Ten years ago I took my son to East Africa to stay in a Masai village. I reasoned that time with these mighty warriors would be a good anecdote to his rather cosy suburban life.
On the second day at the village, our Masai guide walked with us into the surrounding countryside. Then something surprising happened. The silence of this picturesque place was pierced by a strangely familiar sound. From his belt pocket the warrior took his ringing mobile phone. This was not something I’d expected.
Four years ago I had been asked by the female students at London Business School (LBS) to speak at their annual Women in Business Conference. I spoke for around 30 minutes on the way that large corporations could make a positive difference in the world – a topic I had explored in a recently published book. In the Q&A session that followed I expected to be asked about corporate social responsibility. Instead, I was quizzed about how I had managed to be a mother and also build a relatively successful career as a professor and business woman. This was again something I had not expected.
Yet these unexpected experiences had something profound in common. They were both ‘weak signals’ in the sense that they both alerted me to something I had not really or deeply considered. They also heralded something that would become more important in the future.
I had not realised the scale with which mobile phones were being rolled out across East Africa and indeed that they contained the possibility of transferring money. And I had not realised how deeply worried young women were about the life choices they face.
Both these weak signals had a profound impact on my thinking. The first led to the creation of my Future of Work Research Consortium – dedicated to analysing the impact of trends in technology, demography and society on corporations and the people that work for them. The second helped me understand the huge impact that Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic would have when she wrote about her personal challenges in ‘having it all.’
I’m not sure it’s possible to actively seek out weak signals – often times, serendipity seems to play a key role. But here are some ideas:
– Don’t turn your back on what seems hard to comprehend. Frankly I was amazed by the questions at the LBS event. What was wrong with these women that my personal life was so interesting to them? Yet as I reflected on what had happened I began to realise that I had inadvertently tapped into a deep seam of anxiety. I began to realise that young women are genuinely concerned about their future, and as a commentator about the future I needed to understand this and indeed learn more about it. I’ve learnt to be very sensitive to people or ideas that don’t fall into my way of thinking.
– Be prepared to get off the beaten path. I had not expected to learn about technology through a family visit to East Africa. Yet by getting out of my normal routine I was faced with new experiences that presented me with weak signals and new insights.
– Mix with different people. It’s easy in a busy life to spend lots of time with people similar to ourselves. Yet often the ‘weak signals’ are found in unexpected conversations. So these days I try to spend time every week with people who are different from me. People who don’t necessarily walk the paths that I do, and whose experience of the world is profoundly different from mine.
Looking ahead is such a wonderful thing to do – and weak signals can be just the way to do this.
Imagine you were looking forward to working into your 80s. What sort of working life would you want?
My guess is few of us would want a life of relentless 9 to 5 or more likely 8 to 6 with a couple of weeks off for holidays. We know implicitly that this is a regime that would see our intangible assets denuded. How would we keep abreast of rapidly changing skills with such little time to step out and learn? How could we keep our health and vitality at its peak with such little time for rejuvenation? Indeed, how could we find enough time with friends and family?
Perhaps that’s why the gig economy is seen as such a promising development. Imagine selling your resources – house, car, skills, or time in a seamless easy way. Imaging having the ability to step off the corporate ladder and change the way you work at anytime, providing a window of different and more flexible work. The benefits certainly look appealing. But of course, the gig economy also comes with its challenges. Our society is still not quite set up to support people who do not have a steady income stream and permanent contract. Try, for example, applying for a mortgage without proof of future income. Or saving for a pension with an irregular cash flow and no employer contribution. These drawbacks mean that few people see the gig economy as their main work activity or as a long term choice – but view it instead as part of a wider portfolio.
For those who plan to build this kind of portfolio in future, and benefit from the real value of the gig economy, they will need to take four important actions:
– work on transitional competencies. Moving from one type of work to another is not straightforward as it often means redesigning broader lifestyle choices and habits. These transitional competencies are developed through building a broad and diverse network – somewhere within that network will be people who have made the transition. Being surrounded by people who are similar to you will simply hold you back from changing. If you want to be part of the gig economy find others who are already there.
