaders will role model the behaviors they expect, building trust and alignment among boundary-less teams. This new generation of workers will not tolerate bad bosses for the sake of job security, making poor leaders easier to spot and replace.

In this new organization, leaders are promoted for a quality that is often ignored in today’s workplace: the ability to manage—in the best sense of the word. Ironically, the successful company of 2023 will go back-to-basics by recognizing and rewarding leaders that can effectively turn a diverse, multi-generational group into a cadre of passionate, dedicated followers.

Powerful Technology and Tools

In 2023, the successful company has integrated technology throughout its business. The global IT organization is recognized as a strategic business driver, rather than an enabling function. By harnessing the transformative power of technology early, the organization considers it a critical priority. A visit to the manufacturing floor finds a robotic production line, overseen by a manager and her AI ‘assistant’. The HR team is in a conference room, using touch screen technology to model various human capital ‘what-if’ scenarios with real-time data. Big data, including external unstructured inputs (e.g., texts, videos, images, sensor data), are analyzed by product development to design data-based products and services. The annual industry expo has customers experiencing a virtual reality simulation of a soon-to-be-released product. And all are linked via smart devices and technologies that provide continuous data to foster creativity and innovation.

What helps to make all of this work is a dedicated Change Management Office. Given the relentless speed of FoW technological advances, this small but impactful COE is focused on ensuring the organization has the capability and the readiness to adopt and incorporate new tools and resources.

So, What Could Go Wrong?

The above scenario is filled with exciting possibilities, all within a relatively short period of time. But, as we all know, much can happen in five years and the expected FoW environment is far from guaranteed. Perhaps the most potentially disruptive factor is a predicted shortage of talent. The role of data scientist is often cited as an example, as institutions of higher learning ramp up their curricula and scramble to produce graduates. We are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist and teaching technologies that are obsolete before graduation day. Having a robust, skilled pool of talent to draw from is a serious threat to FoW.

A number of larger societal issues could also slow progress. Concerns about the ubiquity of technology are pervasive. Recent questions regarding privacy turned Facebook from a trusted friend to a suspicious intruder overnight. Major business periodicals are now questioning the ‘surveillance economy’; parenting websites are offering ways to limit children’s exposure to technology; and ‘acoustic’ habits like knitting and camping are on the rise. Is it possible that we are overplaying the technical aspects of FoW? A shift could occur with people seeking a return to a more stable, humanistic employment experience. A 21st-century version of the Luddite rebellion is not entirely farfetched. Will next-generation workers view occupations as man or machine or man and machine?

One final note of caution focuses on the trap of overemphasizing the FoW’ing of HR to the detriment of other parts of the business. We tend to get caught up in our own stuff, like talent acquisition. HR must partner with other parts of the business to explore the most opportune areas in which to inject FoW thinking and approaches. There are undoubtedly talent implications, but there are also opportunities around job design and process reengineering, among others. For HR, anything less than helping the entire organization implement and transform to FoW, would be a disservice.

Getting Prepared

First, more bad news. The same Catalant study referenced above showed that 43 percent of HR leaders reported that they are either behind or way behind in adopting necessary practices to support FoW. Clearly, there is progress to be made. The good news is that something can be done!

As organizations seek to ready themselves for FoW, the key will be to remain open, flexible and agile. HR leaders must jettison old models and ways of thinking and implore senior leadership to quickly follow suit. Searching out and staying abreast of FoW best practices and remaining curious will facilitate the path forward. Securing on-demand talent, effectively managing blended teams, introducing FoW technology, and leveraging all variety of data to innovate faster, adapt more quickly and compete better is becoming the winning formula.

No longer can companies decouple their business and talent strategies. FoW dictates that these are one in the same. Given the fleeting nature of markets and business models, company strategy needs to be flexible and able to pivot quickly. This can be accommodated, in large measure, through the agility found in the talent market.

A Path Toward Crafting an FoW Plan

Companies may consider conducting a diagnostic that allows them to determine where they currently are on the FoW trajectory and what is required to maintain pace or catch-up with the competition.

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While admittedly an abridged list, below is a starter set of questions HR practitioners should ponder as they plan for the FoW:

  • How authentic and transparent is the company’s mission, vision, strategy and value proposition? Is the company’s mission and vision clear and compelling to consumers, employees and non-employees? Is the strategy transparent to employees, non-employees, investors, and other stakeholders? Is there linkage between business and talent strategy? How aligned is your external brand and employee experience?
  • Does leadership really understand that the nature of the workforce has changed? Many don’t see their work or careers defining them. Interest lies in collecting experiences not climbing traditional corporate ladders. Are you relaying this seismic shift and getting leadership to understand that the company will need to develop a workable framework to procure, onboard and optimally engage specialist talent from the outside? Will recruiter capabilities need to be upgraded to understand the gig economy and more skillfully represent the company brand in discussions with potential on-demand talent? Who should be responsible for ‘hiring’ on-demand talent? Should recruiters be looking for different skills and expertise (e.g., ability and temperament to work in blended teams; ability to manage at the man-machine interface; data analytics)?
  • Can work be reconstituted into projects, gigs, and freelance assignments to be worked on by blended teams of internal and external talent? Would the company benefit from having access to a centralized platform that breaks work into its constituent activities and projects, matches work needs to skill supply, and surfaces appropriate talent both internally and externally? How comfortable is leadership with the idea of self-managed, blended teams?
  • Are the company’s processes and systems to get work done internally (e.g., HR) and externally (producing and selling goods and services) streamlined and enabled? Efficiencies being sought in terms of speed to market, co-production with customers, and cost will be paramount. Will there be full worker replacement by technology? Which roles could become augmented or man-machine hybrids? Where can FoW technology (e.g., robots, chatbots, AI, predictive analytics) be implemented? What is the best way to redesign roles and processes for man-machine interfaces, while ensuring the enrichment of work?
  • Is the company leveraging a consistent flow of data and information (business and talent)? Does leadership understand the benefits of access to continuous and varied data (e.g., structured, unstructured, business intelligence, financials, production, customer interactions, customer satisfaction, buying patterns/preference captured by social media, business platforms, wearables, sensors) to improve strategy, internal and external processes, products and services?
  • Is the organization ready for horizontal or distributed leadership characterized by less layers, spans of control, less deference to titles, localized decision making and a focus on the work of teams? Will you need to hire or train up current managers to manage sets of blended, fluid teams and hybrid work? Are managers adept at balancing the needs and expectations of multiple constituencies (employees, non-employees, customers, investors, communities)?

In the end, business needs and market realities, not technology, should drive your FoW strategy. No matter what the future brings, the HR function—and particularly, talent management—is poised to play an important role in navigating the road ahead.

Michael Warech is the founder and president of Warech Associates. He has over 30 years of experience designing, developing, and implementing data-driven human capital solutions that demonstrably impact an organization’s bottom line.

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