• Managing people

Is Your People Strategy Today Fit for Tomorrow’s Workforce?

A powerful tide of workplace change is shaping the demands, needs and expectations of the modern workforce. A cross-discipline panel of experts from Cranfield School of Management asks: is your people strategy up to the challenge?


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The past year has seen dramatic advances in new, digitally-enhanced ways of working. Indeed, the world of work was already underdoing great change in this area pre- pandemic—and these trends are only accelerating.

Multiple currents—from societal trends, to changing employee expectations, and moves to less formal organizational structures—all contribute to a changing tide in today’s workplace, that is shaping the way we will all work in the next ten to twenty years.

In a recent live online panel event hosted by IEDP, three leading experts from Cranfield School of Management, Professor Emma Parry, Associate Professor Ruth Massie and Professor Michael Dickmann, shared their insights into the evolving workplace—from AI technologies, to new career trajectories, flexible working, new hard and soft skillsets, sustainability, cyber challenges, global diversity and more—and reflected on the people management strategies needed by organizations of the future.

A changing societal context

Professor Emma Parry identifies three primary sets of ongoing trends behind the changes afoot in the workplace today, alongside the recent disruption of COVID-19:

  1. Demographic trends—“The ageing workforce, increased diversity in the workplace, migration, health trends.”
  2. Environmental trends—“Climate change and the push towards net-zero carbon.”
  3. Technological advances—“Emerging technologies such as AI.”

Parry offers a prime example of how these contextual trends are affecting our new world of work, in the way that technology is driving the need for new skills—and not only digital skills. “We are seeing increased automation and augmentation of people. Certain skills are becoming obsolete, and individuals are needing to upskill throughout their careers. We also see an impact on the types of skills that organizations are looking for—with much more emphasis on soft skills.”

At an individual level too attitudes and expectations are having an impact on the workplace. “Younger people coming into the workforce want to make a difference to the world. For them it's not just about salary and career progression. There is also an expectation to do meaningful work,” observes Parry. Along with this comes another important expectation: due to the rise of social media and changes in parenting style, “individuals expect to have a voice in the workplace.”

Broader societal trends also impact the way organizations structure work. The most obvious is flexible working—allowing people to work remotely, at least part of the time. Flexible contracting, using apps for contracting through the gig economy, and other new ways of working with organizations are also emerging.

“All of these things have an impact for the way that we manage people in organizations,” surmises Parry. “We're seeing a real move away from thinking about recruiting fixed skillsets, to thinking about recruiting people that have learning potential, with perhaps softer skills, with the capacity to change their skillsets throughout their careers.”

For Parry, crucial to any people strategy fit for tomorrow’s workforce, is a new emphasis on job and organization design—to allow the meaningful work that people seek, to allow for effective flexible and hybrid working, and to engage with employees and ensure they have a voice in decision making. Furthermore, as Parry reminds us, “One of the most important things is to think about how we can promote inclusion and belonging in organizations,”—especially in relation to hybrid ways of working. “How can we design an organization that's inclusive, moving forward?”

There is no set rule for the future workforce. Parry is insistent that “no one size fits all.” Some companies will follow the Morgan Stanley example and expect everyone back in the office when the COVID crisis subsides, many others will see the advantage of moving to hybrid approaches.

Going global

For many global organizations leading remote workforces is not new, but the drivers of global work are certainly changing. Michael Dickmann explains what the key drivers are here for managers: “How can the organization enhance knowledge transfer and innovation within its global operations? How can it establish control and coordination to create an integrated culture? And how can it fill local capability gaps rapidly—something that has traditionally led to a lot of global mobility?”

Dickmann reports that, “Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen talent led drivers becoming more and more important—how to strengthen the global leadership pipeline, how to support global business acumen through talent development.”

On top of this, organizations are increasingly responding to personal requests based on accepting ‘virtual global mobility’. For example, “During the pandemic, people have been asking to work from the country they happen to be in, or once they can travel again, to travel and stay on in that country after their vacation—to work remotely for several weeks abroad as if I'm working from home.”

