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Managing the Workforce of the Future

One of the key roles of leaders is to shape, develop and nurture relationships with a variety of stakeholders. Arguably the most important relationship is that of the company’s workforce which is the bedrock on which other stakeholder relationships can be built – with customers, suppliers, shareholders, and society at large.

Attracting, developing and retaining employees is therefore a critical competency, particularly in an age when market forces demand work intensification while creating conditions of increasing work insecurity – through more automation, flatter organizational structures and a trend towards treating employees as an on-demand resource, to be “sourced” when needed.

No wonder then that in the pursuit of narrowly defined organizational goals, leaders attempt an impossible balancing act: harnessing employee commitment and energy while exercising even more managerial control than in the past. Persuading employees that “we’re all in this together” and that their interests align with those of owners and managers is a leap of faith that is becoming increasingly difficult to justify in the face of technological and market developments.

Prescriptive practitioner approaches tend to view these managerial practices through the prism of social exchange theory and by making one key assumption: that what is good for the company is automatically good for the employee and that this will withstand current societal challenges. The plurality of interests among organizational actors and the strain that these are increasingly coming under is often conveniently overlooked. The rallying cry “we’re all in this together” often belies an overt attempt to tilt the employer – employee equation even more towards the former as one of the only ways to survive future challenges.

Achieving order in a chaotic world and predicting the future in sufficient detail to be able to plan for plausible eventualities is becoming harder if not impossible for leaders across most if not all industries.

Vijay Govindarajan's "three box solution" (HBR Working Knowledge, April 2016) may be relevant here. It starts by looking at the the future (Box 3) by identifying the game-changing innovations that are going to transform our business tomorrow. During this process, you identify weak signals, or early warning indicators of change: a new consumer trend, a regulatory change, a new technology that might lead to something new or, I would add, changes to the dynamics of employment and the kinds of skills businesses will require.

In Box 2 (the past) companies identify businesses that might still be working but may not be relevant for the future. Whilst these may be today's strengths, they may become future weaknesses unless you deliberately ”forget them." This box can be the most challenging: envisage an obsolete trend and implement changes to ensure success. To achieve this, the author's recommendation is to set up a team dedicated to Box 3 that is isolated from the rest of the business - either by recruiting people from outside or setting up different metrics or processes to make it happen.

Of course, we should not forget the importance of managing the present (Box 1). That should be the primary focus of managers, since without revenue, there will be no future to plan for. Therefore, a relentless focus on keeping the performance engine healthy is absolutely critical.

This is a topic in which I'm very interested, so watch this space. More musings to come.

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