A Successful Economic Reset in the Future Lies on the Shoulders of People, Not Automation

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May 27, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

In the Froth Decade between the Great Recession and the likely Post-Pandemic Depression, almost 78% of employees at large organizations had no idea how their work helped achieve company goals, reports workplace expert Josh Bersin. In the same period, less than 15 percent of organizations believed their employees understood the company’s strategy and direction, according to HR consultant William Schiemann.

The froth is gone. What we’re facing in a falling-dominoes financial catastrophe is U.S. unemployment that will dwarf the Great Recession (10%) and, for a time, could potentially equal the worst of the Great Depression (24.9%). Even if American GDP returns to pre-pandemic growth levels by the end of 2020, it will take more than five years to climb back to February’s employment numbers, predicts The Economist.

Now we’re going to find out who the real leaders are: those who know how to unify agile workforces – their people – to achieve business goals. It’s no longer acceptable for 3 of 4 employees not to understand how their work matters in attaining objectives, and for 8 of 10 to be unfamiliar with fundamental company strategy.

The post-pandemic world presents an acid test for great leadership: In the short term, how can an organization drive the number of unclear-on-the-concept employees toward zero? In the longer term, how can companies sustain zero strategic cluelessness while making work a richly fulfilling element of their finest employees’ work/life integration?

Short term, I believe, will see a titanic transition in work ethic and expectation among the majority of the workforce that’s never been through a downturn. Given the right leadership and tools, those still employed will gratefully put maximum effort into achieving the objectives of the company that employs them.

Longer term, a vastly different future – but different in still-unknown ways – will be approaching. That’s where the real leadership test lies: Given the uncertainty, how can leaders build sustainable versions of their companies that are permanently agile and innovative in profitably serving their market(s)? The answer, as always, is: through their people.

Leaders whose organizations prosper in the reset will exploit three key developments:

  • A post-pandemic boom in AI-powered automation will equip companies to achieve strategic objectives with fewer people.
  • Despite needing fewer people, when global growth eventually resumes, so will this past decade’s “war for talent” to find the right people with the right skills for the new workplace.
  • Winning leaders in the reset world will be experts in wielding powerful, nuanced tools to measure, amplify, and reinforce the most effective methods for skilled professionals to achieve organizational objectives. These tools will deliver differentiated and actionable insights, not on an annual or even quarterly basis, but continuously.

HR: From a ‘seat at the table’ to the company’s leadership core

To me, this definition of optimum leadership sounds exactly like the definition of the finest practitioners of modern Human Resources. Done right, HR – talent management, human capital management, performance management – is about people, and no matter how automated businesses get, success in the reset will, as always, be primarily about people. (No one reading these words will be alive when machine intelligence/AI finally outstrips qualitative human capabilities.)

Going far beyond HR’s longtime goal of earning “a seat at the C-Suite table,” the reset will provide innovative HR practitioners a long-sought opportunity to exercise true strategic leadership in the business reinvention that lies ahead.

For too long, HR has lived in an unnecessarily divided world. Some executives want HR only to measure how effectively employees are moving the company toward its strategic goals. This measure is universally referred to as “objectives and key results,” or OKRs. Other executives are primarily interested in such values as engagement and self-fulfillment: How can I, as a manager, help you achieve our goals and yours? We refer to these values as “conversations, feedback, and recognition,” or CFRs.

OKRs or CFRs. Operational success or workplace fulfillment. How about both? Successful leaders in the post-pandemic reset will choose a superior third path that combines and calibrates OKRs and CFRs to build strong, unified, agile, sustainable, and profitable companies by optimizing every company’s greatest differentiator: its people. These winning companies will attain their objectives with employees who clearly understand the value of their work and how it contributes to the bottom lines of their organizations, their communities, and their own lives.

The Froth Decade is history. In the pandemic’s immediate aftermath, for a short while, simply having a job will be sufficiently rewarding. But the hard times will end, and the companies that thrive sustainably in the reset will be fueled by the right people with the right skills working toward clearly defined business objectives with vigor, commitment, and a sense of fulfillment.

These workers will thrive by finding purpose and agency in their work, and in their work/life integration. All of these are characteristics and values Human Resources knows best how to inspire in a workforce. This is HR’s moment to step up and lead the reinvention of the post-pandemic world of work for the betterment of all.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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