How HR Can Prepare for the Future of Work

By Roy Maurer Mar 11, 2015

Significant demographic changes, the automation of labor, the disconnect between skills and organizational needs, and new models of work are all predicted in the transformed workplace of the near future, according to a range of experts.

How can HR professionals prepare for these changes?

Members of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 2014 special expertise panels answered the challenge and provided recommendations in a new report issued by the SHRM Foundation, an affiliate of SHRM.

Demographic Shifts Boost Global Migration

Over the next 15-25 years, the Baby Boomer generation will be leaving the workforce in the developed economies of the United States, Japan, the U.K. and many other countries. On the other hand, the population is overwhelmingly young in emerging markets. For example, half the population in the Middle East and North Africa region is younger than 25, according to the International Labour Organization. This creates incentives for global migration, according to the SHRM Foundation report. “Workforces are becoming more geographically diverse as young workers in developing regions move to more prosperous countries to find work or become global telecommuters who work remotely. In addition, in the next decade nearly one billion women—primarily from the developing world—are expected to enter the labor force,” the report said.

Workforce changes HR should expect include:

  • More employees and contractors working from different locations around the world.
  • Migration laws changing to facilitate the movement of talent around the globe.
  • Older workers working longer.
  • The Millennial generation expecting greater work/life balance.
  • Expectations increasing for customized benefits, mobility of benefits and flexible work options.

The expertise panels recommended that HR, among other things:

  • Offer more options for flexible work programs.
  • Engage in proactive workforce planning. “Companies should be analyzing their workforce demographics and trying to anticipate attrition among older workers, developing retention plans for key workers and/or capturing their institutional knowledge prior to retirement,” the report said.
  • Provide a realistic job preview for workers entering the workforce during the hiring process, including clearly articulating to candidates and new hires the duties of the job, acceptable use of social media and personal devices at work, and expectations for where they are allowed to work, whether in cubicles or at a local coffee shop.
  • Learn how to recruit globally.
  • Assess expatriation policies.

Labor Becomes Automated

Technological advances have automated many routine tasks formerly performed by mid-skilled workers, defined in the report as those with a high school diploma but not a college degree.

The number of overqualified applicants and employees in low-skilled jobs will increase, according to experts. Having mid-skilled workers doing low-skilled work may lead to decreased employee engagement, retention and productivity, according to the report.

Some ways employers can prepare for this scenario include:

  • Creating a sense of urgency around job enrichment and career development.
  • Investing in employee education through tuition reimbursement, scholarships and sponsored apprenticeships. HR should educate employees about where the organization is headed and identify what technical degrees will be needed for advancement.
  • Offering opportunities for cross-training and lateral moves to keep low-wage workers learning and engaged.
  • Encouraging promotion from within.

The Skills Gap Persists

Although the number of college graduates is growing, companies still report challenges in finding candidates with the right combination of technical and soft skills. In addition, there is a shortage of highly skilled manufacturing and skilled trade workers, and filling STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) positions continues to be challenging.

New skills shortages will arise as technology and business continue to change rapidly, according to the report.

Some ways HR can mitigate this trend include:

  • Partnering with learning institutions, such as community colleges and chambers of commerce, to encourage more education and training for the skills needed in today’s marketplace.
  • Broadening the recruiting pool to other states or countries.
  • Offering internship and apprenticeship programs to develop a pipeline of future workers.
  • Participating in public-private sector workforce development initiatives.

Employees Can Work from Anywhere

The rapid growth of technology has eroded physical barriers to working, and employees’ necessary physical presence in the office has become a thing of the past for many workplaces.

Flexible working arrangements such as telecommuting are expected to increase, and more work will be conducted virtually with remote workers in multiple countries, according to the report.

The challenges for HR will be in managing remote workers, evaluating productivity and fostering feelings of connection to the organization.

Some recommendations to prepare for the impact of this trend include:

  • Learning to set goals and expectations, manage performance, and enhance teamwork to keep remote workers engaged and productive. This should include training on how to communicate effectively with non-native speakers and how to use technology for working remotely. Managers must also be trained to focus on the right performance metrics so virtual teams can achieve goals despite various time zones and work schedules, the report said.
  • Adjusting engagement and retention strategies to fit the local culture and demographics.
  • Changing the management mindset that employees must be physically present to be working.

The Freelance Workforce Grows

New websites such as Gigwalk, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and TopCoder have created online marketplaces where workers and those with project work can connect and transact business. Employees can do work for several companies at once.

This practice of crowdsourcing tasks “allows an organization to leverage the collective talent of the crowd to get work done, often in more efficient and cost-effective ways than the traditional employment model” and avoids layoffs, according to the report.

People unable to work a traditional schedule, such as students, stay-at-home parents and retirees will be able to participate in the job market via crowdsourcing sites and work whenever it is most convenient. Organizations would have the option of breaking down traditional jobs into sets of smaller tasks that can then be accomplished via crowdsourcing.

The SHRM experts recommended employers explore crowdsourcing and other more alternative work arrangements that might help the organization tap into new pools of talent.

“Recognize that using alternative work arrangements may require different competencies than traditional employment models,” the report stated. “Develop yourself and coach others on needed skills, such as critical evaluation, new relationship management and communication skills, and risk management.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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