– build synergies between types of work. One of the joys of a portfolio life is variety – but this variety can come at a cost. When work activities are very different from each other then there is a ‘switching cost’ and cognitive abilities and working style have to switch between tasks. The more similar the task the less the switching cost. So try to build different job tasks from a platform of similar skills and competencies
– don’t build up tangible asset dependency. Working in the gig economy can bring variety, space and autonomy – but oftentimes people shy away from doing this type of work because they and their family have become addicted to a certain flow of money – holidays, cars, and general consumption. If you want to bring flexibility into your working life you have to ensure that you don’t develop spending habits at the top of your earning cycle. You must also be clear about what is essential for maintaining the standard of living you and your family need, and ensure that you are developing skills in lucrative fields that will deliver the commensurate income.
– realise you can’t have it all. There is much talk today that people (specifically mothers) can’t have it all – a family, big job, happy partner. Perhaps the same is true for putting together a portfolio of work. Most highly paid jobs come with 24/7 availability and pressured work. Gig economy jobs tend to have more autonomy and freedom. That’s why they tend not to be paid so well.
The gig economy has real promise to bring options to a working life. The question now is, are you ready?
Join our webinar on Tuesday 10th June 2014 to celebrate the launch of Lynda Gratton’s latest book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems.
Lynda Gratton will be launching her latest book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems with a webinar on Tuesday 10th June 2014.
In this webinar, Lynda will explore the ways in which today’s corporations – already bigger, wealthier and more powerful than ever before – can ensure a resilient future. Drawing on research from her book The Key, which includes over 20 case studies fromVodafone, Natura, Tata Consultancy Servicesand others, Lynda will look at how corporations can use their wealth, power and wisdom to combat global challenges such as climate change, youth unemployment and global poverty.
The webinar will take place on Tuesday 10th June 2014, 5pm-6pm BST. To register, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Lynda Gratton
Our talent landscape is evolving. Demographic shifts are changing where the world’s workforce will be located, with some countries entering a period of demographic dividend with millions of young people entering the workforce. At the same time, other countries are seeing their workforce age, with fewer people planning to retire in their 60s.
Organisations are also becoming keenly aware of a growing skills gap between their requirements and the available talent pool. Advances in technology have placed many middle-skill jobs under threat, while increasing demand for high-skilled roles that are intrinsically difficult to automate or standardise. This creates a range of opportunities for ambitious young people – but also means that they want to be able to retrain and upskill in order to increase their value in the workplace.
The scarcity of middle-skill jobs has made it easier for organisations to attract the best talent – but the emerging need for development opportunities means that retention is proving more difficult. This is an issue we explored in the “Future Talent Survey” conducted by my Future of Work Research Consortium which brings executives from more than 50 global companies together to talk about issues around human capital and the future. We discovered that of the three largest generations at work (Baby Boomers, born 1945-64; Generation X, 1965-79; Generation Y, 1980-94), executives believe that it will be Gen Y who will be the most difficult to retain.
These changes have created an unprecedented requirement for innovation when it comes to talent strategy. Faced with a generationally and culturally diverse workforce that is tasked with performing increasingly complex jobs, many organisations are looking for new ideas to help them cater to the needs of their talent pool. Very often at this stage talent experts turn to development experiences and training programmes to solve the problem. These certainly have their role to play – but in this article I would like instead to focus on a talent development and retention issue I believe to be crucial and undervalued – that is the design and configuration of work.
As I see it, there are two ways in which companies can cater for all this emergent complexity and diversity. The first is to ensure their most talented employees are able to maintain high performance in the face of complex work by taking an active role in enhancing their intellectual leverage and emotional vitality – a strategy which has the added effect of enhancing the organisation’s own internal resilience. And the second is to equip themselves with the tools and processes to to provide for the needs of workers from a range of different demographics and life stages.
Enhancing intellectual leverage and emotional vitality
As I show in my book The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, enhancing employees’ intelligence and emotional vitality has a vital part to play in helping organisations build the layer of inner resilience they need for the future.
Resilience starts with what happens inside the corporation – with an intellectually challenging, emotionally vibrant and socially connected community of employees. Some companies, like Tata Consultancy Services and Cisco are already using newly emerging intranet technologies to amplify the intellectual ideas and knowledge of employees across their businesses. They are ensuring that they gather the social wealth held in the different communities of people and in the networks that crisscross the company and span its boundaries.
