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.