Managing the future employee — how to evolve HR to meet the unknowable

Lisa Dodman Profile picture for user Lisa Dodman December 9, 2020
With COVID, the future of work arrived early. Unit4's Lisa Dodman explores how to adapt people management for a working world in which adaptability will be the prime competency

Creative group of business people brainstorming putting sticky notes on glass wall in office © Flamingo Images - Shutterstock
(© Flamingo Images - Shutterstock)

COVID came and everything changed. Many organizations pivoted quickly to remote working. The primacy of employee health and wellbeing lurched center stage. For some companies, the crisis has spelled a downturn, with less job security for its people. For others, it's meant rapid growth and new job opportunities.

Across the board, the pandemic has catapulted the way organizations manage people forward by five years. It's accelerated and accentuated many of the trends and initiatives that were underway already, making them more important, urgent and real.

The new meaning of agility

To say HR has had to become more agile would be the understatement of the year. Recent events have triggered nothing less than a strategic overhaul of every aspect of HR — strategy and workforce planning, resourcing and talent management, skills and performance management, employee experience and engagement, and of course wellbeing.

What we're seeing is really the democratization of the flow of talent in organizations. The focus in future will be on getting the right talent to the right project at the right time. Concepts like a predictable career progression, a job description and an annual appraisal will be things of the past.

In the language of agility, the individual is becoming a personal 'minimum viable product' — as long as they have the skills to add value, they can get on with the work and develop further by learning on the job.

This is how organizations will acquire the agility to adapt to an unpredictable future — and many are jumping at the chance — 39% of HR leaders say they're harnessing the crisis to reshape and reprioritize the talent agenda in their organizations.

Drivers to thrivers

Organizations that have been thriving in the digital age were already doing many of the right things — since COVID, these practices have become necessary not just to thrive but to survive.

Thriving organizations create an adaptive and agile workforce by focusing less on job roles and job descriptions and more on skills and competencies. Transferable skills like teamworking, digital collaboration and problem solving will be more useful as work becomes more project-based. Systems that make skills and availability visible to others will enable rapid teaming. 

Successful organizations foster a culture of trust, with a shared sense of purpose, and proactive inclusion to create a sense of belonging for everyone. They promote servant leadership, with open communications and transparency. They manage performance at team level rather than individual level, measuring and rewarding on outcomes rather than progress.

Work has already moved from physical to virtual for many, but next, HR must rethink work itself: shifting its mindset from departments and roles towards gigs and projects. Flat structures that allow for fast teaming with flexible resourcing will be key.

To manage the future of people at work, organizations will need digital HR tools, like listening and pulsing apps, digital learning platforms, and AI-powered employee analytics — all integrated with financial systems for workforce planning purposes.

Optimizing, energizing and analyzing

What's HR's role going to be in managing the employee of the future? It will consist of three key things — optimizing, energizing and analyzing.

  • Optimizing work means that HR must itself become agile and flexible in order to bring out agility and flexibility in the organization's people. Its starting point will still be to consult with the business on goals and strategy, but then to resource people in a different way. Flexible organization structures and resourcing models will enable rapid teaming and create value faster. Measuring performance will be at the team level and will focus on high-level outcomes.
  • Energizing work starts with the leadership defining the organization's purpose, communicating it, getting people to buy into it and inspiring them to engage. Everyone needs to live and breathe a growth mindset. Upskilling and reskilling opportunities must be available to anyone with the appetite. Showing trust in employees and continuously checking in on their wellbeing will remain crucial.
  • Analyzing work means using digital technology to listen to employees (and the customers whom they serve), understanding their needs and the organization's effectiveness in meeting them, and blending human intelligence with artificial intelligence to get clearer insight sooner.

Rethink work, working and teams

Building an ecosystem for people success will take some fundamental rethinking. HR leaders need to rethink what work is, how it can best be done, and the critical role of teams above individuals. 

The organization's leaders must continue to clearly define the organization's purpose, and mandate proactive inclusivity so that everyone feels they belong.

Two-way communication between the organization and its people is required to listen to what they need from each other, so both can make the changes required to deliver it.

Adaptability will be the characteristic which defines success in the future — for both the organization and its people.

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