Every year, about this time, my colleagues and I reflect on the experiences and circumstances that made the greatest impression on us thus far in 2019, how those forces have shaped our work-lives and those of our customers, and most importantly, we begin to think about what the coming year will hold for people and organizations across the globe. We also explore the major trends impacting industries and disciplines other than HR and relate those trends to the world of work.
This year there are major socio-economic, geo-political and demographic forces at play that will radically affect our workforces and workplaces and require immediate and intentional action, even if the effects are not yet obvious. We are coming off a year in which companies realized the importance of addressing the well-being of their overloaded employees holistically, while simultaneously understanding and planning for the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the coming year, we must extend our view further into the future—while grappling with a long-term labor shortage and dealing with a massive crisis in trust—to ensure our survival in the future of work.
Consider that the majority of business leaders are focused on growth, while countries and organizations around the world are facing unprecedented numbers of unfilled jobs. What workforce will fuel the growth that we strive for?
Smart technology, AI and robots will play a role, helping some sectors of the economy more than others. But in order to survive and thrive in the coming years, we will need to tap into new and underutilized workforce segments and empower them in uniquely humanistic ways.
Focus on Accessibility
The world population is aging – a fact that will become one of the most significant social transformations of the twenty-first century in virtually every country in the world, impacting all sectors of society, including the workplace (UN). As the population ages, another workforce reality is emerging: many of us will age into disability. We’re now grappling with record-high labor shortages in Japan, Germany, coastal cities in China, and the U.S. (where we have a gap of more than 1.7 million jobs). Meanwhile, more than one billion people worldwide are currently unemployed or underemployed due to some form of disability.
To enable this vast workforce, our organizations will have to make work truly accessible. In fact, as the number of organizations investing in D&I initiatives increases globally, we must now expand these programs to explicitly include non-traditional labor segments, such as ‘gig’ workers, returning retirees, and people with visible and invisible disabilities, and the neuro-divergent.
We can no longer ignore or shut out a large portion of the workforce if we are to meet the needs of our businesses and customers. Organizations will need to invest in technologies that can augment and compliment the capabilities of diverse groups of people while making their workplaces, and transportation to these workplaces, fully accessible. Central to this effort is to extend the scope of “accessibility” to include access to new opportunities, which makes inclusion, not just accommodation, critical.
Organizations will want to redefine work to be more fluid and flexible to meet the requirements of more people including generalists, specialists, gig workers, retirees, remote and virtual workers. This could mean introducing cyclical or intermittent work, which is not the same as seasonal work, or lifecycle-based assignments and compensation. Organizations must do more to attract and select diverse and disabled individuals based on actual job requirements, and provide significantly better accommodations so that all employees can contribute to their full potential.
The impact of diversity and inclusion initiatives are clear: Improved innovation, productivity, and overall business outcomes.
Balance Transparency and Data Privacy
What makes these investments in accessibility more challenging and critical is that, across the globe, we are in a period of increasing uncertainty and decreasing trust in our institutions, the media, and many governments. With nowhere else to turn, people are ultimately placing their trust in their employers (Edleman Trust Barometer, 2019).
This is a huge responsibility for organizations, who risk losing talent if they cannot strike the right balance between providing employees with the transparency, candor and open communication that foster trust, and the mounting pressure to be less open to protect the data and privacy of people at work. Add to this the movement to support “employee data control/ownership as a human right”, and organizations are often woefully unequipped to successfully and legally balance the needs of all parties. This disconnect is evidenced by the growing number of complaints, fines, and lawsuits connected to these issues currently making headlines.
HR will have to lead organizations in navigating these murky waters— even in Europe, where data privacy is better defined, notable ambiguity remains in how to meet regulations. Policies and programs will need to be updated continuously as regulations and their complexity and scope increase, communication will have to be clear and consistent, and information and systems will have to be both secure and accessible to all.
Build an Adaptive Workforce
For organizations to become more accessible and fluid, so all people can thrive and be productive in an environment of trust and belonging, new adaptive skills and capabilities will have to be developed in our workforces.
Though there has been recent discussion in HR circles about the need for adaptable organizations, little focus has been placed on the need to develop an adaptive workforce. I believe that the sole emphasis on transforming the organization is misplaced. We must build adaptability into our workforce by ensuring that we identify and develop those skills essential to flourishing in the ever-changing environment that is the modern workplace. We pay lip service to the new critical professional skills, such as self-awareness, empathy, and resilience, but little action has been taken to establish these as the primary skills to gauge how a person will contribute to and impact an organization.
Too many business leaders and recruiters prioritize technical skills, while new entrants to the workforce have so much more to offer and contribute. People want to be recognized for their contributions and want to learn adaptive skills that will enable them to continuously have a positive impact on their organizations and communities. Unfortunately, we are underserved in tools to quantify impact and contribution.
It is a lot for us to grapple with, and 2020 is the year in which we have to do it. So much is at stake in human and financial terms, and our organizations will not survive—much less evolve—without taking note of and affecting change. This is the time for us to step up; protecting our people’s privacy at the same time being more open with them; making work accessible technologically, cognitively, and physically; and ensuring we develop and value adaptability in our people, essentially putting all people first in every way.