Organizations need to reimagine both the workforce and work design to be resilient — and to able to sense and respond to change, repeatedly and at scale.
As business strategies continue to evolve, organizations will need to take deliberate action to prioritize resilience and not just focus on efficiency if they want to succeed in their strategic ambitions.
Jackie Wiles, Associate Content Director, sits down with Gartner VP Caroline Walsh for a discussion on where and how employees and processes are showing the strain today, and what actions can build resilience — particularly in terms of realigning skills and work design.
For the full conversation, watch the video below or read a transcript of Caroline Walsh’s responses, which have been edited here for length and clarity.
Shift focus from efficiency first to resilience
A lot of the organizations that we worked with before the pandemic were really focused on efficiency. What that meant was that they were trying to drive growth through creating very clear processes, sometimes even really rigid processes. All employees knew where they were supposed to be, a lot of standardization.
That all worked really well for many organizations prior to the pandemic. But what we've seen is that during this time of unprecedented change, this efficiency has actually become fragility and has made organizations vulnerable to dealing with change.
“ Rigidity actually holds us back from responding to change”
Where we see organizations that we're working with headed now...instead of moving toward efficiency, they are actually moving toward resilience. What that looks like in practice is organizations focusing on making sure that they have their resources, their talent, their work design, all designed and deployed, ready to sense and respond to these continuous changes.
One thing that's been really interesting is that as organizations come through the pandemic, we saw that a lot were able to respond with a lot of speed, but we haven't been able to see them sensing and responding over and over again.
And that over and over again is what's really important. We need to set up for the long haul. And so we're helping organizations now set up for sustained resilience success.
Key component of resilience: Skills
The big challenge when it comes to acquiring critical skills is actually the volume of skills required today, and the fact that these skills are changing so rapidly. What we've found is that for the average job, the number of skills required has increased 10% year on year.
Now, at the same time as that's happening, half of the skills needed for a job today are new. And those new skills are displacing old skills, so we're left with organizations asking how they can find the right skills in the right place at the right time.
When organizations in pre-pandemic, pre-resilience times needed to improve efficiency, they would look to the alternative workforce for that efficiency boost. Now we're seeing a lot of organizations switch to a more dynamic point of view. So what that means is that they're beginning to ask questions: How, where and when work can get done to maximize productivity and engagement.
And they're also asking who is right to get work done, whether it is people inside the organization or outside the organization.
Prioritize skills over hiring profiles
One piece that's important to think about is, as [organizations] ask who is right to get this work done, they are focusing on shaping the workforce. What this means is that these organizations are prioritizing skills instead of hiring profiles. And when they're going out looking for new talent, they're actually looking to the total skills marketplace instead of traditional talent pools.
One example is from an organization that was interested in hiring new software developers, a pretty common need for organizations today. A lot of organizations in this situation go externally first and would go to those traditional talent pools, folks who have university degrees, computer science backgrounds, from other parts of the tech industry and with IT experience.
“ There are very rapid changes in what both employees and candidates are expecting in terms of the employment value proposition. This is changing day to day”
They need software development skills. First, they went inside their organization and actually found a lot of people within their organization who weren’t in software development roles, but who had software development skills. They were able to broaden their look internally, then they were able to look externally, but beyond the traditional pools.
So they were able to look for people who were self-taught, who may not have had a university degree or had another degree. They were also able to look at neurodiverse candidates with software development experience. So, all this to say that widening the aperture to look at skills can be really helpful.
One key point is that there are very rapid changes in what both employees and candidates are expecting in terms of the employment value proposition. This is changing day to day, and so as organizations are looking to shape the workforce, it's also imperative that HR leaders are able to be thoughtful about building a responsive EVP.
The hybrid work approach or workforce model has benefits for the organization, for employees and for candidates. At Gartner, we think of this hybrid work approach as a shared approach where employees, managers and leaders at the organization all share remote work and hybrid work decisions. This is going to look a little different than what many organizations are used to.
First, it means that organizations, employees and managers are going to have to have a common set of expectations that employees will move dynamically from location to location, and they'll do so without a fixed pattern.
It also means that the decision about where and when work gets done is not going to be mandated by the organization. It's going to be based on what makes the most sense to drive productivity and employee engagement. This is a really new world for a lot of the organizations we work with.
