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Apr 2, 2021
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

The following are seven key mindset shifts for HR leaders to thrive as the work of work continues to evolve.

Create value, meaning, and impact, moving beyond cost reduction and efficiency as the main goals.

“Everyone is talking about the future of work. But few are asking the most fundamental question: What should that work be?”

John Hagel and John Seeley Brown (JSB), former co-chairmen of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge since 2007, have been asking questions like this in their work to identify emerging opportunities and big shifts in the business landscape. In their recent research, they dive deeply into this question: The future of work to what end? 

Their research points out that “far too many initiatives are focused on incremental gains or efficiency-boosting activities.” They call robotic process automation, AI, and machine learning “shiny new tools” that companies can implement to cut costs and work faster with less human labor. 

However, they caution that “when organizations subscribe to this narrow perspective, the work of tomorrow will be the same as the work of today.” 

As Hagel and JSB point out, the opportunity is greater than doing more of the same, only faster and cheaper. The big opportunity is to expand notions of value beyond the cost to the company. Companies have additional levers to explore new sources of value and meaning to remain competitive amid rapidly changing market dynamics. 

Companies that successfully redefine work to focus on our human qualities enable their employees to engage in four types of activities: Identifying unseen problems and opportunities; developing approaches to solve problems and address opportunities; implementing new approaches; and iterating and learning based on the impact achieved. 

Focus on redefining work as the way forward, not just redesigning jobs.

The application of robots, robotic process automation, and cognitive and AI technologies offers unprecedented opportunities to improve efficiency and productivity. Unfortunately, many companies are aiming their future of work efforts narrowly at job redesign for efficiency and cost savings, which will only get them so far, rather than at redefining work

In the limited view of redesigning jobs, workers represent cost savings rather than the capacity to create new value for the business and the customer. When most companies redesign jobs, their narrow focus is on productivity — the same work outputs, only faster and cheaper, with fewer errors. The challenge is not only to redesign jobs but to expand the focus to redefining work, including product strategies and business models. 

By redefining work, employees at all levels focus on finding and addressing unseen problems and opportunities. “The unseen is a key aspect of redefining work,” Hagel and JSB have noted in their research. “Addressing a hidden problem or opportunity has the potential to create more value because it has been neither considered nor understood; there is room for far more learning, and impact, by trying to better understand a brand-new situation than from making incremental improvements on a well-defined issue.”

A critical shift for business leaders is to balance the focus on efficiency and productivity on the one hand with innovation and value on the other. Innovation does not arise from productivity and efficiency unless work teams, managers, and employees are challenged to recognize that better work is not just more of the same. It is something new: new value, products, new services, new experiences — also known as entrepreneurialism. It is a fusion of value for the customer and well-being for the workforce. 

Cost savings and efficiency can have larger and longer-lasting value when business leaders use the cost savings to fund investments in new products and strengthen customer relationships and experiences. 

For example, the proliferation of ATMs resulted in redesigning the jobs of retail bankers so that they offered a different service from the machines. Retail bankers were no longer simply dispensing cash but they could spend more time with customers, introduce them to new products and services, and extend the bank’s ability to offer a higher level of customer interaction and service. Doing more of the same, and doing it faster, is not where the magic happens — the magic is when workers and teams can solve new problems and create new value, services, and relationships. 

Leverage the entire open talent continuum.

Work and workforces have been increasingly separated from companies as we have witnessed with the expansion of the alternative workforce — managed services, contractors, freelancers, gig workers, and crowds. As the workforce has expanded to a much broader continuum of employment models of people who are working in new ways, and in new places, the traditional talent management mindset of “attract, develop, retain” employees is giving way to new approaches. 

Historically, the employee lifecycle has focused on recruiting the employees we need; developing them with prescribed, linear, career paths; and holding on to them — especially the “critical talent ”— as long as possible. 

Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Workforce Transformation practice is developing a new approach, beyond the traditional employee lifecycle, to a workforce ecosystem cycle, shifting to a new mindset: access, curate, engage.

  • Access. How do you tap into capabilities and skills across your enterprise and your broader ecosystem? This includes sourcing from internal and external talent marketplaces and leveraging and mobilizing on- and off- balance-sheet talent. 
  • Curate. How do you provide employees — ecosystem talent — and teams with the broadest and most meaningful range of development? This includes work experiences that are integrated into the flow of their work, their careers, and their personal lives. 
  • Engage. How do you interact with and support your workforces, business teams, and partners to build compelling relationships? This includes multidirectional careers in, across, and outside of the enterprise; and for business leaders and teams, providing insights to improve productivity and impact while taking advantage of new ways of working and teaming and new digital technologies.

Build superteams, superminds, superjobs, investing in capabilities for a resilient workforce, beyond a narrow focus on skills and reskilling. 

