How to manage the shift to the augmented workforce? We asked 3 experts about the future of work.
According to Deloitte Insights’ most recent Global Human Capital Trends report, “automation, cognitive computing, and crowds are paradigm-shifting forces that will reshape the workforce now and in the near future”.
What makes the augmented workforce, as Deloitte calls it, so different from what we know now? Automation takes away a lot of the busy work that used to bog down workflow. Cognitive computing and AI mean we’ll be interacting with machines as much as with our fellow humans. Crowdsourcing will move companies to leverage off-balance sheet talent in new ways—while also assuming greater responsibility for freelancers’ needs.
So, what is an augmented workforce?
In short, the augmented workforce is a new kind of labor force, altered by both technology and crowds. Office personnel will no longer simply be people at desks, but robots, AI, and freelancers who drop in on projects on an as-needed basis from all over the world.
Considering these shifting expectations, needs, and roles, the augmented workforce will be as much of a challenge for managers to navigate as for employees. A mere 17 percent of global executives say they’re ready to manage a workforce of humans, robots, and AI; and about half of companies polled by Deloitte don’t understand how to leverage crowdsourcing or how to manage that talent effectively.
For managers, overseeing employees is already a full-time challenge. With the workforce becoming increasingly augmented by emerging technology, shifting expectations, and new roles and responsibilities, how should they approach managing the workplace of the future?
We talked to 3 experts about what managers need to be aware of at the dawn of the augmented workforce. Here are their tips.
1. Prepare for a strengths-based model of leadership
In the past, most companies operated from a deficit-oriented model of leadership—meaning certain people couldn’t lead because they were lacking in a particular area, such as education. According to Tomer Yogev, a certified executive coach focusing on corporate innovation and co-founder of The Big Joy Theory, this model is “beyond antiquated.”
“Today’s market demands constant and rapid innovation, which requires that all individuals contribute in a meaningful way. To reduce an employee’s advocacy because they aren’t ‘enough’ in some way, is damaging to the individual as well as the organization,” says Yogev.
This idea dovetails nicely with the larger trend of Millennials entering and soon dominating the workforce: this generation isn’t as concerned with labels, traditional roles, or traditional working hours. They want to employ and be employed by people who understand that work isn’t just about being in a certain place at a certain time.
“By understanding people through their strengths, it allows for work to become more flexible – giving individuals a chance to hone their own self-development within the context of the work they do”, says Yogev. “By doing so, workforces gain flexibility—it becomes less about ‘what’ you do, and more about ‘how’ you do it, and the idea of expertise shifts accordingly”.
As an example, Yogev said that if we only view accounting as number-crunching, then only good number-crunchers are good accountants. But as computers take over the number-crunching responsibilities, good accountants will increasingly be those who can communicate accountancy to the rest of the company, shareholders, the world, and so on.
2. When it comes to AI: Plan for a learning curve
Arguably the biggest selling point for integrating artificial intelligence systems into the workplace is the idea that robots and software will allow workers to focus on “the more human aspects” of their jobs—such as communication, but also problem-solving and strategic thinking.
Yet for all the hype around the concept, there is relatively little readiness for actual integration across the globe. According to the Deloitte Insights report, “Only 17 percent of global executives report they are ready to manage a workforce with people, robots, and AI working side by side—the lowest readiness level for a trend in the five years of the Global Human Capital Trends survey”.
When it comes to AI, many worry that intelligence will replace the need for human workers altogether. More pressing, however, is that some companies may get ahead of themselves in this process and try to incorporate these systems as helpers when both the systems and the company aren’t ready.
Another area where managers seem to struggle is how to oversee remote work, even with the improvement of workplace communication and collaboration applications. “Remote worker management has been limited to basic measures such as how many hours was a person in front of a computer, or how many phone calls did they make”, Yogev says. “While these may be important metrics, they cannot possibly account for all the other value the worker may be contributing outside of these metrics”.
In other words, find ways to measure the value of your new workforce that doesn’t involve just looking at a time card. This may take some time.
“I would caution leaders from over-reliance on such metrics, and to think much more broadly about how to manage a remote workforce and allow those contributors to bring their strengths to bear,” adds Yogev.
3. The half-life of skills is shrinking—and it’s on everyone to pick up the slack
Career life spans are lengthening: We now expect people to have careers that last six or seven decades. Paradoxically, the half-lives of the skills people need to stay useful in those careers are shrinking—down to five years and continuing to fall.
Workers used to enter the workforce with skills that could carry them through most of their careers already in place. Now, on-the-job learning and development are necessary to keep people relevant in a world of constantly shifting roles, responsibilities, tools, and technologies. This applies to software engineers as well as to those in marketing, finance, law, and other industries.
