Managing the Future Workforce
As we are moving away from the pandemic state, many companies began reviewing their long-term HR strategies. Zoom names such a future-looking vision as "The Future of Work" (same as Miro), Microsoft - as "The New Future of Work", PwC - as "Workforce of the future", and MIT Sloan as "Future of the Workforce".
Some companies push the accent on building a distributed or hybrid environment, while others on managing the workforce across the ecosystem. Some believe in the digital transformation of the HR industry, while others focus on changing the mindset first. Some are looking for HR Directors with 15+ years of experience to lead the change, while others make a stake in bringing expertise from outside of the HR business.
But directly or between the lines they all agree that we should learn to think outside of the HR's mind box, change perspective, break the profession silos apart and reassemble the whole function while the plane is in the air.
So here are some of the challenges that HR specialists and people managers up to the CEO of the company will meet in the coming decades. And probably earlier than later.
I feel like it is the right time to review some of the defaults and rethink some of the traditions. One day if you are in the HR profession you will wake up on an urgent call that your job will be substituted by someone else managing the workforce, not human resources anymore. And we can assume today that such a Workforce Leader (WF) will come from a non-HR background.
1. Thinking Beyond Organization
The end of the 2010s was full of this idea of Digital Transformation coming to every aspect and every corner of your business. Some consulting companies predicted that there is a second or even a third wave of DT coming in years ahead, whatever it means. And then we ended up in the pandemic isolation and "welcome to the distributed and remote work" mode.
It felt like a massive acceleration to the platform/ecosystem/super-app concept development. Many people tried using digital tools like Zoom or Miro for the first time. Companies were buying probably more Teams licenses from Microsoft than the software vendor could deliver without sacrificing the quality. And when the barriers were taken off and people were allowed to return to the streets many didn't like to return to the office and would prefer to stick with the digital tools.
So we can expect there will be more platforms and super-apps, and thus more ecosystem vendors in the future. Whether you are on such a vendor's side or outside, it is crucial to understand what changes it will lead to.
Here is what will happen as any ecosystem develops, grows, and becomes more mature. The platform provider will eventually realize that there are not enough people in the available range and to grow it needs more for itself, its partners, and its customers. Take for example Microsoft which is launching a big program to prepare hundreds of thousands of cyber-security specialists across the globe.
The vendor takes responsibility to shape the market, but by doing it such a giant will also introduce a change in ecosystem management. It will ensure that specialists are traceable and visible across the market (e.g., continuously upskilled on a centralized platform). The lines will blur, and people will become more "movable" as there will be more cross-domain and cross-companies virtual project-based alliances.
So they will need a new kind of leader and tools (both methodological and digital) to develop a holistic and healthy approach to managing the workforce not just inside the company (“optimizing the use of all forms of talents”) but also across the ecosystem and beyond. To make the company successful such a leader will have to make its partners and customers succeed in their HR practices as well.
WF Leaders will have to harmonize HR practices for the whole ecosystem and value creation chains including ensuring equal compensation, inclusiveness, and work ethics.
2. Four+ Generations in One Bucket
If you are an HR specialist or people manager in a large and old enough IT company, you already noted from your experience or your data that the age span of employees in the industry increases. It is natural for the industry that becomes more mature as people grow and become elder with it, but also it is just demographics: people live more, are active at their 50-60+, and medicine, healthcare, and sport have their impact as well.
You think that there is enough space for everyone, experienced people sit at the top of the hierarchy, and the reporting lines grow with the business. It is ok, you say, to have like 6-8 people between a 64-years old CEO and a 19-year-old intern. Especially when there are so many countries ruled by 70+ years old dudes born and grown up when the pigeon post still existed and was in use.
So... what? As these guys at the top (usually old white men, you know) fail after failing at climate, peace, civilization flourishment, curing pandemic, and fixing other things there will be some generational tension.
One of the biggest challenges across the industry will be to invent a new organizational design that could be inclusive for four (4) generations at once, that gives the youngest Gen-Zies enough space and opportunity to develop and make a difference, and not to feel outcasts. But also, one that will not throw specialists into the dustbin of history because of their age or gender, or you name it.
It is tough. One day you realize that to keep the promise of being inclusive and embracing diversity you can’t manage all of them with one universal approach, set of principles, priorities, compensation packages, etc. The whole seniority paradigm coming from handicraft and academic cultures will and must be dismantled.