Other organisations realise that ignoring emotional vitality has long-term implications, because among the workforce it is younger workers – the leaders of tomorrow – who prize wellbeing most highly. Last year I conducted, with USC the PwC Millennials Survey. What this clearly showed was that this young generation of employees are very conscious that they will not be retiring at 55 or 65 like their grandparents and are concerned with maintaining their health and achieving a work-life balance. It was clear that recognising and supporting these priorities is an important part of keeping these younger workers engaged. At the same time, many workers of the Baby Boomer generation are putting off retirement age and remaining in the workplace – and this ageing demographic also has more complex wellbeing needs than the traditional 20-65 year-old worker.
The importance of the work-home cycle
In a joint study on stress at work I conducted with As Dr Hans-Joachim Wolfram shows, we discovered that the work-home cycle also has a huge role to play when it comes to managing emotional vitality and combating stress. This cycle can be either caustic and draining, or positive and enhancing. It becomes caustic when an employee leaves work feel stressed, tired and demotivated – and leaves home feeling guilty or anxious about not fulfilling family obligations. The cycle is positive when an employee leaves home feeling authentic and resilient, and leaves work feeling networked and inspired by things they have learnt. It is this positive spillover into their home life which creates a reinforcing positive cycle: in this context, work is good and the knowledge and connections gained there can be a source of support for the family.
Really helping talented people manage this emotional cycle between work and home is vital. To fail to do so leads to the ‘emotional lock-down’ that can be so dangerous for creativity and innovation. And yet the simple truth is that it is this group who are most likely to be working under pressure, putting in the longest hours and travelling the most. To get the balance of the work-home cycle right is hard, and it starts with realising that work and home as not two unconnected spheres, but are highly connected. For example, as Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen has observed, managers have an incredibly important influence on whether the work-home cycle is positive or negative. As a result, companies must think about how they support families and whether their talented employees have enough scope to ensure a cycle of positive emotional spillover.
It’s also time to think hard about how to design jobs in a way that enhances rather than denudes the emotional vitality of employees. For some, like BT, the wide-scale adoption of flexible working is allowing people to manage their own time in a positive and enhancing way. Others, like Deloitte are thinking hard about how to break the career hierarchies and introduce a matrix process that allows people to increase or decrease their contribution at different stages of their working life.
When we surveyed members of the Future of Work Research Consortium for a ‘Future Talent Report’, many of them highlighted the importance of career customisation in increasing retention. By providing talented people with the ability to determine their own development experiences, and with longer-term aspirational goals, organisations create a sense of purpose, empowerment and trust.
The report also highlighted that whilst many large corporations have flexible working arrangements, when it comes to improved job design – by which I mean initiatives such as phased retirement, job share schemes and, on- and off-boarding ramps, few are adequately prepared. I estimate that such companies have a period of three years at most to introduce these elements of job design before the lack of them starts to have a serious impact on the retention of their most talented people.
The importance of scale
So why are so many companies struggling with this? One reason is idea of job design and career customisation is associated with motherhood. When a talented woman leaves an organisation, there is an implicit assumption they are doing so to start a family. In fact, as I have seen with my MBA students at London Business School, when they leave a company, it’s to start their own business. And a key reason for this is that doing so is because it empowers them to take charge of their own job design.
This talent drain is just one reason why companies need to ramp up their experiments and pilots in the field of job design and then really focus on scaling and mobilizing around these crucial issues. That is because the challenges of emotional vitality are about to get worse. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, life stage is becoming an increasingly important factor in people’s career choices – and people reach these stages at vastly different ages. For example, some employees will choose to become parents in their 20s, while others will do so in their 40s. As people start to live longer, we will see more of them rejecting traditional linear career paths and opting for careers that move sideways, downwards, or even pause for a while. It is the companies that are learning to deal with these issues already – and the ones that act now to start handling them more effectively – that will prove resilient over the coming decades.
The solution to this problem is to make work and careers more customised, fluid and transparent. Healthy, vital employees want control over how, when, where they work and to manage their work and their careers in tune with the rhythms of their life. To enable this, employers need to let workers know that the design of their job can change according to their circumstances and that customisation is available to everyone, not just mothers. For example, Vodafone has created a culture where flexible working is not a privilege for which employees must ask for permission, but something employees can choose to do as and when the need arises. This change has had a marked effect on their retention rate. Above all, they need to know what their options are at each stage of their life and career, so that they can make the appropriate choices.
