The ‘Great Workforce Reassessment’ and the Fierce Urgency of Now in 2021

Why Embracing Experimentation Now is the Secret to Future Success

Jeff Schwartz gloat live

By Jeff Schwartz, VP of Insights and Impact @ Gloat

September 8, 2021

Jeff Schwartz Webinar

The massive workforce changes unleashed by COVID are taking on a lasting shape and impact as we reckon with the great Future of Work experiment the pandemic created. Instead of wondering when we’ll return to normal, one of the central questions we should be asking is: How are workers, employees and business leaders thinking about what’s happened, and what would they like to see happen next?

The last few months of upheaval have been called “The Great Resignation,” with 4 million people voluntarily leaving their jobs in the United States in April, the highest number ever since we started recording these labor statistics; “The Resume Tsunami,” with individuals leaving their jobs to seek out new opportunities, and recent data showing 95 percent of employees considering leaving; and “The Great Retirement’,” with many deciding that now is the time to shift from their current career to their encore career.

But the phrase that I think best captures the sentiment of how the workforce is adapting and responding to this moment was coined by Heather Long of The Washington Post, who in May labeled this period of time “The Great Reassessment.”

The bottom line: This is a time of choice and consequence, for employees and for businesses.

What Do Employees Want? Opportunity and Agency

What does this reassessment really mean for employees and workers? Increasingly, it means they are asking themselves what they want to do, who they want to work for, and where and how they want to work. Do they want to work at home, in the office, or some hybrid combination that is better able to meet their personal or family needs?

We’ve seen a great reassessment as well on the need for purpose at work; McKinsey found that nearly two-thirds of U.S.-based employees said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life, and nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Employees are also increasingly seeking a more organic connection between corporate values and personal ones.

And of course, as we’ve been living through a health crisis, an economic crisis and a social crisis, we’ve seen a great reassessment in employee perspectives on diversity, equity and inclusion. They demand more from employers than reports and scorecards, and instead want to see programs and impact that demonstrate new pathways and tangible opportunities for underrepresented minorities, women and every category of worker.

What does all this mean for businesses? It means we’re at a crossroads. We know that employees are not only thinking more deeply and broadly about what they want, but also making those desires clear as they consider both internal opportunities and opportunities at other companies. This will place choice and agency at the very center of the employee experience in 2021, and beyond — and presents a timely opportunity and challenge for leaders.

Leaders and Managers: It's Time for a Change in Perspective and Action

In my conversations with senior executives around the world in the last year, too many frame the COVID-19 period, or “the great experiment,” not as an experiment at all — but rather as a temporary detour, a side road that, if they just keep the car steady, will eventually allow them to get back on the old the highway– perhaps going a bit faster.

But all the data we’re seeing on employee preferences, perceptions, behaviors, and most importantly actions, is telling a very different story. Employees are telling us that this great reassessment is in fact an unleashing of a long-held desire within the workforce for opportunity, flexibility and new ways of working — and meeting them where they are will require entirely new directions and approaches from leadership teams.

There are many critical insights we can glean from the last 18 months, but one of the most important is this: People and workforce strategies are shifting from static, linear administrative top-down models to much more dynamic, multi-directional and marketplace-driven dynamics as a way of creating opportunity and identifying and staffing projects and jobs in organizations. Consider what happened a year and a half ago. Organizations looked around as COVID-19 escalated and realized that half of their employees were suddenly overworked, while half of them didn’t have enough to do. And they had to very quickly, almost in real time, and redeploy people, not just to new jobs, but to new projects in order to respond to rapidly evolving business requirements.

The truth is, we simply did not have the administrative bandwidth and systems in place to do this fast enough, and we didn’t have the information and employee data to do it fast enough. For many organizations, what they knew about their employees was what they hired them to do and what they’d done in the past. We didn’t know enough about our employees’ potential, and what they could do, what they wanted to do, and how we could connect them with what we needed to get done.

What COVID Taught Us About a Path Forward

In 2020 and 2021 we all became futurists, as we experienced unprecedented changes and accelerations in how and where we work and what we do and why we do it. The collective experience of 2020 highlighted marketplace dynamics in the workforce, and how they were central to helping businesses and teams adapt to the changing landscape.

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In our work with Gloat partners, we saw global customers like Unilever and Schneider Electric shift nearly overnight from pilot programs to full enterprise scale talent marketplaces in the second quarter of 2020. They recognized that being able to use marketplace dynamics to gain clear visibility into their internal talent and connect employees to new jobs, projects and connections within the organization was a critical source of productivity, innovation, and perhaps most importantly, employee engagement.

Outside of formal talent marketplace platforms, we also saw companies of all shapes and sizes, around the world, explore and exercise marketplace dynamics. Look at the automotive industry, which jumped into the COVID response and had to pivot from only making cars to also making life-saving ventilators. These companies used marketplace dynamics to understand what their employees’ capabilities were, where those capabilities lived in the organization, and who had the passions and interest to get involved. And they accomplished this largely through informal networking, rather than HR systems.

We saw similar marketplace dynamics in industries like life sciences and pharmaceuticals, when those industries took up the challenge in March of 2020 to tackle the development of vaccines for the coronavirus. Unfortunately, they could not simply pick up the phone and call HR and ask them to send up a thousand mRNA and respiratory coronavirus researchers and technicians, because those people did not exist. Instead, they had to find people from all sorts of different departments — from oncology, from diabetes, from cardiology. They had to identify employees and professionals who had both the interests, the ambition, and the drive for this challenging work, but also the fundamental scientific and industry expertise. It wasn’t about finding people who could exactly match the job or project, but about understanding the potential and interest, and creating an internal marketplace to bring the work to life.

Redesigning the Way We Work

The great reassessment is simply the latest signpost telegraphing that it is time, perhaps long overdue, to shift our approach to integrating business and workforce strategies beyond annual plans to workplace hubs based on real-time marketplaces that integrate internal dynamics (what opportunities employees looking for and what capabilities business managers need to access to drive performance).

Michael Nielson commented, almost a decade ago, that “A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” So true and so needed today. As we prepare to enter into a new phase of the post-COVID world and workforce, the instinct of some business leaders to try and walk back this period of disruption and get back to “normal” is a risky one. There is an opportunity here to fundamentally reconfigure the workplace so that it can act in ways that are responsive and proactive to emerging opportunities, to not retreat into organizational boundaries, but rather to work beyond those internal and external boundaries to great teams and new ways of working that are solving the emerging problems.

As business and HR leaders are looking at what they need to get done in 2021 and 2022 to be prepared for the great reassessment of the workforce and the competitive dynamics ahead, now is the time to embrace vigorous action and experimentation. The shift from administrative systems of record, to marketplace-driven, AI-driven platforms, will enable new models of talent management and ensure that every employee has both the visibility and agency to access projects, gigs, learning, experiences, networking, and mentors more easily and readily inside the organization than they do outside of it. And this is a workforce priority that deserves to be at the top of the investment agenda at the end of this unprecedented year.

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