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One Size Fits None

Three generations working together in an atmosphere of constant change and the need for individual, rather than group, motivation are some of the workforce-management challenges facing HR leaders in the future, according to this Q&A with futurist Jeff Wacker of EDS.

Sunday, April 1, 2007
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If you're concerned about managing the workforce of the future, Jeff Wacker has some advice for you: Take your current practices for hiring, retaining and motivating employees and throw them out the window, because they'll soon be obsolete anyway.

A changing global economy will require HR leaders and line managers to get comfortable leading employees in a virtual world, where timesheets don't matter and outcomes are everything.

Wacker, a corporate futurist at EDS in Plano, Texas, has written papers and given speeches on the need for companies to prepare themselves for the new world order. We spoke with him recently about this subject.

For HR executives, what will be the biggest challenge of managing the workforce of the future?

I think the biggest challenge is changing work with a changing workforce to compete in changing world.

The key word here is change -- it's not singular, but continuous.

So it's the ability to manage people in an environment of continuous change. It's going to be difficult because most people and processes are set up for continuity, not continuous change. The world is changing rapidly today and it'll continue to do so: the global economy, the emergence of the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China].

An interesting point is that China will soon be the No. 1 English-speaking country in world -- the number of Chinese people speaking English will exceed the entire U.S. population. All of this will require vast amounts of cultural, diversity and language skills.

Then you've got the changing workforce. You have three generations working together -- the boomers, Gen X and Gen Y, the fact that the top 10 occupations will be ones that didn't even exist 10 years before, the mix of full-time and contract employees constantly moving in and out of the organization. You have people who've held at least 10 jobs by the time they're 38.

And finally you have the changing nature of work, which is moving from processes to problem-solving and creativity in an extremely information-rich environment. The nasty thing about this is that there's no end point; it's continuous and never-ending, and that's not something we humans are biologically built for.

We're built to accommodate similarities, that's the way the mind and body works, but as we move into a new world of rapid and evolving change driven by innovation and new entrants into the workforce, the mind and body have to adapt to a new world.

Can you give me an example of this "continuous change" that will affect the mind and body?

More and more work is being done by virtual teams, located across the globe, that work continuously "following the sun" on the same project, handing it off to the next team as the sun sets or rises in their location.

But sometimes you need to collaborate in real time, you can't just hand off certain things. So sometimes here at EDS I work at 3 in morning with a team in India -- I often work at all hours. That's something that's got to be done and we see that happening across the board.

At EDS we have an alternative work arrangement program that acknowledges some people need to work alternative hours, so it's a policy that's on the books. It sets limits, it lets people understand what they can and can't do. The company has done a lot to accommodate the global nature of work and the global nature of our customers' business.

So how can HR maintain or increase employee commitment and retain valued workers in this new environment?

One of the ideas of retaining valued workers is that if you know people are going to go through multiple jobs in order to gain a broad, rich base of experience, then why don't you do that in the organization? Create job rotations and jettison the mind-set that once you've hired someone for a job, you're done.

No, you're not done. Give people the opportunity to move through different jobs, rather than constantly seeking outside people for open positions.

The other thing is that the command and control model will no longer be applicable, so managers will need the ability to manage outcomes regardless of how the work is done, or how many hours someone puts in or where it gets done.

The idea of timesheets is almost totally obsolete -- you want a results sheet, not a timesheet. You should be recording the results achieved, not the time spent. So the measurements are different and will continue to evolve.

How can HR maintain or increase employee productivity and retain valued workers in this new environment?

First of all, acknowledge you have three very different workforces that you're managing simultaneously and understand what the boomers want, what the Gen Xers want and the Gen Yers want.

Most people don't understand what each group truly wants. For example, IT has been a second language learned by boomers, while Gen X is the gap between boomers and children -- they're transactionally motivated, they expect to change jobs. They're early adopters: They embrace IT as opposed to getting through IT.

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Now, the Y generation shares some of the characteristics of boomers but they're more entrepreneurial, they expect success. They grew up with IT -- it's their first language.

So, each of those generations is going to be motivated in different ways. As an HR leader you have to recognize that and then break it down to the individual level. Google and Amazon.com are built on the ability to understand what the individual wants.

HR is not managing the workforce, it's managing workers in a force, and each individual needs to be understood and managed, and that's difficult when we have policies that have traditionally been applied across the workforce, so that's going to have to be tempered. One size fits none.

So how can workers be motivated in this "one size fits none" era?

The No. 1 thing every worker seeks the most, more than pay or time off, is the opportunity to succeed. So let's define success for each person, and then let's make sure their work environment lends an opportunity for that success.

One of the last things an employee wants is to find [him- or herself] on the back side of the technology revolution, with skills that are no longer valued by anyone. So they'll need the chance to be exposed to multiple roles by job rotations, and provided with the training and education necessary to succeed in the new environment, which will require varied work experiences and the ability to handle multiple roles.

This will help them gain what employers of the future will need: creativity, innovation and the ability to engage in "horizontal" thinking instead of the "deep vertical" thinking that was required in the past.

What sort of training will managers need to thrive in this new environment?

For managers, the training should come in several varieties. First, train them to manage by results, not to time. Management-by-objective never really took off, but it requires people to understand individual objectives in order to have that as goal and objective.

Second, teach them to manage remotely, and by that I mean not just physically remote but remotely from day-to-day activities, the idea being to have some physical distance from workers, but not distance in objectives.

Third is to install systems that alert managers when goals aren't being met, that notify the managers that they need to get with the employee to find out what's going wrong and what the employee needs in order to be successful.

It's just as necessary to "untrain" people as it is to train them. To help them understand how they currently think, what their core beliefs are, and get them to question those beliefs so they can move on from there. Unless you expose those beliefs, you'll never get managers to change their thinking on how to manage employees.

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