Four critical questions shaping the future of work

5 minute read

Roger Clements talks to Dr Sarosh Khan, Cécile Bonnet and Deb Aspinall about the transformative dynamics shaping the future of work. They delve into demographic shifts, societal changes and the technological revolution, highlighting the intricate dance between tradition and innovation in the workplace

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Matrix is a leading provider of workforce management solutions that aims to revolutionise the way employers attract, recruit and manage their indirect workforce

Sian Harrington

Graphic image of five generations in the workplace

What exactly is work? When and where do people work? How does work get done? And who does the work? These are four critical questions organisations need to consider today, says Dr Sarosh Khan, acting managing director at HSM Advisory. This framework highlights the evolving nature of work, where traditional models are giving way to more fluid, multistage careers driven by longer lifespans and varied career paths.

Speaking on the latest episode of Matrix’s Work in Progress podcast, Khan says many people, especially those new into work, are looking for work and individual purpose to come together. It’s about shifting from viewing work as a mere “means to an end” to a pursuit of purpose, with technology and automation playing a pivotal role in reshaping how tasks are performed.

Four critical questions shaping the future of work:

  1. What is work? Increasing demand for work that aligns with individual purpose.
  2. When and where do people work? The ongoing debate around remote work.
  3. How does work get done? Impact of generative AI and other technologies.
  4. Who does the work? Changing workforce demographics and the rise of contingent workers and freelancers.

Separating age from stage

There is a shift from a three-stage life model (education, work, retirement) to a multistage model due to longer lifespans and changing career paths. This shift necessitates a new approach to career development and utilisation of an aging workforce’s knowledge while accommodating younger entrants who may not follow traditional educational or career paths.

“More and more of us are comfortable living into our 90s, and even 100s, because there are advances in health and medicine and all other kinds of various bits and pieces. And then the idea of being in retirement for 30, almost 40, years becomes pretty difficult to stomach,” Khan says.  

Others are taking early retirement and then returning to work. “A lot of the organisations I work with are starting to realise that in the not too distant future they're going to have a very large proportion of their workforce who are over 60/65. What do we do in terms of that workforce? What's the value proposition? How do we utilise all of the knowledge, all of the skills, all of  the talent that they have?”

As Matrix CGO Roger Clements notes: “The practical reality of pension and your ability to be able to save for retirement is just unrealistic now, but our working world is still gearing towards that old model of retiring at 65-70 – which to most is impractical.”

Bridging the gap between graduate expectations and employer needs

Meanwhile, at the other end, younger generations are thinking about whether to enter the workplace earlier rather than perhaps go to university. They are taking sabbaticals or leaving work after three or four years to start their own business with the idea of returning to an organisation later.  

“We need to give options to people. The idea of a ‘squiggly career’ is now more top of mind, and we need to nurture that as well,” states Cécile Bonnet of Bright Network Technology Academy

For those who do go to university there is a significant disconnect between what they believe employers value and what employers actually seek, she adds. According to research with Bright Network Technology Academy’s 40,000 student members graduates often believe it is all about industry experience, whereas in reality employers are looking for resilience, passion and adaptability. This mismatch is exacerbated by many graduates using generative AI to assist with job applications, which can present a challenge for employers in assessing true candidate qualities like resilience and adaptability.

Are employers taking the right approach to recruitment?

There's not much innovation in how to measure these so-called ‘soft skills’ at application stage, says Deb Aspinall, a specialist in talent acquisition and contingent worker management. She points out that many companies are still reliant on an assessment centre format that “plays to certain characteristics and strengths more than others”.

“So, for example, it’s very difficult for introverts to perform well in an assessment centre setting. And that's how things like resilience and teamwork tend to be measured,” she says.

Clements concurs, noting that the assessment model as a whole hasn't kept up with the fact that organisations don’t necessarily need to hire for “hardcoded skills” today.

“A typical skill is likely to be outdated in the next couple of years. So, therefore, hiring for adaptability, learning agility and so on are what we should be assessing” he says.

Another issue is the lack of meaningful feedback, believes Aspinall. She urges employers to provide meaningful feedback and help graduates understand the skills that truly matter in today’s dynamic job market.

Balancing flexibility and belonging

While Khan believes the question of where we work is the least interesting of the four he outlined earlier, there is no doubt this is still a big issue for many organisations. Bonnet notes from her research that graduates prefer hybrid work models, which offer the benefits of in-person networking and learning while accommodating established employees’ preference for remote work. 

However, this can create a state of tension between flexibility and creating a culture of belonging. Bonnet reveals that her research has found that some people choose a specific company to work for  because of the culture and the people who are there. But now many of those who play a big part in what the culture of the company is, for example managers, are comfortable – and prefer – working from home. So, as she says, organisations don’t have the people nurturing and demonstrating the culture in the workplace every day. 

Key to seizing the opportunities these trends present is to embrace a blended workforce. “We see an interesting move from work historically being very full-time heavy towards more and more of a focus on contingent workers and freelancers,” Khan says. 

According to Clements, one survey found 55% of organisations saying there would be equilibrium between those who are in the freelance and indirect economy and those who are on payroll within the next three years. HCM Advisory has worked with one financial service where the number of freelance and contractor workers is already at 50%. This necessitates new strategies for integrating contingent workers into the company culture. 

As Aspinall notes HR is responsible for the employee base and the lifecycle of employees. But often it's procurement, or a completely different team, who are responsible for the strategy of hiring freelancers, for the onboarding of freelancers and the payment of freelancers. And there's not a joined up team that looks at  what job needs to be done and what's the right category of worker to bring in to do that job? Instead, often organisations are just responding to headcount challenges.

We always talk about the talent crisis in organisations. But as Bonnet concludes, there are so many people who have the talent that you're looking for. HR leaders just have to adopt new strategies to bring in the people they need so they can achieve the required business results. 

Practical steps for organisations

  1. Understanding employee needs: Organisations must actively engage with their employees to understand their needs and experiment with new work models. This involves having open conversations and being willing to try new approaches.
  2. Future-proofing and diversity: Companies should continue hiring and investing in diverse talent through non-traditional pathways. This includes recognising the value of different experiences and perspectives in enhancing team performance.
  3. Strategic HR involvement: HR teams need to adopt a more strategic role, focusing on long-term talent management rather than short-term firefighting. This involves collaborating across functions to develop a holistic approach to talent management.
  4. Cultivating a culture of belonging: Creating a sense of belonging is crucial, especially for new entrants to the workforce. This involves balancing flexibility with the need for in-person interactions to build connections and integrate into the organisational culture.
  5. Embracing change and innovation: Organisations should be open to change and willing to innovate in their approach to work. This includes embracing new technologies and work models that can enhance productivity and employee satisfaction.

The insights shared in this episode of Work in Progress underscore the importance of adapting to the new work order. By addressing these challenges actively organisations can better position themselves to thrive in an ever-evolving employment landscape.

Work in Progress – The Matrix Podcast features expert guests sharing their experiences and debating the challenges of an ever-evolving employment landscape. Listen and subscribe here.

Published 12 June 2024
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