We are living in a new reality. Change is imminent on a daily basis and the pace of that change is unprecedented. When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone back in 1876, it took 75 years to reach 50 million users. Televisions took 13 years to reach a similar level and Pokémon GO did it in only 17 days. Digital and technological transformation is no longer something we expect in the future: It has already happened and will continue to move us forward at warp speed, whether we are ready or not.
As HR professionals, we are witnessing our workplaces changing at the same rapid pace. The trend toward a “gig economy” is here, where organizations hire workers on a temporary or freelance basis. Jobs are being pulled apart into specific “tasks,” and those tasks are now completed by a combination of full-time and freelance labor, robotics, machine learning, and automation. Organizations are increasingly deconstructing jobs and distributing the component tasks to the most optimal means for work, instead of delegating an entire job to a specific individual.
With all of this change, it is no surprise that our current and future employees are concerned about the implications of this shift away from traditional job and organizational structures. They will want to understand the implications of this new world of work on their jobs, income, future growth opportunities, and career paths.
It is up to us as HR leaders to inspire a positive reaction to change and help others see the unique opportunity we have ahead of us. HR professionals are asking the question, “How do we lead our employees, leaders, and organization amid fear of the unknown and through what seems to be never-ending change?” With thoughtful planning, HR can help leaders and employees see the silver lining of technological change and cultivate an engaging employee experience in the future.
Fear of an unknown future is not new or uncommon in the workplace. A job change, loss of responsibility, or a decline in expertise resulting from technological advancement can be a personal and often emotional topic for anyone. Aside from the personal learning and growth implications this change presents to employees, there is also likely to be varying complexity of change, depending on business segment, job, region, or country. For example, manual or repetitive jobs may be most quickly automated in any industry. Robotic bricklayers can now lay more brick on constructions sites than two to three humans. Many of the tasks performed by accountants and underwriters can increasingly be automated. And software programming tasks may be more readily handled and less costly to source on a work platform such as Topcoder versus hiring a full-time software engineer in the external labor market.
Willis Towers Watson’s change management methodology provides an elegant framework for leading organizations through the complexities of impending workforce and business change. When we have witnessed change initiatives fail to meet an organization’s desired goals, the most common reason is that investment in employee and leader engagement tactics-such as training, communication, and leadership activities-was diminished or not considered to be of vital importance. Our view is, and our experience shows, that critical levers for driving readiness and behavior change (i.e., leading, measuring, involving, and sustaining) go well beyond basic communication and training. Each of these levers need to be considered, with tactics implemented, to ensure a positive response to change in today’s changing, fast-paced world of work.
Let’s walk through the Big Six together. We will provide examples of how organizations have effectively inserted positivity and clarified opportunities to employees and leaders, and ensured change success.
Our research has shown that the modernization of work and an increasingly digital environment is reinforcing a significant need for certain leader behaviors. Willis Towers Watson’s 2016 Global Workforce, and Global Talent Management and Rewards Studies told us that now, more than ever, employees are demanding transparency and clear, concise messaging. They want to know what is happening, when, and how it affects them individually. And above all, they expect consistent messaging from both senior leadership and immediate supervisors. One logistics organization that is currently going through automation on its production floor provides regular and consistent updates to managers and training on the best way to cascade the information to its employees. Leaders at all levels of the organization discuss what jobs are changing, jobs that will be affected by the change, new opportunities that will arise, and the associated timeline. When they do not know the timeline of a change, leaders are comfortable sharing with the broader workforce that the timing is unknown, and that they will share additional information as it becomes available. Because the leaders send consistent messages, communicate new opportunities, and repeatedly live up to their word, employees trust that they will learn more when possible and have less angst in the process.
