How to Future-Proof Your Workplace

By Matt Davis Mar 22, 2017
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Globalization, demographic shifts and technological advances are transforming the workplace. The way we work—including people practices such as how we develop talent and leaders—must be retooled for this century, say HR and leadership development experts Linda Sharkey and Morag Barrett.

In their new book, The Future-Proof Workplace: Six Strategies to Accelerate Talent Development, Reshape Your Culture, and Succeed with Purpose (Wiley, 2016), Sharkey and Barrett draw on their firsthand experiences and the latest research to highlight changes taking place in workplaces around the world. The book offers practical advice for assessing, adapting and reshaping your organization for tomorrow's challenges.

The authors recently answered questions from HR Magazine's Book Blog about the new realities of the workplace and how to future-proof an organization.

What was your motivation to write this book?

Sharkey: Through our global travels over the last 10 years, we regularly heard stories from clients and thought leaders about the pain points they were experiencing and how they were addressing them. It was evident the rules in the workplace were changing fast.

Barrett: We also saw that employee tenure was short-lived and customer demands and global pressures were increasing. Leaders were trying to resolve 21st century issues with 20th century tactics. That inspired us to combine our research, interviews and experiences to create a field guide for leaders and businesses to future-proof their careers and their businesses.

How is HR being disrupted?

Sharkey: We have the utmost respect for human resource professionals—we have been HR practitioners in some of the world's leading companies—and we know HR's relevance is being questioned on all fronts. Many of the practices rooted in the industrial era that no longer apply continue to be used and in some cases may even be counterproductive.

Barrett: The role of HR is being steadily incorporated into a leader's role. We think this trend is likely to continue as leaders build more alliances with their employees, who now may have 20 or more jobs in their lifetime.

So what does HR need to do to stay relevant?

Sharkey: This means that HR needs to look at many of their organization's policies and practices and completely revise them or do away with them to be relevant, effective and contemporary. A perfect example is Facebook recently creating a more realistic bereavement policy that gives its employees 20 days of paid time off. Who can effectively internalize and bury a loved one in three days and go back to working productively? In our book, we encourage HR to put the heart back into organizations with strategic advice for managers and leaders on the activities that genuinely cultivate a nimble workforce, such as effective organization designs and development strategies. HR can play a vital role in helping leaders create and maintain high-performing cultures devoid of fear and blame and unencumbered by excessive procedures and policies.

Barrett: The ability to coach and influence is also essential. Thoroughly understanding the organization's mission and values, knowing what drives revenue, and [knowing] how the business is perceived by customers will be fundamental. The tide is turning, and forward-thinking HR practitioners will quickly turn with it.

What is the social contract going to be as workplace demographics, technology and worker expectations shift?

Sharkey: The social contract of the 20th century was paternalistic: You work for us, and we pay and take care of you. Cradle-to-grave employment is a thing of the past and not as valued as it once was. Workers want more flexibility and to have opportunities to learn and apply new skills. Freelance workers, sabbaticals and career lattices, where people move up down and around in many different organizations, are taking root and will flourish in the future.

Barrett: The social contract of the 21st century puts the focus on agility and balancing the worker's needs with the organization's need for creativity and growth. A key differentiator among employers will be what the organization is doing to improve society and the communities where it operates and what it is doing to engage employees in these efforts. Community relations is a powerful branding component for the 21st century workplace.

What will be the role of learning and development in the future-proof workplace?

Sharkey: We predict that formal learning and the four-year degree will take a back seat. It takes too long and it is too expensive in this whirlwind environment. Baking continuous learning into our workplaces and schools to persistently build skills and knowledge is the future.

Barrett: We don't know what the jobs of tomorrow will be, so instilling curiosity and a growth mindset will be the hallmark of learning. The art of learning will become an everyday experience, with clusters of people solving tough problems and then sharing that experience with other groups tasked with solving new problems.

Matt Davis is manager, book publishing, at SHRM.

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