Michael Braun, Scott Latham and Stacy Maloney explore how we prepare our organizations and workforce to properly function, thrive, and seek fulfillment in a context of constant change and flux.
The Workforce Tug of War
When Covid-19 caused the tide to go out on the modern-day workforce, it laid bare long-standing yet inefficient employment practices. Layers upon layers of conventions, routines and systems built since the previous industrial revolution are now being challenged, with cracks showing in everything from the 5-day workweek to organizational charts and the purpose of the physical offices. As our society continues to question the basic tenets by which we organize our means of production, the social contract between employees and employers has never been more precarious.
Tensions in labor relations are currently playing out in a dysfunctional game of tug of war. On one end of the rope, many employers – most notably Twitter and J.P. Morgan – are attempting to turn the clock back to pre-pandemic worker arrangements. And in cases where they are considering permanent at-home and hybrid work arrangements, the prospect of draconian productivity monitoring technologies is already rearing its ugly head. Pulling in the opposite direction are workers using whatever means necessary to cling to the workplace autonomy they’ve come to cherish. In promoting the argument that the “where and when” of work can be reorganized toward similar, if not higher levels productivity, employees are using whatever means necessary to cling to the modicum of work-life balance afforded to them over the course of pandemic-related lockdowns.
For the past decade, we’ve been on the frontlines of workforce development from a multitude of perspectives, including higher education, industry, and government policy. We can say with a high degree of certainty that changes in the social contract of work over the past few years will pale in comparison to the disruptions to come, especially as Industry 4.0 technologies – machine learning, robotics and augmented reality among them – begin to take hold. It’s time for both sides to throw out the old playbook and turn attention to first principles about the nature and role of work: what it entails, its technical and moral necessities and guidelines, and how these fit into the grander scheme of humanity. The central question then turns to how we prepare our organizations, and subsequently our workforce, to properly function, thrive, and seek fulfillment in a context of constant change and flux?
To help guide answers to this question, we’ve delineated L.E.G.O. building blocks – Lifecycle-oriented, Empowering, Generative, and Obtainable. By paying heed to these four foundational blocks, employers and employees can break the current deadlock and turn attention to the Venn overlap in each group’s priorities, thus clearing the ground for structuring long-lasting work arrangements beneficial to both. Moreover, building on the L.E.G.O. foundation can inform the type of training and development efforts toward a workforce both resilient and flexible resilience in face of ongoing uncertainty.
The L.E.G.O. Building Blocks, Explained
The winners in the next revolution will be those organizations proactively placing continuous learning and reskilling at the core of the capabilities to support their workers through these careers. Organizations unable to adequately nurture and invest in their workers will fall victim to a vicious cycle of high attrition followed by losses in productivity and expensive recruiting and retraining. Instead, employers structuring continuous training and development that can align with the organization’s lifecycle can shift energy from battling worker attrition to pro-actively driving retention. Economic downturns provide the most consistent example of employers’ reactive postures: as the prospects of recessionary environments arise, workers are dismissed on mass. Yet with recessions lasting, on average, less than a year, organizations end up scrambling to staff up again for the next growth cycle. Taking into account that hiring for a $60,000 job costs an organization more than three times that amount to fill that particular role, organizations need to learn how to wean themselves off the practice of mass layoffs. In developing a L.E.G.O. workforce, employers can train workers to adopt lifecycle-oriented skills and attributes that increase organizational flexibility and resiliency in the face of with both external uncertainties. This workforce quality can better withstand disruptions, whether economic, technological, climate-related, or any other unforeseen circumstances, and not fall victim to short-term fallout and long-term competitive disadvantage stemming from layoffs. We expect a significant premium to be placed on a cohesive workforce that can better navigate the constancy of ambiguity.
All previous industrial revolutions have been characterized by the creative destruction in vocations, from the telegram replacing the pony express, desktop publishing putting an end to type setters, or online shopping forever disrupting brick and mortar. Yet the scale and speed of Industry 4.0’s workforce displacement are expected to be unprecedented due to the sheer prowess of robotic sophistication and machine learning. While technology will play an essential role for both employer and worker, it will be vital for organizations to cultivate a workplace that enables employees to pursue fulfilling professional learning journeys. Not only do employers have to shoulder the burden of providing workers with the visibility to professional pathways available to them within the organization, but the onus will be on them to facilitate workforce training and development to pursue those pathways. To meet the demand for training, organizations must employ structured approaches to continuous training and upskilling. The irony already playing out is that employers preparing their workers to be competitive in the labor market are often the ones best positioned to retain them. A L.E.G.O. workforce that prioritizes promoting individual and collective inspiration, aspiration, and transformation, especially in the context of an accelerating adoption of productivity technologies, will be able to claim a competitive talent advantage.