Trust drives hybrid workforce success
What we're finding is that one of the big prerequisites for this hybrid workforce model to work is trust — between managers and employees in particular.
This hybrid workforce model really opens a lot of doors for organizations as they're considering who is an employee and who is helping get work done, and again, who has those skills.
One thing about the hybrid model is that it allows organizations to go after those critical skills that are going to give them that competitive advantage and it allows them to do so by broadening where they're looking. They can look for remote workers, they can look for workers in lower-cost locations — so they can save both facilities costs and talent acquisition costs.
Key component of resilience: Work design
We have seen a huge amount of progress and success. Organizations have done things we didn't think were possible, but still are challenged in being responsive in their everyday work and how work gets done.
When we talk about responsive employees, we mean employees who can sense and respond to changing customer needs and are able to design their work around doing that. So they spend most of their day doing that.
When I talk about customers, often this means external customers. It means the clients that our organizations serve, but it also means internal customers. A lot of the HR leaders that I work with, that my team works with, are really interested right now in making their HR function more agile and more able to respond quickly to business-unit leads, to questions from their finance department, for example. What we found, though, was a little bit upsetting, a little bit worrying.
Employees face hurdles when trying to be responsive
HR leaders noted that less than 20% of their workforce is actually able to change direction in response to changing client needs and priorities.
This is a clear problem, especially today, where priorities change as clients change, as just everything changes. If employees are out of step with that, that's something that we need to address quickly.
This is the piece that was a little surprising to me and the team. In a survey of thousands of employees around the work, 90% of employees have the mindset and the skills necessary to be responsive. But what we found is that in the day-to-day work, less than 40% are actually working responsively.
Work friction hinders responsiveness
It's this idea of work friction and friction in work design, we found. We often talk about skill, will and hill.
We know that employees have the skill and the will to make that change and to be responsive. Work friction is the hill that's preventing them from doing it.
What we found was that there were actually four primary kinds of friction that had an outsized impact on preventing employee responsiveness. I think these are going to be unfortunately familiar to many people.
Workflows are misaligned to the way that work actually gets done. You're supposed to do work one way, and yet it just never actually happens that way.
Teams are overwhelmed, and this is something that we've seen in particular since the start of the pandemic. They don't know how to prioritize what they should do first.
Resources are trapped and they're trapped in old budgets. So resources can't be deployed where they're needed as circumstances change.
Processes are rigid. And so, back to this idea of efficiency. We drove toward rigid processes to drive toward standardization. And now we're finding that that rigidity actually holds us back from responding to change.
Solve work friction through work (re)design
We need to congratulate ourselves for this sort of short-term success. We've worked really hard, but it’s not sustainable. One key friction is these rigid processes — often organizations have really clear lines about what employees can and cannot do.
What that might look like is when a new idea comes in, organizations go really quickly to the idea of “no.” It's a “no”-first environment and they do that because you don't want to deviate from the standard process. What we found is that when that happens — and maybe you all have experienced this in the last few months — when this happens, employees actually take to hacking their work. What this means is they find ways to work around the process that isn't working for them.
For example, they might, if they have a new initiative they want to bring about, they might go through every step they can to not seek approval for it. So they don't have to get that “no.”
Employees are “hacking” work to get around friction
This sounds innovative and maybe sounds exciting and problem solving. The reality is that these types of hacks can actually cost organizations quite a bit of time, money and energy. They also introduce quite a bit of risk into a situation that is not ideal.
What organizations can do instead is actually move from a “no” to a “go.” We're helping organizations see where they can move the bar on what requires an approval so that we can actually go to a place of “yes” where appropriate.
I want to just circle back for a minute to where you started — talking about sort of all that we've been through.
What we actually have seen is that employee engagement and productivity in some instances have increased across the pandemic. We're all feeling the challenge of managing to get work done and we've seen an increase in employee work. We've seen some of these frictions be temporarily removed. We've seen processes change overnight. That's great, but that is not sustainable.
As organizations move back to more normal workflows, there's a lot of risk of losing ground. We can't just design around hacks all the time, so it's really important that organizations look at these key friction points and design work accordingly to build that sustained resilience to get us through this.
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