But to whom does the responsibility of staying informed and educated fall? The employer or the employee? Traditional higher education or new organizations?
“Unfortunately the conversation often leads to passing the buck”, says Ira Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions and Poised for the Future Company, and author of Recruiting in the Age of Googlization. “Companies, workers, government, and education seem to point fingers at each other, although community and regional collaborations are growing. Their effectiveness however is often limited to solving today’s skill gaps and ignoring medium and long-term shortages”.
But since our question is how to embrace this new reality without sacrificing short- or long-term productivity, Wolfe notes what needs to change. For managers and companies, support and on-the-job development will need to become standard.
“First, companies and workers must shift mindset from job-based skill training to continuous lifelong learning. The responsibility for the training must be shared. To acquire talent in the short term, companies will need to provide support. But to remain employable, individual workers will need to accept responsibility to keep up. With more and more training moving online from YouTube to Coursera and Udacity, critical skill training is available for little or no cost.”
This concept of shared responsibility extends to the freelancers that companies will increasingly employ as well. Just because they’re not W-2 employees doesn’t mean they’re not part of the team.
“Professional development will become personal development, and vice-versa”, says Yogev. “It is incumbent on employees to understand their strengths and communicate that value beyond the base metrics of a job description, but, so too, it is incumbent upon employers to help employees to develop their strengths for their own individual development and for greater value to the organization as a whole.”
As a result, the majority of companies polled by Deloitte Insights are “shifting to flexible, open career models that offer enriching assignments, projects, and experiences rather than a static career progression” and “leading companies are embracing continuous learning delivered digitally. GE created Brilliant U—an online learning platform that features video sharing and offers employee-driven learning across the enterprise. In year one, more than 30 percent of GE employees developed content and shared it with their peers.”
4. Embrace the freelancers and make them your own
Speaking of freelancers, they are also augmenting the future workforce. Freelancers, digital nomads, contract workers, the gig economy, whatever you want to call them—are becoming regular, manageable parts of company personnel. They represent a new social and professional paradigm.
And this is just the beginning: “Almost half of the executives surveyed… expect to increase or significantly increase the use of contingent workers in the next three to five years”, says Deloitte Insights.
According to Nation1099, today about 11 percent of the working U.S. adult population are full-time independent contractors in the gig economy. Since that number is projected to grow, it’s important that managers recognize how to best manage this new kind of employee. Dealing with an increasingly mobile workforce that isn’t always directly answerable to the company has its own set of challenges that need to be addressed.
“Some of this comes down to an attitude adjustment. Remember that freelancers aren’t between jobs, that they are trying to build real businesses around selling their skills on a project basis, that they aren’t trying to find a backdoor onto your payroll permanently, and that they want the project to succeed”, says Robert McGuire, editor of Nation1099.
“Working effectively with freelancers isn’t terribly different from building a solid team of employees,” McGuire adds.
“You want to take a hard look at your recruitment, onboarding and engagement and to set up procedures that reflect your company’s goals and values. What if 11 percent of your employees walked through the door on the first day of work and no one said hello, showed them where their desks were or even had them fill out the W-4?”
“Ask yourself how much you communicate to your new employees your overall business strategy, the vision of your company leadership and the values your company wants to live by. Do the freelancers you are working with understand all that? If not, you are leaving value on the table. They won’t be able to align their work with your mission effectively.”
5. How to manage the hopes and fears of the future
Other fears, such as whether humans will be replaced entirely, or that freelancers working remotely will siphon off profits while returning little value, are also overblown, says Yogev.
“Also, similar to the introduction of any preceding technology, we will see a boost in per-employee productivity. While, in a utopia this would mean higher wages and/or shorter hours, there is little evidence for that historically. Instead, I think business will happily capture that value while paying employees only slightly higher wages and, perhaps as we are seeing in Scandinavian countries, modestly shorter work hours.”
So much of the workforce of the future is still unknown. Just how much will be automated? How many hours will we work? How will we fill that time, and what skills will we need to fill them?
That’s why the best thing a company and its managers can do to embrace the augmented workforce is to create an environment where mistakes—typically a source of great fear and anxiety on the job—are viewed as learning experiences.
“When working with companies, two of the most critical items we measure are curiosity and risk-taking”, says Wolfe. “Individuals with low curiosity and risk aversion will struggle the most. Training managers and workers to become more curious helps. Helping them take some risks is a bit more challenging but it can be taught and learned.”
The throughline of all this is that managers, as much as employees, must be willing to accept change in the workplace. That change is coming, like it or not—and if your team doesn’t like it, you may want to read up on how to get your people to embrace what’s different.
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