Korn Ferry hosted a roundtable of HR directors from various multi-national companies and local organisations, to gather their views on the challenges ahead, as they help their workforces deal with a more uncertain future.

The forces for change

The modern day reality across Australia and New Zealand is that a combination of factors has converged to challenge the traditional functioning of workplaces. These factors include the increasing casualisation of work, demands for work-life balance, the role of technology, an ageing workforce, legislative and consumer shifts and a generally more uncertain working environment.

One theme that is emerging is that the past is no longer a guide to the future. This is generating more ambiguity and anxiety in the workplace, bringing with it additional challenges for all HR professionals.

Put simply, the workforce will increasingly have to become more agile and not just hope that the business model can adapt to change in its own right.

However, a range of factors inherently work against agility in the workplace. Management systems are designed to reduce errors, locking in systems and processes, which end up inhibiting change. Few organisations provide the resources and energy to innovate or experiment – a process that is particularly difficult for mature businesses, as compared to startups or entrepreneurial organisations.

The rise of non-permanent labour is another challenge. Casuals don’t always have the same connection to their organisation to foster a journey of change and agility.

The flip-side, of course, is that casuals might be more motivated to adapt to new tasks or ways of working because they are grateful for the flexibility to work and might not resist change in the same way as a long-term employee worried about their future. All these forces are competing in the modern day workplace.

"The past is no longer a guide to the future"

What will the Future look like?

In the future, leaders might not, metaphorically speaking, be able to ‘touch and feel’ the workforce or have the ability to monitor the way they work on a daily basis. They might operate entirely remotely, using even more advanced technology and demand to be judged on their contribution rather than the process of doing work or how many hours of facetime they put in.

The definition of workforce retention is also likely to change. Given the trend for how long workers now stay in one job, a successful retention outcome might be for a skilled worker to stay in the same workplace for three years, achieve a mutually agreed set of outcomes between employee and employer and then move on. Provided they leave on good terms they might even be advocates for the organisation.

Lastly, workers will connect with their leaders and the organisation in new ways depending on the type of industry or organisational structure. Non-pay incentive schemes will also increasingly differ, but one theme will constantly resonate – more worklife balance. In the end the employer-employee relationship will become more of a partnership with both parties setting out the terms of a mutually beneficial contract. That partnership will begin by asking the worker one simple question: “What do you want?”

Leadership is Critical

To make the leap to a more agile workforce, the most important factor is leadership. Leaders must themselves operate according to the new mantra and get better about communicating it. It is also important that the CEO and the senior management team align on key outcomes. Too often the senior management either leaves the heavy lifting to the CEO or deliberately keeps a low profile, hoping the change being implemented at the top will pass. Instead, there should be a shared broader purpose.

Leaders need to demonstrate they can look forward, as well as run the business day-to-day and create the story about the future to share with employees, including how they’re going to achieve future plans.

Those leaders that can articulate in the narrative rather than just be good with the numbers will be the best at making this leap. Many leaders are forced into action by crisis, while others don’t respond well to crisis. The ability of future leaders to embrace change will be the key feature of the next generation of leaders.

Top 3 Issues in the workplace

  1. Real concern exists about the sustainability of the current employment model – organisations are facing constant challenges to the way they operate. The big issue will be whether the workforce can adapt to meet those challenges.
  2. The challenge for leadership – the big question is: do our leaders have the resilience and ability to adapt and be flexible enough to meet the tasks required for agility?
  3. The disconnect with the workforce – how do we connect with an increasingly diverse, and remote workforce, who have increasingly different priorities and values?

Top 3 Changes in the workplace

  1. The push to flexibility will only accelerate in the future, as employees demand that workplaces must fit with their lifestyle, a trend that will continue even at senior executive level. People will seek to be measured on output and not how they get the job done.
  2. Mental health issues are going to rise in the workplace, as more employees deal with ambiguity and uncertainty about the future and the pressures of working 24/7 given the advances in modern technology.
  3. The push to agile thinking is unstoppable and the workforce of the future is going to have to become more flexible if they are to survive.


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