Setting goals, revisiting them often, and looking for continuous improvement are key considerations in the new world of work. One organization in the energy industry had extremely high turnover on its production platform and set a goal to reduce turnover by 5% over the next six months. After analyzing their turnover and employee survey statistics, they deduced that the organization’s high turnover was due to its talent not having the emerging skills and competencies required on its production platform and less-than-optimal people management. To address the lack of skills and competencies, HR analyzed the job and its responsibilities and prepared an optimal profile for the future candidate. They learned that some of the specific skills, characteristics, or competencies they had searched for in past candidates were no longer relevant due to the latest technology improvements and automation. For example, less manual labor is now required on the production platform due to many automated features. As a result, a certain muscular physique for employees is much less critical for success in certain roles. Instead, they determined that collaboration with coworkers and familiarity with mechanical automation is more critical for success now and in the future. They implemented an assessment process to screen candidates for these newer behaviors and skills as part of their recruiting process. To address the people management concerns, HR performed site visits and led training for select managers to enhance soft and technological skills and clarify expectations of managers and newly screened employees. In many cases, managers were unaware of the impact they may have been having on the turnover equation. In the six months following the implementation of these tactics, the organization exceeded its goal and experienced 7% less turnover compared with the prior period. A year later, they had reduced their turnover for the selected population by 20%.
In today’s world, it is not unheard of for electronic communication from leaders to fall into a black hole (a.k.a. our overstuffed email in-boxes). Even with the best intentions, it is becoming more difficult to reach our audiences with key messages about change; yet communication remains a top necessity for engaging employees through transformational change.
Our experience tells us that the most effective communication is tailored by audience, simple, clear and concise, and is delivered using a variety of different channels (print, face-to-face, electronic, video, podcasts and so on). It is also timely, repeated at consistent intervals and easily repeatable by others. One of the most important aspects of communication to support technology and work transformation is to be open, honest, and authentic not only about what is changing but why the changes are needed and how individuals are impacted-positively or negatively.
Involving people at all levels of the organization will be the key to energizing employees about the new way work is done. Many organizations utilize their subject matter experts and other high potentials/high performers to “deconstruct” jobs into activities, understand what can and will be automated, and “reconstruct” the nonautomated activities into new jobs. They are also clear to identify change agents in each business unit or location who can spread a positive word and provide clarity on any new direction the organization may choose to take. One global organization has named its learning and development advisor as a key change agent as it creates its “workforce of the future.” As the advisor travels among locations, she spreads the word about what the organization is doing and why, clarifies objectives and answers questions. She also gathers feedback from those working in the field on what might need to be considered that is not currently part of the plan. Not only is she involving and engaging employees across the world, but she is also communicating a consistent business reason for change and gathering additional data for the organization. This will ensure fewer surprises, a better understanding of pain points for communication during rollout, and a robust and realistic approach for the future plan.
Ensuring leaders and employees have the knowledge, skills, and competencies they need to adapt to and succeed in our changing work environment presents an exciting challenge and opportunity. Many organizations are implementing internal talent platforms that allow them to tag employee skills and knowledge and uncover gaps when skills and knowledge needed for future business success are not currently evident in the organization. This creates a culture of learning by upskilling as many employees as possible and recruiting externally when talent cannot be grown from within.
One global organization is deconstructing its manual jobs with the purpose of automating some tasks to allow time for the same employee to perform higher-value activities. For example, consider a senior sorting specialist at an order fulfillment plant. Through deconstruction of tasks, the organization may choose to move one-third of her job to a lesser-cost employee (junior sorter). Another one-third of her job might be automated with new technology (e.g., automated sorting device). With two-thirds of the senior sorting specialist’s time now unfilled, she has the capacity to fill up her day with new, higher-value work, which positions her for new career opportunities within the organization. For example, she might be asked to understand and provide enhancements to the algorithm for the automated sorting device, and provide leadership and coaching to entry-level sorters. The new skills have made her not only more valuable to the company but also more marketable as an individual for her future career security.
Sustaining is arguably the most critical lever an organization can pull when leading change. Reinforcing the right behaviors of leaders and employees is what will embed this change in your organization’s culture for the longer term. Three things will keep your organization on track and help you be prepared to take on future change:
Knowing when and how to pull each of these levers is based on both art and science. Additionally, there are gains and risks associated with each lever and all should be considered as you craft your change (transformation) strategy. With a well-designed strategy and an eye for the positive aspects of change, you will ensure an agile organization and a successful and sustainable transformation for your workforce.