Worker training and development remains predominantly in the realm of large employers. Even then, however, it may involve a workshop here, a Lunch and Learn there or, at worst, free subscriptions to LinkedIn Learning or similar services. While one-off trainings may get everyone together for a few hours to promote topics de rigueur, they do little to encourage engagement, foster teamwork and congeal the organization’s collective aptitude. Moreover, since trainings are often delivered in a vacuum lacking context and continuity, to what extent the new competencies are internalized and ready for practical application and implementation remains unclear. To achieve this full potential, employers need to redefine what is meant by ‘training’. Training cannot be treated as a discrete activity. Rather, by re-conceptualizing it as an interconnected set of activities embedded in a worker’s roles and responsibilities, organizations can clearly lay out how technical, interpersonal, and emerging leadership skills translate into employees’ professional journeys. In this way, the L.E.G.O. workforce starts a flywheel where learning begets further learning, whether for linear or lateral career advancements. Lastly, in using achievement artifacts such as digital badges to track a worker’s progress of knowledge and skills attainment, employers can start to build powerful internal dashboards on their talent pool to exhibit not just organizational strengths, but also to reveal potential weaknesses and emerging skills and talent gaps.
Time remains the most significant barrier in the way of a L.E.G.O. workplace. Lacking the necessary structure and support to make learning and development part of the work schedule, organizations currently shift responsibility on workers to keep themselves skilled. The result? Training is often misaligned with the organization’s learning goals. How can employers weave ongoing workforce initiatives into their operational fabric so as to break the “working in the business versus on the business” trade-off? With Covid-19 having upended the space-time continuum of certain professions we have an opportunity to redefine worker roles and responsibilities, as well as their underlying incentive mechanisms. By deciding to trade short-term efficiency for the future health, resiliency, and effectiveness of their employees, leaders can start a discussion on how to provide their workforce with a larger scope of influence, in the process taking a step away from the rigid organizational chart that has come to define modern-day bureaucracy. One of the crucial aspects of this discussion will be the means by which to encourage the pursuit of better, more fulfilling professional destinies. Innovative modes to knowledge and skills obtainability are already being tested. Some of these use a combination of self-paced and cohort-based workshops, related on-the-job activities and mentorship, as well as facilitated exploration and application using designated success coaches. In other cases, offices left vacant from the pandemic and permanent hybrid arrangements can make use of ‘learning centers’, or strategic spaces dedicated for team regular or periodic check-ins, morale building, group-based ideation, and hands-on training and development.
Leadership in the L.E.G.O. Workforce
Tomorrow’s social contract between employer and employee will require a new kind of leadership. Top-down management practices will have to give way to fluid and organic approaches to coordinating and communicating with the L.E.G.O. workforce. In-demand leadership competencies will take a more project-oriented focused on performance outcomes. And rather than having workers occupy their static positions in the hierarchy, management will want to incentivize jobs-to-be-done by cultivating, selecting, and assigning the necessary skills and capabilities. We anticipate a premium will be placed on more relational management styles that can ensure the meaning of work remains uncompromised when optimizing the workplace. As such, we also envision Human Resources taking a more strategic and holistic role since developing the L.E.G.O. workforce entails a systems-wide approach to getting buy-in from all internal stakeholders. As the organization enters a new phase of growth, uncertainty or disruption, workers won’t hesitate ask questions of how they might re-conceptualize or even reinvent their role and the skills and competencies needed to excel. In this way, HR can champion the pursuit of reimagined career paths while concurrently minimizing the cost of attrition or layoffs.
A workforce built on a L.E.G.O. foundation represents mere table stakes to competing in the emerging new world order. Employers able to weave ongoing and iterative learning into their organization’s DNA will minimize the risk of workers falling victim to unforeseen influences that have come to define this new chapter in society. And, as is good practice, in developing and nurturing a L.E.G.O. workforce, employers will make sure to elevate the humanity of their most important asset while simultaneously securing their own legacy.