A resilient future strategy
It’s clear that today’s organisations need to develop the ability to create an employee value proposition powerful enough to appeal to the demands of an increasingly diverse and global talent pool – a challenge that requires considerable effort and innovation.
Providing talent with constant development and ample opportunities for enhancing emotional vitality is not easy – but the benefits in terms of talent retention and organisational resilience are immense. By providing talent with the ability to determine their own career experiences, and with longer-term aspirational goals, organisations create a sense of purpose, empowerment and trust.
To achieve this, organisations must shift their focus, dividing it more equally between identifying and recruiting and their ability to retain high-value individuals. They must also recognise that younger generations are starting to expect more from their work, both in terms of the quality of their experiences and the meaning and purpose of their roles, while older workers will have differing requirements depending on their life stage. By integrating strategies such as career customisation into their talent strategy, businesses can go a long way to enhancing emotional vitality in ways that will not only increase retention, but will also prepare them for the entry of the next generation – Gen Z – into the workforce.
Lynda Gratton is a Professor of Management Practice at London Business School where she directs the program ‘Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Companies’ – considered the world’s leading program on human resources. Her latest book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, is out on 9th June.
By Lynda Gratton
We live in a fragile world. Every one of us faces profound and escalating challenges– youth unemployment touches many families; income inequality and poverty are a source of shame for many of us in developed countries; whilst it is only the least observant who could fail to recognise the early signs of a profound change in the climate. These challenges are no longer particular to one country or area: they affect most people around the world.
The challenges faced by organisations are no less complex. They too are faced with the implications of climate change, of inequality, and of the gap between their needs and the available pool of talent. These challenges are on a greater and more global scale than ever before, and emerging at an ever faster trajectory. Previously stable companies find themselves on shaky ground – and the negative consequences of the problems that surround them are proving difficult to reverse.
Over the last five years I have directed the Future of Work Research Consortium which brings together executives from more than 50 companies to consider how best to address these challenges. What is clear is that resilience is the key, and to build resilience companies will be called upon to develop a whole new set of tools and ways of innovating.
Building inner resilience
Resilience starts with what happens inside the corporation –with an, intellectually challenging, emotionally vibrant and socially connected community of employees. Those companies, like Tata Consultancy Services and Unilever who are attempting to do this, are using newly emerging technology to amplify the intellectual ideas and knowledge of employees across their businesses. They are ensuring that they gather the social wealth held in the different communities of people and in the networks that crisscross the company and stretch beyond its boundaries.
Executives also need to think hard about how to design jobs in a way that they enhance rather than denude the emotional vitality of their employees. For some, like BT, the wide-scale adoption of flexible working is allowing people to manage their own time in a positive and enhancing way. Others, like Deloitte are thinking hard about how to break the career hierarchies and introduce a matrix process that allows people to increase or decrease their contribution at different stages of their working life.
The importance of outer resilience
Creating a foundation of resilience is critical – and in some corporations there is also a focus on building resilience in supply chains and in the wider world they operate in. This is crucial because increasingly companies do not exist independently of the rest of the world, and their future is reliant on their interaction with the communities in which they are embedded.
I saw this at Danone where people across the company are actively working with farmers in their supply chain to ensure that they are building strong communities – the John Lewis Partnership is doing the same in the UK. These are corporations that are facing the challenges of our increasingly fragile world head-on, by recognising their connection with the outside world. They understand that their businesses are profoundly related to the communities in which they work and are able to think differently and comprehensively about the larger environment in which they operate. Some, like Royal Dutch Shell, are using scenario planning to help executives really become aware of the forces shaping their lives and their businesses. It is this awareness that will enable them to face these forces in a positive way, seeing them as opportunities rather than threats. The final piece of the puzzle is leadership: building resilience needs leaders who are prepared to balance long- term needs with short- term financial results.
What is clear to me is that being resilient requires making the choices that are positive for employees, investors and those in the communities they touch.
Lynda Gratton’s latest book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, is out on 9th June.
