The last year has permanently changed the way we work in many unexpected ways. In a year filled with seemingly endless pivots, from changes related to digital transformation and virtual collaboration to social movements and employee safety, we’ve had to adapt fast.
As the trajectory of your learning curve levels out, it’s time to explore what your workforce of the future will need as well as how your organization can move forward and grow. In a recent knowledge burst, our experts addressed four workplace trends shaping the future of work and offered practical suggestions for responding to each one.
Trend 1: Cognitive overload
Historically, organizations have watched for ways that workers may have been overloaded on the job. Typically, we’ve thought about overload as a physical phenomenon, based on long hours of work or burdensome manual labor. But today, we’re looking at cognitive overload, which happens when your working memory receives more information than it can handle comfortably.
During the pandemic, the amount of information we receive every day is massive. Our workdays are packed with meetings, and our incessant task-switching and constant need to make decisions ramps up our cognitive overload. This kind of overload can render your employees ineffective and destroy their mental health. For example, it can impede decision-making, because the more information and choices we have, the harder it is to choose. All of that information also takes time away from human connection and problem solving—two of the things that we need most right now. And cognitive overload can lead to depression and anxiety, as people feel increasingly buried in information.
Melissa Swift, Global Leader, Workforce Transformation, recommended a number of steps that leaders can take to address this problem.
- Limit the number of things you prioritize. Not everything can be a top priority. Guide your team as they decide how to arrange their work.
- Be sensitive to your employees’ demands outside of work, including whether they’re in lockdown or what their needs are with children in school and other family members.
- Set healthy boundaries. Be conscious that every time your employees use their brain, there’s a cost. So, for example, think about setting rules for returning emails outside of work hours.
- Curate ruthlessly, especially with email. Try to limit certain types of repetitive and procedural emails and teach your employees ways they can manage their email volume.
Trend 2: Team charters
The desire for flexible work arrangements is not new, but now most employees want to split their time between working from their office and their home. And, because of COVID-19, employees better understand the pros and cons of remote work arrangements as well as their preferences. Meanwhile, employers have realized the possibilities that exist with remote work and let go of their fears that it would lead to a significant loss of productivity or operational challenges. And, in some cases, employers can see how a flexible working environment might give them a competitive advantage when it comes to talent management.
Given this mutual understanding, and knowing that teams are often created and expected to deliver within a short window, it’s a good idea for teams to create a flexible team charter. A charter provides a framework for working together that marries the needs of the business and team with the aspirations of team members. The charter can address a variety of things, such as scheduling working hours, determining what merits a meeting compared to an email, setting expectations for email response times—especially outside of the normal workday—and establishing what mode to use for communication.
For a team charter to work, your organization needs a few things, according to Senior Client Partner Jenny Smyth:
- Secure sponsorship from leaders. Leaders set the tone for this type of initiative and must show they’ve fully accepted a flexible work culture and trust that this will work for their employees.
- Articulate the organizational purpose and strategy. Leaders should share their roadmaps for the organization, including their mission and vision, with the team, so they can align their purpose and strategies with those of the overall business.
- Guide people managers in how to facilitate teams. They’ll need to offer support as they manage a flexible, yet more complex, work environment and reassure employees concerned about how others’ flexible arrangements may affect their own performance.
- Look at charter arrangements on a pilot basis. Establish quantitative and qualitative measures, so you can gauge the success of these initiatives and be in a position to share success stories with the rest of the business.
- Offer a platform where teams can build their charters online. Not only does this support a positive employee experience, but it also means you can track the progress of these charters and identify potential agreements to replicate across the business.
Trend 3: Changing career paths to leadership roles
The career ladder has been replaced, or at least rivaled by, the career lattice: instead of one way up, the lattice allows for different movements—sideways, backward and diagonal—in an employee’s career.
And, in this time when we need different types of leaders to thrive in disruption, many organizations are rethinking the career paths that will deliver the experiences those leaders will need. This trend is likely to continue for three reasons, according to Michel Buffet, Senior Client Partner. First, new technologies, shifting industry boundaries and complex globalization patterns are calling for multifaceted individuals. Their experiences must reflect the complexity and diversity of emerging leader accountabilities. Second, COVID-19 has disrupted business models across industries and has precipitated the need for companies to redefine what great leaders look like and how to redraw career maps that will accelerate leadership progression. Third, the call for diversity and inclusion is rightfully breaking walls and ceilings in unprecedented ways. New career paths have been opened that will need care and attention to transform into wide leadership pipelines for the future.
Buffet suggests that if you aspire to become a leader or are accountable for leadership progression, you should address these trends in four ways:
- Start with purpose. The path to any leadership career starts with a clear sense of purpose.
- Focus on building capabilities. Job titles and spans of control can be misleading, so consider instead the development value of a role. What will you learn that can accelerate your progression to a higher-impact leadership role?
- Make diagonal moves. Gaining an understanding of multiple disciplines while growing your leadership scope offers a breadth of experience that executives will need to draw upon for decision-making.
- Seek to perform and transform. Great leaders progress through roles that challenge them to optimize performance and be disruptive. This is especially important for leaders who aspire to enterprise leadership roles.
Trend 4: Workforce challenges of flatter organizations
In the midst of this crisis, many companies are looking to flatten their internal hierarchies, reducing their layers of leadership. Flat organizations have traditionally been common in small businesses and now are becoming more prevalent across medium and large companies, such as Google, Apple and Cisco. As businesses continue to navigate the new normal, flattening hierarchies is top of mind given cost pressures and the desire to create a more collaborative and inclusive business environment.
With this shift, organizations and their leaders should do five things, according to Associate Client Partner Lisa Harrison:
- Build a culture of trust and transparency. Trust is a two-way street: employees need to trust their leaders, and vice versa. Transparency from the top to the bottom of the organization is the key to building trust, because employees will feel informed and understand how the company’s goals align with their work. Being a great leader requires honesty and humility, and the more honest a leader is, the more trust employees will have in the leader and the company.
- Create shared leadership. Sharing leadership allows team members to take initiative and accelerates decision-making, because it decentralizes authority in individuals who are less likely to be away or busy or who need to be brought up to speed. The results include increased productivity and empowerment, because employees are more intimately involved in the decision-making process.
- Foster agility and fail fast. Even if your company doesn’t operate on agile principles, you can still benefit from increasing collaboration and the ability to pivot in a crisis. Agility and collaboration increase transparency and decrease the likelihood of a single point of failure. Failure is inevitable, so failing fast will help you and your team learn faster and allow you to move faster with more insight.
- Create clear progression paths. A flatter organizational structure doesn’t have to mean flatter career prospects. While career pathways can become opaque when the bureaucracy and hierarchy of status associated with multiple layers are removed, flatter organizations should be more intentional in creating career paths for their employees. They should also demonstrate their commitment to lifelong learning and talent development.
- Don’t be a copycat. Don’t just do what other companies are doing; forward leaning is essential to business growth, especially in these turbulent times. The silver lining of this pandemic is that it’s a white canvas to break norms and try new things. Determine what works best for your business and what type of culture will help your business and employees thrive.
Preparing your organization for what’s next
Organizations that transform successfully will make meaningful changes to address these and other trends affecting the future of work. To learn more about these trends, watch our 30-minute knowledge burst. And check out our resources on the six levers to pull to start transforming your workforce and on the other trends that are affecting the future of work.