Three key trends in the world of work (and how to deal with them)

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At a time when the pressure is on to do more with less and to keep staff motivated through potentially destabilising change, new and innovative ways of working often become necessary.

In the world of HR, we often talk about innovating in terms of products and services, production processes, new strategies, new forms of partnerships and alliances, but rarely about innovating around work.
 
Recently, however, we at the IES have been looking at innovations that involve changes to business or work practices on a Europe-wide basis.
 
Although it is still unusual for most organisations to try and work in different ways, such an approach can nevertheless help to boost performance in order to cope with difficult trading conditions, develop an internal drive for continuous improvement and reduce costs as a result of increased efficiency.
 
We have so far spotted three key trends in this area. They comprise work environments that affect change to try and:
  1. Foster product innovation
  2. Cope with ageing workforces
  3. Create a better customer experience.
 
1. Changing work environments to foster product innovation
 
A lot of organisations are keen to become more innovative, but it can be difficult to understand how to encourage such an approach. Some have explored in detail how work structures and the broader work environment can make a difference through encouraging greater flexibility in terms of how, when and where work is done.
 
For example:
 
A food manufacturer in Spain created a new open-plan office, which included three different kinds of areas:
 
  1. Neighbourhoods for each department, which acted as a home space
  2. Added-value spaces for confidential activity, silence or creative work
  3. Flexible spaces for informal meetings.
 
These changes to the working environment were complemented by moves to encourage more flexible working, which included providing staff with laptops, smartphones and home broadband connections.
 
In order to help employees reconcile their work and personal commitments more effectively, the company also provided them with additional benefits such as a weekly laundry and concierge service that provided support for personal activities such as booking holidays or taking the car in for a service.  
 
A domestic goods manufacturer in Italy likewise engaged artists to run workshops in a bid to increase its employees’ appreciation of design.
 
2. Coping with ageing workforces
 
An ageing workforce can cause concern over potential falls in productivity and rising absence levels, difficulties in enabling knowledge transfer and loss of expertise. But some organisations have shown themselves able to adapt to the situation both positively and proactively:
 
A supermarket chain in Slovenia implemented a wide-ranging health and well-being initiative in response to increased absence levels caused by an ageing workforce. It included designing working environments and activities more effectively in order to promote healthy eating, more exercise and the like.
 
A manufacturer in Poland understood that in order to achieve its strategic aims, it needed to adapt to demographic changes in its workforce - the average age was predicted to increase by nearly nine years over the coming decade.
 
As a result, it implemented a series of initiatives - it purchased new ergonomic equipment; increased flexible working options; rotated employees to cater to changes in capacity; ensured that a knowledge relay took place between senior and more junior employees; introduced a culture of ‘active ageing’ and promoted concepts such as a healthy lifestyle, medical check-ups and a rehabilitation centre.
 
3. Create a better customer experience
 
A care home in Finland introduced ‘ward hostesses’ whose role was to improve the social environment of wards and encourage residents to participate in a range of social activities.
 
A Dutch financial services firm ‘unplugged’ its employees by devolving responsibility and introducing flexible working to enable them to work more autonomously. Extensive training helped them to exercise more freedom over deciding where, when, how and with whom they did their job.
 
Perhaps unsurprisingly, what we found is that job satisfaction among those workers experiencing such change generally increased as the organisational culture became more open and trust and co-operation started to grow within and between teams. 
 
Turnover and absence levels also tended to drop, with one organisation seeing sickness absence fall from 3.2% to 2.5% per annum. Employers likewise reported having better quality candidates for promotion, which helped to reduce costly external recruitment activity.
 
But there were also benefits for customers. The Finnish care home, for example, found that residents were calmer and needed fewer nursing interventions. Wider benefits included higher productivity, greater market share and increased profitability levels.
 
What is also clear, however, is that work innovation is highly dependent on how people and corporate cultures are managed and, unlike most other forms of innovation, this scenario places it firmly within the remit of the HR director.
 
All of the examples cited above benefitted from the input of HR expertise in helping to introduce:
 
  • Cultural change
  • Undertake effective communication
  • Implement flexible working practices
  • Support line managers and staff in terms of training and development
  • Create feedback loops to ensure ongoing learning
  • Work with colleagues in IT and other departments to ensure that change programmes were adequately supported and embedded in the organisation.
 
Tops tips for HR directors
 
  • Think about possible new ways of working that will help to move the organisation in the direction that it needs to go
  • Engage the workforce in designing and implementing new initiatives
  • Ensure that you get employees on board through effective communication; giving them opportunities to ask questions; working with employee representatives and supporting line managers who may lack confidence or feel threatened
  • Come up with learning and development options to help staff adapt to the changing working environment and maximise their engagement
  • Create feedback loops so that everyone can see what is working and what isn’t and engage colleagues in debate about it.
Lessons learned
 
Here is some further best practice advice from employers that have already gone down this route and had to face often unanticipated problems:
 
  • Flexible working can be a real boon for those who need to balance other commitments, but it can also make it much harder for newcomers to establish themselves. Teams that are fluid in terms of where and when they work are much harder to join and a lot of effort has to be made in terms of induction and integration activities
  • Flexible working can blur the boundaries between work and home, creating more job strain if not managed appropriately
  • Changes in job design may create winners and losers - managers may lose status, support staff may become less vital, some of the best bits of jobs may be hived off elsewhere. As a result, HRDs need to work closely with managers in order to understand who will lose out, what if anything can be done about it and whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

Penny Tamkin is associate director of HR at research and consultancy organisation, the Institute for Employment Studies. This article was adapted from a longer piece in the IES' HR Year Ahead 2013 collection of essays.

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