People's Newsroom

Governing Workforce

COVID-19 was a rude awakening that governing workforce strategies using retrospective metrics and measurements describing the workforce’s current state severely limits an organization’s ability to survive disruption, let alone thrive in it.

Asking and answering different questions—questions that push leaders to constantly challenge their approaches to work and the workforce—can help organizations meet constant change with the confidence that comes from thinking and looking ahead.

Shifting realities

The need for organizations to better understand their workforce is under urgent pressure from unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime health, economic, and social challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is raising critical health issues around employee well-being and safety, as well as remote work and alternate workforce arrangements. The pandemic’s economic fallout is forcing employers to make tough decisions about staffing levels, worker and team redeployment, and worker retention. And a dramatically intensified focus on social and racial injustice in the world—and its widening ripple effect—is drawing significant attention to companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts and results.

These challenges have exacerbated an employer-workforce information gap that our research identified more than a year ago. Only 11% of organizations were able to produce information on their workforce in real-time—a statistic that was staggering even before organizations were forced to make a series of immediate pandemic-driven decisions about their workforce.

We encourage organizations to ask different questions and measure and report the answers in real-time in order to shed light on important workforce issues, have discussions about them, and move to action. These forward-looking insights, not backward-looking, stale data, can help organizations understand how to achieve new outcomes by harnessing workforce potential and transforming work.

For instance, understanding workers’ immediate concerns and preferences can be an invaluable guide to when and how to bring them safely back to work during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Financial services provider Lincoln Financial took a multidimensional approach to gain these insights, using employee surveys and advanced analytics to collect information that could help it effectively design its return-to-work strategy. The surveys allowed leaders to identify a range of worker personas reflecting workers’ safety concerns, flexibility desires, and individual effectiveness in a remote environment. Insights into the roles most affected by virtual work highlighted the potential impacts to productivity, collaboration, and relationship-building. Using these workforce sentiment analyses, Lincoln Financial’s leaders were able to design future ways of working to boost productivity and engagement while maintaining an all-important focus on workforce safety and mental wellness.

COVID-19 has prompted many organizations to shift their approach to preparedness from planning for likely, incremental events to anticipating unlikely, high-impact events and considering multiple possible scenarios. Seventeen percent of executives said that their organizations would focus on unlikely, high-impact events moving forward, as opposed to 6% before the pandemic. And 47% said that their organizations planned to focus on multiple scenarios in the future, up from 23% before the pandemic.

To effectively deal with multiple possible futures and unlikely events, organizations need to be able to quickly pivot and set new directions—which depends, in large part, on the ability to access and act on real-time workforce insights. The new element here is the use of workforce strategies to plan for uncertainty. A more dynamic, action-oriented approach to understanding the workforce can help leaders make better, faster decisions based on up-to-the-minute information on what their workforce is capable of.

Enabling such a dynamic approach requires tying workforce data to both economic value and organizational values, using it to gain insights on how to grow and thrive in the marketplace as well as on how to align worker and organizational behavior with an organization’s principles. It means mining workforce data for insights that are useful not only to leaders and workers internally but also to the external community. It involves sharing workforce data and the insights it supports with leaders, workers, and the community in order to drive both direction and accountability. And it means having up-to-date insights always at your fingertips because, in a constantly changing environment, an organization must constantly be setting new directions as well.

To achieve a more dynamic workforce strategy, organizations across countries are exploring new approaches to gaining deeper workforce insights. While these approaches vary to accommodate different national laws, regulations, and norms, the common thread is a movement toward greater transparency and a stronger call to action.

One powerful example of using workforce insights to prompt movement toward new outcomes is the DE&I advances made by Edison International and its largest subsidiary, Southern California Edison (SCE). SCE not only publishes its DE&I data on its external website but has undertaken initiatives to understand and act on this data at a deeper level. Its efforts include a series of listening tours beginning with Black employees in partnership with Networkers, SCE’s business resource group (BRG) dedicated to advancing inclusion for Black employees, to better understand their experiences, and an in-depth gender-focused study on pay in partnership with SCE’s Women’s Roundtable BRG. In 2020, SCE demonstrated its commitment to DE&I by publicly sharing information on representation by race and gender across pay, access, and employee sentiment; the status of its suppliers; and its community investment. Finally, the organization has announced a series of actions to advance social and economic equity in SCE communities, with an initial increased commitment to the Black community. As SCE’s VP, People, Culture & Strategy explained, “We’ve done a lot of really good work not only just releasing the data transparently but acting on it. We have commitments, both internally and externally, that we’ve made public.”

Emerging priorities

Questions that leaders should be asking to gain real-time insights about workforce productivity, their well-being, and their priorities, as well as DE&I metrics. This year, we explore three themes—worker potential, talent ecosystems, and translating organizational values into action—that have emerged from the past year’s events to see how answering these questions can help organizations set new work and workforce directions for the future.

Capitalizing on worker potential

In 2020, organizations experienced an unprecedented need to redeploy skills and rethink work outputs as they struggled to deal with the pandemic and its economic fallout. COVID-19 was a forcing mechanism for workers and leaders to consider how to apply their workforce in new ways to address new needs. Employers called on workers to extend their remit to all necessary tasks, whether or not those tasks fell within their preexisting roles. In tandem, jobs and roles underwent a de facto expansion to reflect what workers were actually doing. And workers proved that they were capable of reaching far beyond their job descriptions when their potential to do so was tapped.

Along the way, organizations learned that their definitions of what work needs to be done, who needs to do it, and how to motivate people to achieve their greatest potential can be much more fluid than they had previously supposed. If leaders take this lesson to heart, we may be headed toward an environment where organizations reevaluate the nature of work and jobs, not just when forced to by a crisis, but on an ongoing basis to anticipate rapid environmental shifts. Organizations will need to be vigilant about capturing employees’ potential in a data-driven way so that they know what capabilities the organization can draw upon at a moment’s notice.

