Fixed on the Future

What do you get when you cross an employee-performance platform built around rapid real-time conversations (not unlike Facebook), a greater emphasis on contract workers ripped from the “gig-economy” playbook of fast-growing enterprises such as Uber, and a system to encourage learning new skills and more community involvement by awarding badges that employees can even take with them were they to leave the firm?

If you work for EY – the global accounting and professional services giant that for much of its life was known as Ernst & Young – you are getting a sweeping overhaul of global talent management that strongly echoes the way the younger cohort of millennials and the so-called Generation Z live and work today, with an emphasis on technology, constant learning and more flexibility on the job.

Company leaders say the dramatic changes – which ditches traditional guideposts of talent management, such as the annual performance review with a numerical rating – are geared toward what EY sees as “the future of work,” where employees are looking for a more personalized experience and are more forthright about what they want from their careers.

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The London-based multinational with roughly 250,000 employees globally has more at stake than many firms, with plans to hire some 14,200 American workers this year – 5,400 at the executive or highly experienced level and 8,800 who are currently students. While not long ago EY overwhelmingly hired those younger workers from business schools, Slaski says, nowadays a growing number of recruits have been educated in diverse fields such as information technology or computer science.

“Developing our people into complex problem-solvers and preparing them for the future of work is key to our organization’s continued success,” says Mark Weinberger, the global chairman of EY. “EY is transforming its approach to talent development with the introduction of LEAD” – its new evaluation system – “and giving more people the opportunity to develop ‘hot’ skills, particularly as we use more complex data analytics and introduce robotics and artificial intelligence.”

Slaski agreed that the need for EY’s workers to be nimble and to quickly adapt to new technologies and emerging science in the workplace drove a lot of the new changes, such as the EY Badges program, which hands out digital recognition to workers who train and develop new skills in areas such as data visualization and data architecture.

A Laboratory of Sorts

Of course, a key part of EY’s consulting business involves advising other top companies on how to modernize their own HR practices, so EY’s internal changes not only reflect what it has learned from working with clients but also seek to create a kind of laboratory to hone new practices that will almost certainly spread to the firms it works with.

EY’s HR team is closely linked to the company’s consulting practice in developing programs such as the new LEAD evaluation system, a kind of digital dashboard in which workers get more frequent feedback and engage in ongoing conversations around their work instead of the annual rating and performance review.

As an example of the two-way street between EY and its clients, she cited the firm’s groundbreaking program offering resources for employees dealing with mental-health issues – which it calls “r u ok?” The effort has not only generated positive results for EY’s workers, but has some of its leading clients now asking how they can launch something similar. Slaski says she expects a similar reaction to its new talent initiatives.

The overhaul of employee evaluations through the LEAD program builds on several years of the company’s research showing that the old methods are rapidly falling out of favor. In a 2015 paper from EY’s People Advisory Services group, an expert with the company noted that its clients were finding traditional annual-review programs costly and time-consuming with little to show for them, with employees instead wanting feedback from managers to be both more frequent, more conversational and more geared toward self-improvement.

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Slaski says the idea of the so-called gold standard “is very aspirational – to think about somebody that you think is at the top of their game, either in technological skills or team building.” The hope, she adds, is that the performance-related conversations with managers and co-workers will inspire more interest in training and acquiring new abilities.

Workers are really excited about the experiential-learning aspect of this approach, says Slaski, adding that she’s hearing employees “love the simplicity, they love the idea of conversations that are more forward looking, and they’re having conversations with people they’ve never had conversations with before.”

Digital Recognition

EY has begun to roll out a second program that essentially doubles down on encouraging learning and personal growth – a digital program called EY Badges that awards credentials to employees who develop a mastery in growing fields such as artificial intelligence or robotics and take those new skills into the community through volunteering. Other achievements likely to result in points from the program include publishing a paper, coaching other colleagues or making a special presentation. There are four levels of attainment – bronze, silver, gold and platinum.

Slaski says the program should go a long way in helping staff new client initiatives, such as data visualization. The employees, she adds, are looking forward to being able to post their badges on their Facebook or LinkedIn pages and even take the badge with them should move on. “There’s a real desire for workers from Generation Z or millennials to demonstrate that they have these skills,” she notes.

The increasing specialization of the workforce, as well as the increasing numbers of workers interested in careers as independent contractors, is behind the third major EY initiative around the future of work, which is called GigNow. Like the other new initiatives, GigNow – which has been so far launched in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand and will soon expand to other regions – is using state-of-the-art digital technology, aimed at more rapidly adding on qualified contractors as EY’s business and its reach expands.

“The trend of contract professionals demanding more flexibility to support new types of career paths is upending the way we find and engage talent,” says Jeff Wong, EY’s chief global innovations officer. “At EY, we see this as a strategic imperative to transform the way we attract the best talent for short-term assignments, especially during bursts of business activity.”

Slaski says that “some people don’t want to be tethered – they want to have different experiences.” One of the goals of the GigNow program is to better integrate those contract workers by offering expanded access to EY’s training opportunities as well as the ability to participate in the EY Badge program.

“They come in and get access to our culture – and maybe they’ll stay,” she says.

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Will Bunch
Will Bunch is a freelance writer based in the Philadelphia region who writes on human resources and other business topics. He can be reached at [email protected].