The Future of the Workforce Is Here, Are You Ready?

  • August 20, 2021
Smiling woman at work

The media is awash in stories about the 'Great Resignation,' stating that anywhere between 25% and 40% of the workforce is ready to make a change in their career. People are making career changes after their current jobs couldn't or wouldn't provide the flexibility needed to care for family and loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. This burden fell mainly on women, with nearly 3 million U.S. women choosing to leave the labor force in the past year. This stark number highlights the continued effects of persistent pay inequality, undervalued work, and the lack of available caregiving resources.

Employees are setting boundaries and demanding work-life balance and reasonable workloads – spurred by COVID-19's reminder that "life is too short." Employees exploring new job opportunities watched offers disappear or decided to forego opportunities altogether due to the risks associated with changing careers amid a global pandemic.

In 2021, the U.S. economy is rebounding faster than expected, growing at a rate of 6.4% in the quarter, from 4.3% in the final three months of 2020. After the pandemic, 1 in 4 workers is considering quitting their job to pursue better offers, accelerate career advancement, and rethink their skill sets. This shift is sweeping across every industry, and employers need to prepare for the changes ahead.

Aside from the impact of the pandemic, numerous influences have created a long-anticipated tipping point in the workforce. Employers and employees alike are ready to replace the inflexible, antiquated workforce model with a reimagined future of work.

The ever-accelerating pace of change in organizations, precipitated by AI, ML, automation, and other advanced technologies, means that the way we work, train, skill, and reskill will continue to change in response. The rise and success of the 'gig economy' are hastening the move away from a traditional, permanent career model.

For example, the gig economy impacts healthcare, with healthcare institutions hiring temporary workers and freelance doctors to meet current demands. Hospitals are using pay-per-hour models to address the growing physician shortage in the U.S. Not to be overlooked, the diversified mix of generations in the workforce is changing the expectations workers have of their employers, with an increased emphasis on purpose, autonomy, and a growth mindset.

There are several ways employers can redefine work models to envision a more purposeful, autonomous, and continuously evolving workplace for all.

Connect to purpose

People are energized and motivated by meaningful work. In his wildly popular book and Ted Talk, Simon Sinek encourages organizations and people to "find your why." An organization's vision or "why" is essential, but an individual's "why" is just as, if not more powerful. How are you connecting your workforce to the company "why"? How good of a job are you doing connecting the work individuals do to the outcomes your business creates?

According to a PwC study, millennials who have a solid connection to their organization's purpose are more than five times more likely to stay with that company. Yet, only 27% of leaders help employees connect their purpose to the purpose of the company. Microsoft, #1 in the Wall Street Journal's Management Top 250, landed that spot primarily due to its focus on employee engagement and culture.

Radical autonomy

Daniel Pink's 2009 book Drive tells us that one of the main drivers of employee performance is autonomy. We crave the freedom to exercise our judgment as to how we accomplish work. Not only do we want to determine how we work, but we also want to dictate where and when we work best.

When our motivation is increased by autonomy, our performance increases — we are more invested in doing an excellent job for our company and our clients. When we're more invested, our clients know it. They see our attention to detail, the extra care and attention we invest in our interactions with them, and that we go above and beyond to produce the best results. Even employees who are not client-facing create equally valuable positives for their colleagues and the clients that never see them but see the results of their work.

A hybrid workplace model is a vital part of a strategy to attract and retain great employees and ensure that greatness manifests for your clients. The ways we work must fit within a digital framework that informs our tools, how we use them, and the best way to engage with each other and our clients. But at its core, autonomy is about empowering employees to do the great work we hired them to do in the first place. Perhaps the best-known example of this is Nordstrom's employee handbook. It famously consists of one page and six words: "Use good judgment in all situations."

A growth mindset

The intermingling of multiple generations in the workforce has impacted work models, but different mindsets may present the most significant disruption to traditional working methods. Carol Dweck, renowned author and speaker, researches and advocates for the idea that we can grow our brain's capacity to learn and to solve problems — otherwise known as a "growth mindset."

Organizations and individuals who have growth mindsets will be the winners in the workforce of the future. While a growth mindset may be more prevalent among Millennials and Gen Z, who demand immediate and constant opportunities to learn and try new things, Gen X is arguably full of the same energy and drive.

Researchers asked a collection of Fortune 1000 companies about how their organizational mindset impacts workers' satisfaction, workplace culture, collaboration, innovation, and more. Leaders in growth-mindset companies rated their employees and organizations as more innovative, collaborative, and dedicated to learning and growing than those with fixed mindsets. Companies that maintain growth mindsets are laser-focused on hiring employees who share this desire to learn. You can create a culture and an infrastructure that supports growth mindsets vs. rigid and frameworks that stifle growth as a company.

How to foster a growth mindset in the workplace:

  • Consider building the skills you need internally rather than buying them. While nearly all organizations will need to have some degree of variable workforce (e.g., gig worker, consultants, contractors), building up the skills of the people who already work in your organization is a win-win. Building the capabilities of your current workforce through training and upskilling is a win-win. Training and upskilling is generally less expensive than constant cycles of hiring the hot – and therefore most expensive - skills in the marketplace and it engenders loyalty and engagement within the current workforce.
  • Look for the skills you need in places others aren't looking. Do certain positions only hire college graduates? Have you consistently recruited from the same colleges and training programs that everyone in your industry recruits from? Create new relationships with lesser-known — and likely very motivated — programs.
  • Look within your current workforce at people who are doing a similar type of work. Don't focus on the tasks; focus on how the work is done or the critical thinking skills required to be good at a particular job. Where else might those skills be applicable? Can a C++ programmer become a great application modernization developer? Think differently about your employees' capabilities.

The foundation supporting these observations and recommendations is an organization's culture. It's no coincidence that executives are talking about the importance of culture in their organizations. Professionals working on the human side of the business have been long-standing advocates for prioritizing organizational culture. Often, it requires a significant and prolonged shock to the system for the importance of culture to move to the forefront of conversations.

Organizational culture is a beast that's built from the ground up by individuals and their actions, but it's made possible by the decisions made at the top of the house. What policies and practices are in place? Which behaviors are recognized and rewarded? Do you expect innovation and make room for failure? How do leaders hold themselves accountable to each other and their teams either feed or starve a culture? How you decide to address and respond to each area will answer the larger question: What do you want your future workforce to look like?

The rapidly changing workforce underscores the need for human-centric, digital-forward solutions for organizations in all industries. Our Workforce Readiness Consulting practice helps drive organizational success with future-focused talent and change strategies. Learn more about how we help our clients thrive at the human side of business.

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Kim Curley

Kim Curley has spent her career focused on the human side of business, enabling leaders and their organizations to do more, do better, and to thrive through change. As the Workforce Readiness Consulting Practice Leader for NTT DATA Services, Kim leads advisory consultants who deliver people-side consulting solutions that help our clients solve their most complex business challenges.

Kim is also a founder of Women Inspire NTT DATA, the company’s first employee resource group. She launched the Charlotte Chapter in March 2018, which she continues to lead, and serves as the chair of the global steering committee. She is also a published author and sought-after industry speaker on the topic of human and organizational impacts of automation and other advanced technologies and is the co-lead of the Talent Development Forum of the Executive’s Club of Chicago.

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