Expert Interview with Dr. James Ware on the Evolving Workforce

By Cheryl Morgan

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Over the past several decades, the nature of work has changed, but not the way many companies manage the workforce, says James P. Ware, PhD, Executive Director of The Future of Work ... unlimited. The result is a workforce that is both dissatisfied and stressed out, something Dr. Ware hopes to fix.

He's figured out a few key components to a solution: listen to your staff; respect their ideas and their individual needs; treat them as responsible adults; and reward them not just with money but with praise, recognition, and a sense of being part of something special.

"It's really that simple - and that profound," Dr. Ware adds.

And there are several companies that are evolving in interesting ways, he says. Zappos is doing away with full-time managers. Motley Fool has a marvellous employee-centered culture. Even a traditional organization like Wells Fargo is finding creative ways to engage the workforce and offer them communication channels for sharing ideas and insights using social media.

Dr. Ware recently checked in with us to discuss why work has changed, what organisations need to do to accommodate the new workforce, and what the dangers are of maintaining the status quo. Read on:

What is The Future of Work ... unlimited?

We are a research and advisory firm that guides clients as they invent their own futures by exploring and interpreting the changing nature of work, the workforce and the workplace. We facilitate conversations and collaborative learning, guide the development of scenarios of alternative futures, and transform ideas and insights into bottom-line results.

Why was it important to you to help individuals and organisations manage the changing workplace?

I have seen far too many instances of organizations mismanaging people, missing opportunities and losing talent because their leaders do not understand the misalignment between today's work and workforce, on the one hand, and their leadership practices, on the other.

The nature of work itself has changed over the past several decades. Yet most organizations are still managing as if their employees just came from the farm to the city and need to be told what to do as they take their place on the assembly line. We're using 19th-century industrial-age management practices in a 21st-century age of networked knowledge.

As a result, millions of people are unhappy at work, organizations are operating well below their potential, leaders are frustrated and almost everyone feels stressed out. In spite of the moderate uptick in the economy, no one I know believes things are working they way they should be.

In one sense, the problem is simple: the world has changed in several fundamental ways, but the way most organizations operate has not. There is a terrible misalignment between the work and the workforce, on the one hand, and our leadership principles and practices, on the other.

I am passionate about creating respectful work environments that attract exceptional talent, leverage unique skills, enhance productivity and turn meaningful work into value for both customers and employees.

How has the workforce changed in the past 10 years? What do you think it will look like in the next 10?

Over the past decade, the workforce has both aged and gotten younger. That is, boomers are staying in the workforce longer, while millennials are filling more and more positions. Gen Xers and Gen Yers are caught in the middle. There are fewer of them so they may have more individual job opportunities; but they will be squeezed in both directions as the boomers get in the way of promotion opportunities and the millennials push into middle management. And the workforce has become far more global and more distributed.

More importantly, the bulk of economic value is being created, not by mass production, but by mass collaboration. We now live in an age of networked knowledge in which people can communicate with each other globally in an instant at almost no cost. Social media is creating millions of distributed communities in which people share ideas, experiences and opinions around the globe.

And a much higher percentage of the workforce today is working on projects as contractors rather than as full-time wage earners. And many of them are doing that by choice. A career no longer means climbing a vertical ladder; today, it means having a series of meaningful experiences.

Looking ahead 10 years, I believe these trends will continue; well-educated, skilled workers will be in even shorter supply, while the less-educated will have even more difficulty finding employment than they do today. We are at great risk of a major gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots."

That gap may make today's 1 percent/99 percent conflicts look tame by comparison.

What do you think are the biggest challenges organisations have in navigating the changing workforce?

Organizational leaders must learn to create compelling, engaging work experiences or they will be at risk of not being able to attract and retain the talent their organizations require. Low levels of employee engagement today reflect the misfit between the still-dominant command-and-control mentality of many managers and the values of their employees. Attracting and retaining quality talent is the biggest challenge of all.

Organizations must learn that a meaningful purpose is more compelling than a paycheck; they must create opportunities for high-energy employees to make a difference in the world. And they must do that in a way that shares power, leverages innate knowledge and also shares the wealth that knowledge produces in a far more equitable fashion than what is common today.

In what areas do you think organisations should focus on in order to manage the new workforce successfully?

Create organizational "hot spots" of high-performing teams that have meaningful missions and are given the latitude and resources to get things done.

Teach leaders how to lead, rather than manage. Teach them how to listen to their staff, encourage synergy and collaboration, and share the rewards of good work. Teach managers to stop micro-managing and assess staff on the basis of the outcomes they produce; not where, when or how they do it.

In short, learn to treat employees as the adults they really are; offer them freedom and flexibility, with full accountability for their performance.

How do you think recruiting should evolve in light of how the workforce is changing?

First, focus on creating meaningful work. Second, develop cultures of respect and opportunity. Third, communicate that to potential employees. Offer flexible work arrangements and include all current team members in the interviewing and selection process.

In what parts of recruiting do you think organizations have the most difficulty adapting?

Persuading team leaders to share power, control and decision-making. And figuring out how to communicate what makes your organization truly unique. Finding and attracting the right talent that also has the right mindset for your organization is what will make the difference.

What do you think organizations should be doing to foster a more dynamic and innovative workforce?

Listen to the staff; pay attention to what they want and think. Engage in meaningful two-way conversations. And be willing to bring people in on a part-time or contract basis to create a mutually beneficial experience, which is good for them and good for the organization for the time they are there.

Also, be willing to employ (or contract with) non-traditional kinds of people. Build a diverse workforce to harvest the creativity that comes from diversity. I know of one organization that has included a musician and theatrical performer on a software development team.

Connect with Dr. Ware on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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