By Lynda Gratton
Something that is becoming increasingly apparent in the discussion around corporate resilience is that creativity matters. Large organisations are building vast banks of talented and creative employees to ensure they are ahead of the competition. However, when it comes to tapping into the potential inherent in this talent pool, they can find themselves at a loss, frequently going back to the same small group of people for their next big business idea.
With employees scattered over the world it can be challenging to find out what your people are thinking. In an attempt to mitigate this, many companies already have open innovation programmes to help them discover the thoughts and ideas of individuals both inside and outside their organisation. Practices such as sharing business plans with a wider audience and inviting employees to provide input are proven to have a positive impact on sales.
One avenue for surfacing ideas which I think too many companies ignore is experimentation. This can be a particularly valuable process when you are faced with problems to which no-one has a ready-made answer.
It seems obvious to me that if you are faced with an unknown, you need to experiment around the issue to find an answer. All the breakthroughs we have seen in medicine, for example, have come through a process of hypothesis, experimentation and clinical trials where several different options are tried out and compared. Despite the scientific record, very few companies dare to experiment. Recently, when I was seeking out examples of corporate experimentation for my book, The Key, I found that they were few and far between. In fact, the only two that made it into the finished book were at Roche and Xerox. This is despite the fact that one of the biggest changes in the workplace – flexible working – was the result of repeated experimentation at BT.
Looking at the examples of experimentation I did find, most of them were led by scholars or academics, such as Professor Ruth Wageman, who led the self-managing teams project at Xerox. This is another indication that companies are apprehensive about experimenting themselves. And if companies as a whole are poor at experimentation, their HR departments are worse. And yet, I feel that if companies would only dare to try, experimentation has a wealth of benefits to offer. Take, for example, the sphere of performance management. HR teams, managers and employees all agree that current processes are ineffective, but none of them have alternatives. Experimentation would be an ideal way to find methods that really work – and, as with BT, for your organisation’s discovery to become the model that others follow for decades to come.
Lynda Gratton’s latest book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving Some of the World’s Toughest Problems will be published on June 1st and is available to pre-order through Amazon now.
By Lynda Gratton
If you could name a single factor as the biggest enemy of employee retention in your organisation, what would it be? My guess would be job design – specifically, the availability of career customisation.
You might think your organisation already offers career customisation and improved job design, but let me make my point clear: improving job design is not that same as bringing flexibility into work. Many – if not most – large corporations have flexible working arrangements. But when it comes to improved job design – by which I mean initiatives such as phased retirement, job share schemes and, on- and off-boarding ramps, they are lagging far behind. I estimate that such companies have a period of three years at most to introduce these elements of job design before the lack of them starts to have a serious impact.
This is becoming an urgent issue. As things stand, when people want to customise their careers they do so by leaving the company. The most valuable people are building their career elsewhere because companies are not providing what they need.
This talent drain is just one reason why companies need to ramp up their experiments and pilots in the field of job design: and it’s about to get worse. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, life stage is becoming an increasingly important factor in people’s career choices – and people reach these stages at vastly different ages. For example, some employees will choose to become parents in their 20s, while others do the same in their 40s. As people start to live longer, we will see more and more people rejecting traditional linear career paths and opting for careers that move sideways, downwards, or even pause for a while. It is the companies that are dealing with these issues already – and the ones that act now to start handling them more effectively – that will prove resilient over the coming decades.
The importance of scale
So why are so many companies, many of whom have already invested heavily in flexible working and job design, failing so miserably in this respect? One reason is that companies have for too long associated the idea of career customisation with motherhood. Often because when women in particular leave an organisation, there is an immediate assumption they are doing so to start a family. In fact, what I’ve noticed about my MBA students at LBS is that often when they leave a company, it’s to start their own business. And a key reason for this is that doing so empowers them to take charge of their own job design.
A damaging side effect of associating career customisation with motherhood is a lack of scale. You may have some great improved job design initiatives but failing to scale them beyond the concept of maternity leave means that employees will continue to achieve career customisation by moving on.
The solution to this problem is to make career customisation fluid, mainstream and transparent. Healthy, loyal employees have control over how, when, where they work and can manage their careers in tune with the rhythms of their life. To enable this, employers need to let workers know that the design of their job can change according to their circumstances and that customisation is available to everyone, not just mothers. Above all, they need to know what their options are at each stage of their life and career, so that they can make the appropriate choices.