Questions to ask to capitalize on worker potential

  • Job evolution | How often are jobs changing, which ones, and to what degree?
  • Future workforce readiness | How ready is our workforce to perform the work of the future? What are our capability, experience, and skill gaps, and how are we going to close them?
  • Change ability and agility | Are workers and leaders able to quickly and effectively adapt to constant change?
  • Future leader readiness | What new trends, challenges, and scenarios are leaders being prepared for? How many of our leaders have the attributes required to succeed?

Tapping into the entire talent ecosystem

As many organizations were discovering they could expand responsibilities and roles, many also realized that a clearer view of—and greater access to—their entire talent ecosystem could make these efforts far more effective. The more precisely an organization knows where to find the capabilities to do what’s needed, and the better able it is to access those capabilities, the more effectively it can deploy and redeploy people to plug operational gaps. This need is especially evident at organizations that are drawing heavily on alternative workers, whether because they are growing quickly and need extra workers to support their growth, or because they needed to reduce on-balance-sheet headcount and are using alternative workers as a more flexible substitute.

This realization reminds us how important it is to be able to immediately access needed capabilities, wherever they may reside. Because of this, we expect organizations to implement common systems for tracking, measuring, and governing workers across both the traditional and the alternative workforce. Further, as the pandemic has driven organizations’ need to flex their workforce up or down, it’s become clear that the talent ecosystem should also extend to workers who have separated from the organization, such as alumni and retirees. Maintaining a data-driven pulse on these separated workers can help an organization track and engage them in case they’re needed once again.

In fact, getting the most value out of a talent ecosystem requires organizations to view the concept of retention differently. It’s less about tracking how many people leave as it is about understanding who is leaving and why. Unlike simple retention rate metrics, understanding who is leaving and why can shed light on whether these patterns are desirable or undesirable and inform strategies to make appropriate adjustments.

New approaches to retention should also focus on how to build and maintain relationships with different parts of the workforce ecosystem, whether traditional workers, alternative workers, part-time workers, or former workers. Being able to identify all talent segments across the ecosystem is important, as is understanding workers’ skills, motivations, and employment preferences in each segment. Data-based insights into questions such as these can enable organizations to more easily tailor their workforce to evolving needs.

Questions to ask to tap into the entire talent ecosystem

  • Workforce footprint | How many workers provide direct or indirect services to our organization?
  • Internal talent market health | How healthy is our internal talent market?
  • Talent ecosystem health | How much capability can we access across our broader ecosystem?
  • Retention drivers | Which of our workers are at risk of leaving, and why?

Translating values into action

2020 saw a series of events that focused renewed attention on organizational values, such as ethics, fairness, and inclusivity, around the world. Explosive race-driven incidents in the United States prompted organizations to examine their commitment to DE&I, while widespread layoffs and furloughs put a spotlight on the quality of the social contract between employers and workers. Customers asked organizational leaders, and organizational leaders asked themselves, their partners, and their suppliers, to deeply examine what they were doing to promote principled individual and organizational behavior—with the expectation that everyone needs to do more.

Especially evident during COVID-19 has been the way the pandemic has affected the employer-worker social contract, particularly as it relates to well-being. Many employers enhanced their focus on their workers’ well-being, and this was not limited to efforts to keep workers from being infected. For example, 69% of our surveyed executives said that their organizations put changes in place during COVID-19 that they thought empowered workers to better integrate their personal and professional lives.

To make outcomes such as this even stronger, it’s important to find actionable ways to use and share information to make measurable progress in new directions. This is where an organization’s sensing capabilities—covering its entire workforce ecosystem, conducted in multiple ways through multiple channels, and performed continually rather than periodically—become paramount. A complex and shifting environment makes it impossible to rely on point-in-time data or data that covers only part of the workforce. Instead, an organization needs a holistic view of its people’s sentiments, norms, and behaviors to understand its culture, pinpoint risks, and decide what must be done to achieve its aspirations. Equally important, organizations also need ways to sense sentiment in the external world so that they can understand and manage how they are perceived by others.

The insights gained from internal and external sensing data can help organizations better align individual and organizational actions with the organization’s values. The data can and should also be transparently communicated to external stakeholders to inspire confidence in the organization’s integrity and ethics.

As disruption becomes the new normal, organizations are being forced to constantly reassess and reimagine their work, workforce, and workplace strategies. This calls for leaders to fundamentally shift their workforce governance practices by collecting real-time, forward-looking data at the intersection of economic value and social values. But collecting data for its own sake is not the goal. Data-driven insights can enable organizations to constantly challenge the actions they are taking and help determine whether and how they can shift those actions at need. The challenge is to avoid getting caught up in the mechanics of collecting data when the focus should be on using it to inform meaningful action toward new outcomes.

Questions to ask to translate values into action

  • Workforce social contract | How does our organization treat its employees, contractors, and service providers of every type?
  • Meaningful diversity | Are workers from diverse communities in a position to wield influence in the organization?
  • Human capital brand | How is our culture, workforce, and leadership being portrayed externally?
  • Culture risk sensing | What signals are we seeing that point to outliers in worker behaviors and norms?

The priority moving forward is to ensure that organizations’ efforts around workforce strategies, data, and insights span the range of stakeholders and that the lens is wide enough to include both short- and long-term measures of progress against economic and societal goals. Doing so will improve organizations’ ability to meet evolving talent needs, build flexibility and resilience, and drive new and better workforce management and results in a world of perpetual disruption.

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