Managing the future workforce

Making the right technology choices will greatly impact how businesses interact with employees and navigate the way forward after coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about unprecedented change for thousands of businesses and their employees. With the dramatic shift for many organisations from physical workplaces to almost fully virtual working, traditional notions of what it means to “manage” someone are being challenged at a scale and in a timeframe never before imagined.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the human resources department. Charged with the general welfare of a workforce they cannot physically meet and whose behaviour they cannot easily observe, HR finds itself unprepared to perform many of its strategic services.

These include recruitment, workforce optimisation and retention, along with supporting career development for employees and supporting performance management for managers, and tackling thorny people problems that lower productivity and feed turnover.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has driven morale to an all-time low and the C-suite is looking for more impact, not less, from HR’s strategic services.

While for some this is a perfect storm, for others it might be a perfect opportunity. Navigating the sea-change in how people work and what it means to be employed, we may see a sorting of winners and losers. Innovators in the new paradigm are likely to achieve breakout performance and dominance with others unable to make the evolutionary leap to manage their workforce in a new way.

“Companies have lost their home-court advantage,” says Dimitri Boylan, chief executive of Avature, a software company that supports strategic HR programmes in 110 of the Fortune 500 and 23 of the FTSE 100 companies, including Siemens, Metro Bank and Deloitte.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that the knowledge worker is ambivalent at best about returning to the office after COVID. Companies including Twitter have confirmed that employees don’t ever have to go back to the office, unless they want to. Even staunchly traditional fund management firm Schroders is allowing employees to continue working from home beyond the pandemic, marking a huge shift in the way the City works.

This is a rejection of the office experience, where power, status, and privilege are hard-wired into the corner office, explains Boylan. But at the same time, we see employees have not mastered the work-from-home model with its short-term increases in productivity quickly followed by a combination of burnout, low productivity and disorientation.

Will a new engagement model arise out of this turmoil? Boylan says: “Progressive companies have begun implementing strategic HR transformations based on better engagement models and new technology, but I don’t have a single customer that feels its mission accomplished. 

“Building on a new paradigm of engagement based on influence requires innovation: creation, destruction and recreation to find out what works.”

This type of agility will be the hallmark of success for strategic HR going forward. And it’s pretty clear existing core HR technology is not fit for this purpose.

Now is the time to really leverage technology as an enabler of business. An engaged workforce is the lynchpin of success and companies that invested in creating cool offices to help facilitate collaboration, communication and productivity must rethink how they nurture a positive and productive culture.

The new challenge for HR and business leaders is how to create engagement in virtual spaces that doesn’t just feel like the physical workspace, but a better workplace.

A solution that can respond to challenges beyond working from home, think diversity and inclusion and generational shifts in attitude.

What tools can be used to create these important intangibles in a remote setting? “It is a huge challenge,” acknowledges Boylan. “HR leaders need to be able to create experiences over the internet that support real HR strategies.”

Now that employment is untethered from commuting, do we see dramatic changes in how recruiting is done? “Recruiting has been transitioning to an engagement model for some time now. Agility in the form of advanced campaign design and automated personalisation is built in to modern customer relationship management systems,” he explains.

But recruiting without retention is wasted effort. “True. If you are not looking at refining your retention models, while you are engaging employees, then from a HR perspective you are lost,” says Boylan. 

Engagement starts before an employee’s official first day, he says. Branded, relevant and personalised communications, such as a welcome email from a senior leader, a virtual agenda for the first week, job-specific training opportunities and even a virtual mentor, can help reduce churn and ramp up productivity.

Then what about those difficult conversations? Without the informal daily interactions and feedback of a physical workplace, getting a tough review in an online space can become a beacon of negativity.

The solution, says Boylan, is continuous review in the flow of work: a steady stream of honest and timely feedback, a form of engagement that is paramount for remote workers.

The overturning of traditional workplace structures means you will see the emergence of social networking features and even advertising systems embedded within HR technology

Engagement with purpose certainly seems like a good antidote for the current situation. And if the HR approach to the post-pandemic workforce is agile and adaptable, the opportunities for HR to redesign the workplace are limitless.

Making the right technology choices through which you interact with employees will greatly impact the way forward. These are choices that facilitate an agile game plan and creation of adaptable programmes, which leverage new technology to create the modern work experience.

The overturning of traditional workplace structures means you will see the emergence of social networking features and even advertising systems embedded within HR technology, says Boylan, opening the door to big data and new insights.

Those organisations that pull together a modern technology platform for the design of innovative practices have the best chance of adjusting their culture, hiring across global markets, boosting internal mobility, improving performance and expanding the diversity of their workforce in 2021. 

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