The whole hierarchy paradigm and matrix structures most HR leaders and people managers are familiar with should be broken down and reassembled into dynamic networks. But no one will allow running such an experiment at scale as the machine keeps making money. So, the new approach will have to grow through the living organism and rebuild it on the fly. Like a virus.
Most probably some of the methods will come from educational backgrounds with inverse classes, multi-age groups, etc., not from 15-years+ corporate experience. Because none of the experienced HRs know how to deal with the protest generation of Greta unless you assimilate them. Hopefully, it is not your way. It will strike back, you know.
WF Leaders will have to learn the hard way that adequacy to time and proficiency does not correlate to age in a rapidly changing environment. But it will be even harder to convince the company leaders.
3. The new degrading competence model
This leads us to yet another challenge: people mostly believe that their competencies and skills do not degrade, whatever they learned at university 30 years ago is still true, and their experience in building software or managing finance which they last had firsthand 20 years ago, is still relevant.
From the context and your own experience, you know that they are wrong. But the organizational model you use at your company is built like they are right. This concept is deeply rooted in the seniority model I mentioned in the previous section coming from handicraft and academic backgrounds and preserved throughout the industrial revolution.
At that moment the knowledge did not develop at a modern rhythm, you did not have to rewrite schoolbooks every 5-10 years on live sciences because scientists discovered something new contradicting the past models. A specialist could expect that in ten years the same equipment they used as newbies will be still in place when they become masters or foremen. In the academy, people believed that tools and scientific methods are the same across centuries, so it is ok to teach with chalk on the blackboard while students listen to the professor. And in each such case, there was a clear hierarchy assuming the accumulation of experience and knowledge, as if it never degrades.
But what if it does?
How do you know that the experience from a resume is still relevant? And if you are looking for promoting an employee thinking on the capitalization of experience in the future (a prospecting candidate, sound familiar?) how do you know that it will be still relevant? And if you build a role model and guidance linking it to the grading system, how do you know that your grades build up into a sequence? If I investigate your definitions for the same role at junior, middle, senior, or principal levels do they embed one into another?
People have a natural ability to forget. It is how they learn new stuff without collapsing the brain function. There is also a lot of garbage we consume and outdated information, and relevant-no-more skills. Did you learn how to dominate people? Forget it. Now learn how to be inclusive and listen. The framework you used for 3 years. Forget it. It is s not top3 anymore, so we will rewrite everything. Did you manage a product 3 years ago? During the agile rush, remember it? Did you get your scrum master training? Forget it. Agile is an outdated concept. Just kidding. But forget it.
We need a new model (I have some ideas, but it is another topic ;). One that will acknowledge knowledge and experience degradation but will support updating and reskilling. One that will be evidence-based, not history based. One that will link grades and proficiency with a proven ability to work across knowledge domains, going deep into details and going up to a high-level view. One that will allow understanding of the skills and communication gaps inside and across the teams and the whole organization.
WF Leaders will have to manage personal and team abilities to operate at a desired level and range. And they also will be responsible for the collective ability to forget, unlearn, and drive a life-long learning cycle.
4. The 3rd place of work
Now let's talk about distributed, hybrid, remote, and whatever you call it. Because if you assume it is the goal to support a new hybrid working environment, you didn't get the concept at all. It is just the beginning of a long-long journey! And if you don't know the ultimate goal there is a good chance you will lead the organization in the wrong direction, or not fast enough, or will miss the window of change, or...
The challenge ahead is so much more than just building a flexible environment or ensuring your employees and partners can collaborate remotely in Teams or Zoom using their avatars. And much more than optimizing the usage of office space and the necessity for local and cross-country travel, reducing checks and carbon emissions.
By going remote we just scratched the radical shift around the corner. Because we will have to redefine what we mean by saying work and work done by an employee.
You probably heard this word. The Metaverse. And most probably you think that it is about entertainment, the next Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg, or some NFTs-related hype, driven by a self-announced web3-community. Behind this wall of hype, it is hard to see the true value and ambition.
