Lynda Gratton on HR’s role in the future of work

How future of work expert Lynda Gratton sees design thinking facilitating the new paradigm of work

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By Austen Gregerson, Future of Work Specialist at Gloat

Lynda Gratton has spent more than 30 years researching, educating, and writing about how people and organizations interact. From working as a professor at the London School of Business to being a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, her work on how to better the employee-employer relationship demonstrates that traditional work structures are becoming obsolete.

In her talk with Gloat’s Jeff Schwartz during Gloat’s Book Club, Gratton touched on the topic that’s front of mind for nearly every HR leader: What will work look like going forward?

“I had realized the way we worked wasn’t working for a lot of people,” Gratton said. “Since what’s happened in the pandemic has had a profound effect on us, we’ve had a chance to really think about why we work as we do.”

The conclusion many are coming to is that work has not kept pace with the transformation of life. Technological advancements made instantaneous connections across the globe possible and transformed the way we think about, organize, and ultimately live our lives. Despite these changes, they have yet to be reflected in the work structures of many businesses.

Gratton’s solution is to have stakeholders stop focusing on preservation and embrace the new paradigm. Her latest book, Redesigning Work, lays out the four steps leaders need to embrace change and create an organization built for adaptability.

The four steps of design thinking for HR transformation

The fundamental step in rethinking how organizations compose themselves is to adopt “design thinking” in rethinking work structures. Long known for being a source of innovation, design thinking refers to the problem-solving process first popularized by designers decades ago and adopted more largely in the early years of the 21st century. “Wicked problems,” as called by leading design theorist Horst Rittel in 1973, often have no easy solutions and little clarity in terms of parameters of success.

The “wicked problems” facing many businesses today may not have been on Rittel’s radar when he first introduced the phrase, but Lynda Gratton sees the strategy to tackle them being more relevant than ever. Instead of relying on past structures, taking a bold and imaginative approach to your company’s personnel strategy can create an environment that better engages employees.

Design thinking’s four main steps—understand, reimagine, model and test, and act—are built to break down the daunting task of shifting an organization’s culture into manageable, effective processes:

#1. Understand

What challenges does your company face? What kind of talent will it take to stay ahead of industry trends? By breaking down roles into tasks, businesses can better understand what skills exist within their organization and how they can be better aligned to meet the company’s needs.

A talent marketplace often acts as this first step. By implementing a better system to understand the talents within your workforce, organizations can see where emerging skill gaps exist.

#2. Reimagine

This step is often where leaders get wary, not wanting to upset the status quo, but it’s critical to make meaningful change. To reimagine their work structure is to start from a completely blank slate—not preserving the past for the sake of legacy.

But also, understand that what works for your organization might not follow other companies. Saying that a consumer goods company might require different organizing principles than an investment firm is not to say that either is incorrect—it’s to say that different businesses have different requirements. Employees can then match themselves with the companies that reflect their values.

“Within HR, we need to be explicit about what ‘the deal’ is,” Gratton said. “We can’t pretend that it’s something else. If it’s a deal where you have to be in the office five days a week working very long hours, then that’s the deal.”

Gratton goes on to explain: “The more we can be explicit about what the deal is and the more that we can provide variety between companies, the better an employee can choose a company that fits their deal. I think that’s going to be a very exciting part of what it is to be an HR person, to get that ‘signature’ right that separates you from other companies.”

As new trends and technologies emerge, companies must see these evolutions as chances to reimagine how their businesses are structured to create new, efficient methods that better reflect reality. And the key is: everything is on the table.

#3. Model and test

Once your organization’s leadership has thought of ways to improve its structure, it’s time to put them to work. Conduct trial runs within your organization to see how employees respond to them and adjust as needed, just like in a standard scientific model.

So while the benefits of in-office work might sound appealing, are you confident that your inclination is based on fact and not nostalgia? To be sure, put your reimagined methods to work by testing them and grading their effectiveness objectively.

“Let’s not romanticize what the office was,” Gratton said. “You can create value without meeting face-to-face. A lot of the big companies used VR to bring people into the organization. But we honestly don’t know how humans feel in a virtual reality space. There’s masses to learn, and I’ll certainly keep my journal open. But the pandemic has accelerated (this adoption) by a couple of years.”

#4. Act and create

After accurate, actionable, data-led feedback has been obtained through testing these models, begin implementing the winning concepts and adjusting those that missed the mark.

Three key groups need to be considered when starting to implement these structures: leaders, managers, and employees.

Leaders need to remain committed to these ideals, presenting them in clear, actionable ways for managers to implement for their employees. By strengthening the commitment to these ideals at the top of an organization, the rest of the company will better understand their importance—and value.

Redesigning work requires organizational commitment

To drive lasting transformations, HR leaders must hold themselves and the company accountable to creating change. By starting with an unbiased methodology to learn what your company’s strengths and needs are and following the information wherever it leads, organizations can make informed choices on their work structure.

  • Be diligent in your assessments.
  • Be creative in your ideas.
  • Be critical in your evaluations.
  • Be consistent in your actions.

“An HR strategy has to be incredibly responsive to what’s happening (in the world),” Gratton said. “If you want to be a great HR person, you need to know what’s happening and you need to imagine how that’s going to develop.”

Watch the full conversation and read more of Lynda Gratton’s insights.

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