What’s The Workforce Of The Future?

Boards and management can seize the opportunity created by the recent fundamental shift in how we work and interact by successfully reframing their thinking and actively challenging past ways of working.

We’ve been asking that question for some time, particularly in the context of generational differences or the reality of a multi-generational workforce. To date, a recurring theme in that conversation has been a desire for more flexibility in how, where, and when we work. People talk about achieving greater work-life balance. We want our teams and leaders to better mirror our diverse communities. And, we’re grateful for technologies that make it possible to work more efficiently and effectively, from the shop floor to the C-Suite and boardrooms.

Together, an increasing commitment to social equity and our experience of sudden, global, quarantine challenge our thinking about these themes. They can be a catalyst for redefining the workforce (and workspace) of the future.

What have we learned?

• Diversity – of race, experience, gender, circumstances – adds value to both the business and our social environment. Yet diversity without inclusion lacks meaning and the equity we seek.

• With or without an active pandemic, the workforce of the future will have to move easily and regularly between in-person and technology-enhanced work.

• Personal safety remains top of mind and is likely to influence benefits, workforce policies, and how we use our spaces or travel to/from our facilities.

• Not all work or work experiences can be replicated online. That’s true even with technological advances and increased use of artificial intelligence. Further, people crave connection and camaraderie that’s just not the same over technology. Likewise, leaders must take the pulse of the organization without benefit of the ‘office watercooler’, or having everyone in the same place at the same time.

• Perhaps surprisingly, people may not really want to integrate or blend work and life quite so fully. Leaders regularly tell me that toggling between working, teaching, caregiving, networking, learning, etc. is inefficient and draining.

• Leading remotely is different from traditional leadership contexts. It definitely doesn’t mean becoming personally distant.

• At long last, we must address education – what and how we deliver it and to whom. This includes preparing young people for today’s jobs and reskilling experienced workers to be successful in newly-configured workspaces and approaches.

What will CEOs do now?

Much has been written about how leaders can adapt their policies, workflows, leadership, and environments to address the immediate challenges created by the pandemic and heightened social awareness. This experience has forced us to regroup – quickly. Now, progressive leaders consider which of the short-term fixes could – and should – become long-term adaptations. They ask three vital questions:

• What will our customers and staff need and want from us?

• What can we ill-afford to lose, going forward?

• How will we accommodate differences, while providing the requisite equity and clarity so that people know what’s expected and managers can enable staff productivity?

What is the board’s role?

The board’s two primary roles remain critical. In its advisory capacity, the board ensures that the three questions are being asked in the C-Suite, and effectively addressed via the decisions and actions taken on the ground. As a fiduciary, the board evaluates its own behaviors to understand how well it is acting in the best interests of the people they represent. They do this in the larger context of organizational purpose and the company’s desired impact for customers, communities and staff. Three questions the board should consider:

• To what extent do our actions represent what each of our stakeholder groups want and need?

• What capabilities, perspectives, and experiences will the board and C-Suite require in the future to serve customers and sustain staff?

• In what ways will we adapt board practices to model what’s necessary to assure equity and clarity?

The workforce of the future will be inclusive, resilient, adaptable and tech-savvy. Individuals have already learned what this means for them and demonstrated their capacity for change. Looking ahead, leaders can seize the opportunity created by this fundamental shift in how we work and interact. Those that successfully reframe their thinking and actively challenge past ways of working will likely emerge the winners – in any industry.

Tara J. Rethore
Tara Rethore works with CEOs and Boards to make strategy real and actionable: that’s Strategy for Real™. In industry and as a consultant, Tara has done this across a variety of industries, globally, and in mission-driven and for-profit contexts. She knows what it takes to succeed and how to make strategy real. Currently, Tara serves on the Boards of D+R International, Inc. and JHS Scholarship Fund.