Ideas on what constitutes a fulfilling and productive working environment are shifting rapidly. They’re raising questions about mobility of talent and what it means to be an effective leader as the way in which knowledge is transferred, both within and outside an organisation, becomes more dynamic. Indeed, a perfect storm of new technology, globalisation and changing demographics is blowing away assumptions about how we work.
Lynda Gratton, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, suggests that the formal link between ‘work’ and ‘place’ is beginning to soften: “We are already seeing the rise of flexible and remote working arrangements as well as creative hubs where people use workspace as and when they need to.
“It seems to me that as working lives become more of a marathon than a sprint, we are going to see more emphasis on work that excites and inspires people and helps them to grow...These concepts are not just about employee well-being, they are... crucial to the competitive advantage of a company.”
It’s incumbent on leadership teams to get a grip on what is already underway. Stuart Steele, Partner for Human Capital Consulting at professional services firm EY, comments: “There is always competition for good talent and an inability to predict what the work environment will look like in three or four years’ time, I think, can put an organisation at a disadvantage.”
Let’s get digital
From the mills and factories of the industrial revolution to assembly-line car production at the turn of the 20th century, technology has reshaped working practices by reinventing notions of efficiency and productivity.
John Lewis, Chief Operating Officer for communication services provider Airwave Solutions, says: “Mobile working or process improvements are absolutely there for the taking. There are lots of different examples that I’ve seen, such as the creation of collaboration zones and the use of tools for collaborative working.”
How best to take full advantage of this flexibility is open to debate. Susanna Dinnage, EVP and MD for Discovery Networks UK & Ireland, explains: “A great deal of people working on their own, possibly at home, may benefit individuals in terms of family commitments and reduced time spent travelling… I understand that, we have busy lives... but what you lose is the alchemy of teams working together.”
John notes that organisations must be careful not to underestimate peoples’ appetite for interaction. “That can be the biggest challenge,” he comments. “How do you get over the fact that people just sometimes need to spend a bit of time gossiping or just having a reaction with others in their team to help process what’s going on?”
The hierarchy that traditionally existed in organisations is being broken down by the volume of information now available at employees’ fingertips. This is causing leaders to rethink how they engage with employees, encourage collaboration and make decisions.
Julian Birkinshaw, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, says: “Think back to the traditional role of the leader. Back in the industrial era, he was responsible for squeezing as much value out of his resources – money, people – as possible.
“In the knowledge era, he or she has become used to being an expert… They were also the conduit of information, the person who accesses and then disseminates information across the organisation. But if this information is now widely available, and if there are experts at all levels, the leader of the future has to think about what their value-added role is.”
According to Julian, leadership in this context will entail a more interpersonal role, helping other people to make decisions and avoid becoming overwhelmed by the volume of data available: “Good leadership... [will] be action-oriented; that is, following through with people to ensure they deliver on their commitments. One of the risks of ubiquitous information is that it causes analysis paralysis – there is always an opportunity to collect more.”
A more age-diverse workforce will certainly throw up some new challenges. Susanna says: “I am observing a new generation that is very smart. I look at our interns – they are engaged, they have plans and they have expectations. They don’t come here to stuff envelopes.
“They are not afraid to ask for half an hour in your diary to understand how you got your job – that’s fantastic. I love this confidence they have... [as] they step forward and… are contributing.”
There is a sense that the expectations held by millennials in the workplace are, in some respects, higher than of generations gone by. Stuart explains: “There have always been career-focused individuals, with an appetite for rapid progression, however, looking at groups, if you’re 25, your aspirations for broad opportunity and rapid progression in an organisation are typically a lot greater than what a 50-year old person’s was when they were that age.
“Where an older employee may have taken 20 years to progress three-quarters of the way up the organisation, the 25-year old wants to get to that same position in five years or less. How do you balance that? How do you meet their aspirations of rapid progression while not disenfranchising this person, who has delivered good service for the last 20 or so years?"
These are the types of questions which senior leadership teams need to be thinking about and addressing. Stuart adds: “As organisations' demands for skills and capability change over time, the intrinsic value of the employees with 20 or so years of experience – those with real depth and breadth – changes from a position where one could arguably describe them as a commodity, to a situation where they have become 'key retains' focused both on delivery and the development of our younger workforce.”
It calls for a closer awareness of how to bring the best out of a diverse mix of talent. Lynda comments: “It’s clear that encouraging different age groups to work productively and harmoniously with each other can be tough. Those who have made it work often put job design and collaboration at the centre.
“Those that design jobs in an inflexible, linear way have found that they cannot be responsive to a person’s life stage and aspirations…. Right now, companies are struggling with this inflexibility – for example, not knowing how to handle mid-career hires because their processes are all geared towards hiring graduates.”
A multigenerational workforce will require organisations to consider different career paths and job designs simultaneously, rather than opt for a cookie-cutter approach. Specialisation, limited contracts and partnerships are expected to become the norm.
Julian comments: “The workplace of the future I would like to see is one in which people are given a lot of freedom to pursue the work that interests them, with a lot more bottom-up accountability, and far fewer formal bureaucratic systems for co-ordinating our activities. This is the model we see in many start-up companies, but once they go above 100 people or so they often lose this vitality.”
The impact of what is happening in the workplace will be genuinely game-changing and that's why it's something boards must take the time to try and understand. Unless they're thinking about what it means for an organisation's future, they won’t be able to turn what's occurring into a tangible competitive advantage.
I hope to see you soon.