When you think about the future of work, are you picturing robots and AI? Or are you thinking about people?
We often think of high-tech solutions as the future, but it’s more than that, said Melissa Swift, HR thought leader and U.S. transformation leader for Mercer. The future of work is about shifting the ways people do work in this time of disruption and creating better results for companies, better experiences for people and a positive impact on society.
Swift’s keynote, “A More Human Future of Work,” followed BOMA International President and COO Henry Chamberlain’s annual State of the Industry address on Tuesday. Introduced by Donovan Garner, senior director of occupier solutions for keynote sponsor Yardi, Swift’s presentation delivered actionable strategies to combat difficulty in finding and retaining talent.
“There are three things you can do to solve for a labor shortage,” Swift explained, offering three concrete strategies for each. “One, change how you do the work. Two, change the employee experience. And three, tap into different folks.”
1. Rethink the Work
There are three key ways that work is burdensome for people, Swift explained. Intensified work requires people to do too many units of work per unit of time—for example, overscheduling people with Zoom calls. Performative work isn’t work at all—it’s people trying to demonstrate that they’re working, in a short of work theater. “This got super weird during the pandemic with us working virtually,” Swift said. “I’ve got to show that I’m productive, so I’m scheduling all the meetings and replying to all the email. It doesn’t affect the business performance at all.” Misunderstood work is where your boss doesn’t understand the work you do, or you don’t understand the work of your team.
Complicating these scenarios is something Swift called the “Work Anxiety Monster,” the voice in your head that says people are lazy and slow and you must get them to work harder and faster. “We can shut down that voice so we don’t just keep adding work on top of people and expecting them to do it faster,” Swift said. “We re-envision work as a frontier of productivity instead of an endless linear push. That’s game-changing.”
Think about these three ways to rethink the way you do work:
- Look at and talk about work. “Is work boring or annoying?” Swift asked. “You might be like, ‘Well, it’s work. It’s supposed to be boring and annoying. It’s not, and if we’re going to be in a forever labor shortage, it’s in your best interest as an employer to make it as un-boring and un-annoying as possible. If it’s boring or annoying, it’s designed improperly.”
- Have the conversation. “As managers, we talk about what the work is: ‘Here’s how this initiative is going. Here’s the progress.’ But we don’t talk about how the work is going,” Swift said. “How could we be doing this better?”
- Develop metrics. “If you think work intensity might be an issue at your organization, have some metrics,” Swift recommended. “I worked with one organization where they developed some brute force metrics about whether people are working too many hours or taking too little vacation. Simple, descriptive statistics. They were able to do a wonderful job of predicting turnover because they figured out metrics for work intensity. Figure out how to measure.
2. Reimagine the Employee Experience
The employee experience encompasses everything from your employees’ experience working with technology to whether workers feel balance in their lives. Simple things like designating which communications technologies are used for which purposes can have an outsized impact, Swift noted.
She described a phenomenon called “greedy work,” in which work takes over the employees’ whole life. “If you get this one right, you can be a real talent magnet,” Swift said. After compensation, employees overwhelmingly say they value work-life balance.
Your organization should also think about whether it’s making decisions people-centrically, Swift said. “Are we thinking about people as human beings with whole lives? Are we enabling as many people as possible to do the work—which is, again, in a pinched labor market super helpful? Are we being realistic?”
To revamp the employee experience at your organization, Swift recommended strategies like:
- Map how your customer experience and employee experience interact. “What are those touchpoints and interactions?” Swift asked. “When you look at them together, you can do better for both groups.”
- Talk to your team about pace. “We have this myth of ‘Everybody’s got to work faster because the world moves so fast.’ It does, but it doesn’t,” Swift said. “There’s fast work, and there’s slow work. The best workplaces distinguish between the two, and the fast stuff gets done faster because we made the right room for the slow work, and we don’t have to redo it 20 times.”
- Distinguish between burnt-out employees and fed-up employees. These sound like the same thing, but they’re actually two different groups, Swift said. “Burnt out is, ‘I’m tired. It’s been too much.’ Fed up is, ‘There’s a long-term structural problem with my job and that is what is causing me to be mentally overloaded.’” As you prioritize how you deal with burnout and wellbeing, you should start with people who are fed up, Swift said.
3. Tap New Talent
Think about how you could change the equation of finding enough workers to do the work you need to get done. Are you really tapping into all the talent pools that are available to you? “There’s a long list here,” Swift said. “It could be anybody from veterans, immigrants, people from less advantaged backgrounds… It might be people who are physically disabled or people with mental health challenges. It might be neurodiverse folks… [or] people with a history of incarceration. It might be people without a college degree. It might be people who have been out of the labor market for a long time.”
Your organization can be the one that’s smart about hiring those people and tapping into this hidden workforce, Swift said. Start by reevaluating your job descriptions. Are you asking for things you don’t really need? If so, you may be causing people to self-select out of the process. Pare down your job descriptions and focus on the few qualifications that are actually important. If you don’t, the economic consequences are significant, Swift said. “The narrower your talent pool, the longer jobs take to fill,” she said. “You end up paying more for the people you do hire.”
Find the right talent for your organization with these strategies:
- Build your replicant, then destroy them. “Who do you as an organization hire over and over?” Swift asked. “Consciously look at it. Write it down. Do this at the team level too. It’s funny, because a lot of what we think of as bias, it’s not necessarily gender bias or racial bias, it’s weird things like ‘Do we seem to hire lacrosse players over and over?’ How are we going to change that?”
- Turn your reasons not to hire into reasons to hire. “This can be really powerful,” Swift said. “A lot of times we don’t like people with short stints at organizations. That’s a jumpy resume, and he’s been all over the place—or maybe this is a mentally agile person who wants different challenges and has tried different things. It can be a reason not to hire, or it can be a reason to hire. Consciously think through your cognitive biases.”
- What are you doing to gatekeep? “What are the qualifications you’ve put on a role that aren’t needed or aspects of the work that aren’t needed, like needlessly long hours that are limiting the talent pool of who can do the work?” Swift asked. “It seems like a very low-level comment, but this is where we’re seeing organizations make huge progress.”
When we focus on the human aspect of work, we enable better work. How can your organization enable better work?