Let me cite here the definition from our research on the Corporate Metaverse:
Corporate Metaverse (CorpVerse) — is a scaled network of interoperable (3+N)-dimensional worlds and spaces which allow organizations to achieve a radical performance boost by lowering the restrictions and requirements of physical presence through virtual and hybrid experiences, resolving the synchronization hell through async, shadowed, and AI-assistant presence, increasing individual and collective cognitive abilities of employees, democratizing corporate hierarchies and relationship patterns, and introducing the possibility of reflective observation of oneself and the organization self.
The future leader for the Future Workforce should be capable to understand and explain what it all means. What are the scenarios? What are the technical limitations? How could we test and experiment on one or another aspect?
The Metaverse will become eventually the 3rd place of work. How do you define it? How do you build and support it? How do employees get access and customize it? A ton of technical questions.
But also... How do you define and pay for shadow work done by AI agents trained by your employees and by observing them? What is the legal framework for brain and cognitive extensions which your employees tune for themselves? What does it mean to make the environment and the team inclusive for a digital assistant or real employees available only through their avatars?
WF Leaders will have to redefine the meaning of work taking into account its new hybrid human-machine-collective nature. All while combining the old and the new paradigms because regulation will always be a decade behind the progress.
5. Global Risks Management
As people move and exit (search for the "Great Reshuffle"), migration increases due to ecological and geopolitical crises, or collapses because of migration policies and closed borders, or your digital business by its nature expands into new regions and attracts new customers even from the countries that you official do not serve to... you will have to deal with the global aspect of your workforce.
There is an expectation that in the future you will optimize your actual footprint for a variety of reasons, spanning from cost savings and tax optimizations to the necessity for local adaptation (e.g., know your customer) or legal localization of the business (like storing data locally because of privacy regulation). So you now have that diversity and inclusion problem, the bulk of legal problems, and dependencies on local suppliers.
Many so-called global companies also have a nationality crisis, usually attached to the nationality of their founders or the business registration address. Such companies continue being USA companies, German companies, and Russian companies despite being able to operate globally. So, they also inherit the issues and fear of their homeland, like being a target for national espionage, hackers, etc.
The global company gets global risks. Plus, you still have incompetent employees, options for sabotage, and just the human ability to become a victim of social engineering.
How do you manage global risks? How do they affect your hiring policies? How do you mitigate them in your working environment without sacrificing effectiveness?
There are at least three new emerging concepts you should be capable to project and apply to managing your global future workforce:
Zero Trust. You do not trust anyone, and everyone gets only the required permissions. You already hired a CISO, and they explained to you a million options that you need to implement to make it safe, but you also get that gut feeling that it will kill productivity and trust, and transparency across and between the teams and employees. But still, we are enrolling ourselves into a trustless world. And that enrollment should begin with risk awareness and risk mitigation, setting a controllable set of rules that might be lowered or raised. End of the day, WF leaders together with other leaders will have to build the lymphatic system of the organization.
Green Employment. Did you hear of it? Me neither. Just made it up. But here is the problem and I will begin with an analogy. In software development, there is an emerging concept of green software. It assumes that developers should be aware of and reduce the carbon emissions produced because of making software, making it run to serve the customers, and making customers do something because of using it. Some patterns might include moving the workload to another time and location with lower emissions. So how do you transfer that concept to employees and their work in general? One day you will have to dynamically optimize your workforce to save the planet.
Digital Unions. Usually (99%?) company leaders do not like when their employees unionize. No one wants an organization inside the organization that fights for its rights limiting the monopoly to making organizational decisions. Usually, career prospects of such companies say, "we are the family", and "we work together as one team for a better future". But unions... Sorry, no. Anyway, there is an emerging demand from employees to make their future safer and more secure than it is in the modern obscure age. Successful WF leaders will learn how to embrace that demand rather than fight it.
WF Leaders will manage a complex set of risks, but also will use that risk awareness to spread their influence across the ecosystem and beyond. They will shape the ecosystem rules and patterns to create a buffer zone to absorb the risks, train on them, prevent them and raise overall resistance.
So, if you are looking to become a leader for the Workforce of the Future, you should build individual, collective and artificial competencies across five domains:
Reengineering for inclusion
Degradable and time-aware competencies and role models
Security/Green/Social risks management
Good luck! :)
Further Reading List:
— The New Future of Work, Microsoft
— Workforce of the future, PwC
— Workforce of the Future initiative, Brookings
— The workforce of the future, McKinsey & Co
— What is the future of work? Accenture