Engaging people during transformation: Thriving in the future of work

Engaging people during transformation: Thriving in the future of work

While the whole concept of “disruption” has become somewhat cliché, there is no doubt that digitization and robotic automation are actually transforming businesses. In fact, in the latest Mercer Talent Trends report more than 90% of C-level leaders told us that they are planning to redesign their organization in order to boost productivity. In line, many researchers are predicting that workforces will need huge skills shifts to maintain their relevance and contribution as transactional work is eliminated and more relationship and expertise driven roles emerge.

Technological progress isn’t a new phenomenon though. The World Economic Forum suggests that we are now in our fourth industrial revolution, each one defined by significant shifts in technology & productivity. Yet, it is the pace at which current changes seem to be influencing work and jobs which has organizations and people on edge. People crave consistency and predictability – it is the nature of human nature – and in times where those things are in short supply an environment of anxiety and discomfort prevails. Research suggests that the outcome of this is likely to be people who are more stressed, less healthy and more narrow in their thinking (i.e. less creative and open) - which has real consequences for long term growth, sustainability and innovation.

In addition, data from Mercer-Sirota surveys shows that while only around 1 in 3 employee strongly agree with questions about their engagement at work, only around 1 in 6 strongly agree that their company is responding effectively to changes in its external business environment.

As a result some organizations have woken up to the idea that they need to change the way they lead and manage people – to build a stronger sense of confidence, optimism and community in their workforce, while driving through the transformation and change they need to keep up.

So what are the vital ingredients for thriving in the future of work? If organizations need to transform frequently, how do they succeed in bringing their people with them?  Here are four critical levers based on research:

1. Leaders people trust.

In a more unpredictable and volatile world, even the smartest leaders struggle to have the right answers as often as they would like. This means leaders need to start finding their answers in a different way – by building a culture where the best ideas come from anywhere, not just from the top. In this context a leader’s role becomes more about decision making, effective execution and bringing people along. Indeed, Mercer’s thrive research shows that in disruptive times employees need to trust their leaders more than ever.

While a lot is written and said about the concept of trust, researchers define it as a combination of three things – competence, integrity and benevolence. Basically, trustworthy leaders make smart decisions, are honest and transparent with people, and always look to do right by others. It’s that simple. Organizations that build and promote leaders with these qualities are more likely to see stronger cultures and more effective teams.

While this sounds nice, it’s also important recognize the relative unfamiliarity that many employees have with the most senior people in their organization. Put plainly, employees just don’t see people in senior roles very often which makes them difficult to trust. In response some leaders have turned to social media to make themselves more accessible and more human. Indeed organizations with a “social CEO” have been found to have higher levels of performance and engagement.

2. Reimagine learning.

It’s now widely accepted that people will need to adopt a strategy of lifelong learning if they want to stay relevant to the future of the job market.  As a result some HR teams are starting to reorient their training programs to focus on emerging skills needs, even offering vast libraries of open online learning. This trend has even been adopted by some governments where strategic initiatives to map out current and emerging skills have gained significant funding. In Singapore for example, the government’s SkillsFuture initiatives have focused on understanding both current and future skills requirements for entire industries so that employers, employees and learning institutions can start to adapt to future needs.

This shows us that while learning strategies are certainly a vital part of effective workforce development, it’s also critical to have the right kind of data about the skills and competencies that are currently in play, as well as what the emerging requirements might be. This data can then be used to guide leaders and HR professionals to implement the right programs and ensure learning initiatives are aligned to future business needs.

3. Genuine curiosity about people – get more agile feedback.

In fast changing environments it’s easy for leaders and HR managers to get out of sync with the pulse of an organization. This is why employee feedback programs (like engagement surveys) have become more common place and why tools to support “people analytics” have become so popular  - they help an organization learn about itself faster. These programs are much more than “best employer” initiatives – they give real insight and aid decision making.

The best HR technology is therefore less about operational efficiency for the HR function and more about generating real insight that helps support transformation, change and improvement. This often involves employee feedback surveys but also productivity and relationship analytics - sometimes using the company email and calendar platforms.  Combining data about employee personalities, their views about the work environment and how they are interacting and behaving can help leaders create more effective communications during transformation.

For example, some forward thinking people analytics & HR teams have been focusing on finding out what keeps people really motivated and engaged at work, especially in fast growing businesses where change happens very quickly. The result is that they now aim to foster a work environment where people are committed to a cause, contributing to success and captivated by the future.

4. Collaborate on work redesign - adapt to more relationship and expertise driven work.

The influence of technology on jobs is somewhat inevitable. Rather than waiting around for it to happen, organizations can start to engage employees in the process of work redesign early on. Generally, researchers believe that work is likely to become less transactional and more focused on relationships or expertise (technical problem solving) driven tasks. Interactivity with technology will also be vital.

While many people think of this as a relatively new problem to solve, research into effective ways for people and technology to work closely together has been around for nearly 70 years. Consider sociotechnical systems approaches to work design which emerged in the UK in the 1950s. This approach suggests that focusing on concepts like autonomy, job enrichment and role expansion can help organizations can create people centric jobs that boost productivity by integrating technology. Many people hate the very transactional elements of their work anyway so finding ways for people and technology to work together provides the opportunity to eliminate the boring tasks and really reinvent the nature of what they do.

Final Thoughts

Organizations that get the talent and technology equation right have the biggest opportunity to create engaging work that is really worth doing. Successfully transforming organizations is about making them more digitally enabled and more human at the same time. Building a culture of trust, learning, feedback and employee involvement can help organizations adapt to an uncertain future.

Lewis Garrad
by Lewis Garrad

Partner and Career Business Leader at Mercer Singapore

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