In a survey, sponsored by EY and published by The RES Forum, Dickmann found that people leading global mobility functions in large organizations, “believe that assigned expatriation will decline moderately in the future. Whereas virtual global mobility, boosted during the pandemic, will continue to grow dramatically—with many more people working virtually across borders.” Survey respondents believed business travel will decline substantially, with some companies aiming to bring it down to zero. Dickmann doubts the zero aspiration but suggests “there will be substantial travel decline, especially those travelling on business for a day or two.”

As a result of these ongoing developments, organizations will need to support the development of new global leadership skills and to rethink their strategies to achieve their goals with different global mobility patterns. There will need to be a smarter approach to innovation and knowledge transfer—some knowledge can be transferred well virtually, but knowledge around experience is much harder to transfer.

Organizations will also need to understand how to move work to people, not just move people to work. Communication will be more critical than ever, says Dickmann, “to create a common culture and a common understanding.” There will also, he hopes “be a real chance for organizations to become more globally inclusive and responsible, as there is a transfer of some power and responsibility from the head office to the local operating units, and with more staff working from home requiring a more sophisticated engagement approach.”

Workplace consequences of the cyber age

For Ruth Massie it is self-evident that many of the trends and projections described above will need underpinning with more highly developed cyber capabilities for organizations.

Massie addresses the significant management challenges inherent in the cyber age—as opposed to the technical issues—the age of AI, machine learning, information technology, remote working and virtual reality, and cyberattacks.

“What we are very good at in organizations is doing technical policies around cyber,” suggests Massie, “What I think we should be doing very much more of is thinking about creating a Cyber Ethics Policy. Thinking about, what does that mean for data privacy and confidentiality, in terms of the organization, its employees and clients? What about a fairness and equity element to that policy as well?

Cyber has a great deal to offer organizations, but they need clear policies to extract the benefits effectively and equitably. For example, in the area of recruitment, AI can undoubtedly help in the selection from larger international candidate pools—however, unless the data analysis is extremely carefully tuned, AI has tended so far to provide biased results.

If an organization is encouraging home working it needs to consider issues such as digital poverty—can an employee, particularly gig workers, afford the decent computer and internet connection that you are expecting them to have? Additionally, there has been a recent explosion in productivity management systems, including location tracking and camera access. Is this a reasonable way to go or is it an invasion of personal space? Is it better to build, and rely, on trust?

“We also need to think about things like IT support,” continues Massie, “if people can work anywhere, anytime, are you expecting your IT teams to cover longer support hours? Is it the fault of the employee if they can't do their job for a day because they can’t get hold of support because of different time zones?”

Then there is the question of cyber security in an environment where there is considerable remote working. It is important that home workers have access to, and clear policies from, IT experts to reduce the likelihood of breaches.

Finally, as data is a central driver of the cyber age, organizations need to think, not just about its storage, usage and security, but also about the legal implications of using data—particularly when used globally across different jurisdictions.

Enduring leadership qualities in the future workplace

While there are some new leadership skills needed for the new environment, around working remotely and managing cross cultural teams, Parry was keen to stress that the essential qualities of good leadership remain unchanged. “Ongoing trends may be accelerating, but we are not in a completely new environment,” she asserts. “We still need things like vision, clarity, and effective communication from our leaders. We might need higher levels of ability to deal with complexity, flexibility and agility, and stronger resilience. Yes, things are changing, but they've been changing for a long time. There is a real danger that we try to throw everything out and start again, when actually there's a lot that we've learned about leadership, which is still valid.”


Emma Parry is Professor of Human Resource Management and Head of the Changing World of Work Group at Cranfield School of Management

Michael Dickmann is Professor of International Human Resource Management at Cranfield School of Management

Ruth Massie is Associate Professor of Andragogy at Cranfield School of Management 


Thinking: brilliantly applied for the decade ahead

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