The Future of Work

A Q&A with Jeanne Meister and Kevin Mulcahy.

By Adam Van Brimmer Jan 11, 2017
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Today's global economy evolves at breakneck speed, with technology, consumer trends and generational shifts constantly reshaping the business landscape. The labor force is changing, too, and has now reached a tipping point in terms of what employees expect from work, according to HR experts Jeanne C. Meister, founding partner of the consulting firm Future Workplace LLC in New York City, and Kevin L. Mulcahy, a business professor at Babson College in Babson Park, Mass.

Their new book, The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees (McGraw Hill Professional, 2016), examines research compiled from 2,100 HR leaders and managers suggesting that the conventional wisdom about work and the role of HR departments is obsolete. They were recently interviewed by HR Magazine about their findings.

You state that future work will be more personalized. What does that mean?

Meister: The personalized experience takes into account each person's career goals, physical workspace, and learning and development needs. That's a big shift from the old HR model of standardization to make processes more efficient. It's about understanding the expectations of workers and designing their experience around those needs.

How do you create that environment, particularly at a business with a large labor force?

Meister: You can start by recognizing the unique needs people have for their workspace. We've seen the benefits of open spaces. Go a step further, though, and recognize the value in the power of choice—in other words, allowing employees to decide where they want to work in the office each day, be it a collaborative space or a focused, quiet place to complete an assignment. Research shows that choice positively correlates with engagement.

In much the same way, learning is moving away from a one-size-fits-all curriculum to more of an Apple Store layout where workers can access what they want in the format they want.

The future workplace is also open to more career mobility within an organization—allowing people to work on company projects not associated with their daily roles or beyond their job descriptions. Perhaps they even spend a set number of hours each week in another department to develop and hone new skills.

What—or who—is driving the changing work environment? Is it generational?

Meister: The desire for change is not just coming from the Millennials, although they are the ones giving voice to it. As employees, we all want the same experience at work that we enjoy in our personal lives. That's a cross-generational expectation. Take connectivity, for example. A recent research study of job seekers showed that a majority identified the connectivity of a workplace as a part of their criteria for accepting a job, and the sample spanned ages 22 to 57. That's why forward-thinking companies are putting the consumer lens on work to create a better personal experience.

Why has it taken this long to gain momentum?

Mulcahy: Simply because more-established employees never paused to ask for or demand better because they are more accepting of the way things are now. Younger workers see the same disruptions at work that older generations see, such as trade expansion, the digital revolution, wild economic swings—and the uncertainty is real. But they are asking employers "Why?" They want a quality work experience. And companies are responding. Graduates who exit college in the next three years will enjoy a completely different career experience than any generation before.

Creating the environment you describe seems to go beyond the normal reach of HR. Where should HR leaders start?

Meister: By accepting that this is not an initiative done in a silo. Done right, it's a partnership between HR, marketing, IT, communications and beyond. Ask marketing to use tools such as sentiment analysis and hackathons to help uncover unmet employee needs. Talk to IT about improving technology. Learn how to communicate better using tips and tricks from your editorial or communications teams. Tap the building services group about how best to use space. HR leaders are accustomed to carving out initiatives and running with them. Instead, they need to build a cross-organizational alliance and create a shared vision.

Will HR departments change to incorporate some of those marketing, IT and other skills in-house?

Mulcahy: Absolutely. With each job opening in HR, leaders will need to consider whether the next person in that role should have years of HR experience or a background in another function that brings value, like marketing or data analysis or IT. HR needs to become much more multifunctional and, by extension, a visible agent for change. Bring in employees with different skill sets. Try new processes and kill off unpopular practices. Engage people in prototyping what the new HR should be. Let them experiment and see what works. The days of HR developing policies and telling the labor force "You'll see it when we put it out" are ending.

Adam Van Brimmer is a journalist and a freelance writer based in Georgia.

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