The future of work is about new combinations of teams of people and machines. These “superteams” will leverage the three ways people and machines work together: through substitution, augmentation, and unleashing people to spend more time on work that is uniquely human. 

The same three approaches can be applied to individual jobs to create “superjobs” — taking over some tasks, or parts of some tasks; extending workers’ capacity to do more work, often faster, more accurately, and at higher levels of complexity; and providing the gift of time to focus on uniquely human work and capabilities.

Focusing on the opportunities of new combinations of human and machine intelligence, Superminds, as framed by Tom Malone at MIT, represents a shift for many business leaders beyond the pressure to focus on short-term efficiencies and costs. 

Daron Acemoglu, a leading economist, warns of the dangers of what he calls the wrong kind of AI, noting, “If at this critical juncture, insufficient attention is devoted to inventing and creating demand for, rather than just replacing, labor, that would be the ‘wrong’ kind of AI from the social and economic point of view. Rather than undergirding productivity growth, employment, and shared prosperity, rampant automation would contribute to anemic growth and inequality.”

Businesses have a unique responsibility to build the capabilities of the workforce. Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Survey reported that the entities viewed as primarily responsible for workforce development were organizations and businesses first (73%), and individuals second (54%). Both far exceeded the next three on the list: educational institutions (19%), governments (10%), and unions and professional associations (8%). 

Only 45% of respondents in the same report said that their organizations reward workers for developing skills and capabilities. Even fewer (39%) are rewarding leaders for developing skills and capabilities on their teams.

In addition to reskilling the workforce for near-term needs, leaders should consider an approach that treats workforce development as a strategy for building worker and organizational resilience — equipping workers, and the organization, with the tools and strategies to adapt to a range of uncertain futures. Through a resilience lens, workforce reinvention shifts from something that could threaten worker security to the very thing that defines it. Workers who are able to refresh their skills and learn new ones are those who will be most able to find employment in our rapidly shifting job market.

Develop the ability to lead for agility.

One of the fundamental business and organizational shifts for leaders in the accelerated future of work is to move beyond mindsets based on static, linear, and predictable strategies and workflows. In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, with technologies continuing to accelerate at exponential speed, leaders need to be prepared to sense and adapt for real time changes. The heart of this challenge is to build adaptable organizations and agile ways of working. 

Leaders must shift from a focus on hierarchy and workflows to a focus on teams, networks, and continual improvement and new outcomes. Teams can reconfigure quickly for new challenges and play offense and defense when required. As Tom Friedman, the global columnist for The New York Times has reminded us, teams, and individual players, have to prepare “like someone who is training for the Olympics but doesn’t know what sport they are going to enter.”

Adapt a symphonic C-suite mindset that integrates leaders, people, teams, and AI — rather than focusing on functional silos and technology alone. 

In their efforts to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic, business and public sector executive teams around the world found that most of their challenges did not fit neatly into organizational lines. They involved workforce (HR) and customer (sales and service) and finance and technology (IT). They involved research and development, and supply chain, and business operations unit leaders. They also often required collaboration and response in almost real time. 

In Deloitte research in 2018, this team response was described as the “symphonic C-suite,” or teams of leaders. In this construct, C-suite executives combine business unit and functional ownership with cross-functional teaming to run the organization as an agile network. Senior leaders must emerge from their silos to work with each other. To address cross-disciplinary challenges, a company’s top leaders must work as teams of leaders.

Co-create and partner with the workforce by leveraging the role of talent markets and platforms — moving beyond the traditional approach of managing work and workforces as prescribed administrative functions. 

One of the most interesting new ways of working is the introduction of talent marketplaces as mechanisms for matching the growing demand to staff full-time jobs, short-term gigs, and projects of every size, with employees and alternative workers. 

Recent research on opportunity marketplaces from MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte report on the growing use of opportunity marketplaces, defined as “systems and platforms that enable talent to access strategically valuable opportunities while building skills and capabilities for themselves.” These marketplaces can facilitate better and faster exchanges between organizations and their workers “by empowering and encouraging workers to evaluate, choose, and act on opportunities important for the organization and for themselves.” 

Similar shifts are occurring on platforms, like GitHub for programmers, and InnoCentive for competitive problem solving. The shift is beyond one of managing work to an approach whereby self-organizing communities and competitions can facilitate new types of cooperation and co-creation. 

Co-creation, teaming, and collaboration are not designed to be managed or controlled in the same way work was supervised through much of the last century. As work is less mechanized, less process-based (because process-based work can largely be automated), and less standardized (because standard work can also be significantly automated), work becomes a team sport. 

The focus moves from control, to connection, context, and co-creation. The future of work is as much about new ways of people, teams, and managers collaborating to solve new problems as it is about new combinations of people, robots, AI, and machines working together. 

Adapted from Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience, and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work by Jeff Schwartz. © 2021, Wiley.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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