Whether the scourge of COVID-19 is behind us yet or not is still to be confirmed. But surely many corporates have to see this as a potential watershed. The disease disrupted business and life like nothing before it in recent times. Many lives were lost but much more was impacted. Businesses went bust, the livelihood of many went to rust, business models got disrupted, workplaces suddenly looked different and life looked more virtual. And yet the challenges of the times were all the more real.
While a lot of the employment and business landscape is picking itself up, the demands on leadership, beyond titles, have got accentuated, if not redefined. It must see possibilities with a more wide-angled lens. It must demonstrate the courage to lead differently. It also must be more comfortable accepting its own vulnerabilities. It must be willing to align passion and purpose to profit. These sound simple but to be done well it needs immense effort and humility.
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Here are some areas where leadership can look to impact and influence workforce strategies.
- Define the new “workplace” and the new “workforce”: I believe that the new workplace will be beyond the confines of the formal limits of the organization. And I am not saying the obvious. It is not just about “Work From Anywhere”. Organizations will need to realize that value creation often happens beyond the formal precincts of its boundaries. And it will need to reimagine and own that workplace more comprehensively than ever before. As an example, car sales are mostly not made by company employees. These are done at a distributed dealership. How does that workplace impact value creation or its erosion? How will leadership own this extension of the workplace? How will you lead without direct control? How will you be responsible ‘beyond visual range’?
- Likewise, the reimagination of the new workforce: What really would be the right constituents of this new workforce? What is going to be a larger ecosystem that impacts your business drivers? How will you align education and experience to business impact? Will you be able to break the classical mold of your talent mix? How well will you leverage the “gig power”, across levels and functions? Or would you stay conservative and look at a whole series of boxes to be filled? Would you get leaner? Would you discount years of “experience”? How comprehensively will you nurse your talent catchments beyond immediacy? There will be nuances for various sectors and companies. But there is a huge opportunity of challenging many classical models that leadership may have grown with.
- Make your enterprise people risk strategy count: Many companies and many leaders have been very poor in their interest and ability to visualize enterprise risks beyond compliance. As the pandemic has demonstrated, there will be many more Black Swans waiting to happen which will impact the workplace. Leadership will need to strategically plot all the people and HR risks to the firm, both hard and soft. Workforce strategies often collapse because we are either unable to spot the growing fault lines in them or their growing misalignment with the evolving business context. Leaders must consciously scrub their thinking and doing of the risks with their workforce strategies. Is their cost structure overloaded in a more flexible work situation? How is the work design going to make a distributed workforce still feel connected to the larger purpose? How should your performance and rewards structure evolve to both measure and acknowledge better? Are your managerial systems designed to respond well to the new norms of working? The list can be endless. The question is to surface them, honestly take stock, and make the changes swiftly and deliberately.
- Leadership must ensure strategic alignment of their organizational culture with workforce strategies: One of the biggest demands on the leadership today will be to assess and tweak the culture in their organization. Most leaders admittedly are more left-brained in their orientation. The more grey area of culture is often seen as flaky and non-quantifiable. But if you don’t deal with the issue of culture more strategically you may lose the plot altogether. The way you do business, the demands of the customers, the kind of talent you will attract and keep, the outcomes you will celebrate, the way you will knit the various moving parts together are hugely impacted by your definition of culture. What dimensions of your culture will be even more in demand now? What aspects have lived their life? What needs to be repudiated? What needs to be incubated now? These are strategic choices we make. And changing dimensions of culture is possibly the most complex leadership challenge. It has political undercurrents. People read their own versions of it. Does your definition of culture help allow sub-cultures to co-exist? All of these will have huge implications for your talent ecosystem. These are hard choices to make for ensuring your relevance or the lack of it in the New World.
- Re-architect your organization: As the newer opportunities unfold and the safety of older norms fade, firms must revisit their organization design, both horizontally and vertically. The new digital push will call for greater agility, empowerment, and accountability. Does the organization structure enable that? Many decisions can be pushed down in the system compared to where they stood a year ago. While the quality of your talent undoubtedly will matter in such cases, agility will demand leaner structures. Personally, I visualize a lot of the middle getting trimmer. More than the span of control, organizational designs must reflect the sphere of influence. Historically, most firms have solidified siloes that don’t adequately work in rhythm. The crisis can no longer afford us that luxury. Organizations indeed will need to become more fluid even as the workforce becomes more liquid. The job of leadership will be to visualize this and take the bold calls beyond their personal interests, their camp-followers, or their desired aggrandizement.
- New workforce strategies need newer leadership: A leaner and a more digitally savvy but potentially more distributed workforce will demand a new quality of leadership. The historical practice of years of experience, age, and captive employees to control will need to cede space to a new leadership framework. With greater information democracy and agile work environments, leadership will need to be more strategic and enabling rather than interfering and instruction. The best talent will continue to have choices. Gig talent will no longer be only yours. So, many leaders will have to flex their leadership styles given the context of business and the mix of workforce demographics. Leadership will have a lot to unlearn and will need help.
- Talent Management must become a core leadership ask: The choppiness of the business context will demand greater comfort with ambiguity, more resilience, greater collaboration, and infinite creativity. A more proactive talent strategy is needed to keep your workforce fit-for-purpose through these times. Just the ritual of annual appraisals will prove inadequate. Leadership must discuss and intervene more actively to spot, differentiate and leverage their best talent more real-time. This will possibly be a very different ask of a leader and leaders themselves will get marked out accordingly. Hoarding of talent will be a complete no-no. Newer experiences, greater visibility, and better celebration will keep your best with you. Otherwise, the headhunters are always going to be on the prowl.
- Leadership needs help to succeed: While leadership must be held responsible for their workforce strategies, in addition to the HR function, my thesis is they need a lot of help. These are difficult times and many need to reinvent themselves to stay relevant. They need newer support as many themselves will go through their cycles of anxiety which may have implications on how they lead their workforce. My own personal experience has been the growing call out by all kinds of firms for strategic advisory and leadership coaching. But not every leader views this as a positive. Some still act as the mule or even the ostrich, to deny their circumstances and much on their yesteryears. This is unfortunate as many leaders in this denial or refusal for help emasculate their HR and workforce strategies further.
The years after COVID-19 will be demanding and challenging. But they will bring in their train an altogether new mix of opportunities. Many companies and leadership teams will indeed succeed in reforming and transforming themselves. As many will have their epitaphs written. The situation is the same for everyone; the crossroads are the same. Which turn we take will decide how well we succeed with our workforce strategy. And in that will lie our survival and possible success.
The April 2021 issue of our magazine is out. 2021: The Year of Continuous Reinvention. Read it for free.