Brave New Work – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We’re living in the age of digital transformation, in times of leapfrogs in technology and exponential growth of data available, impacting business models across all industries. With the demands of our customers’ markets shifting as a result, the requirements our customers place on HR-services and -solutions are changing faster than ever before. In today’s world, change is constant, and it’s happening all around us at unbelievable speed.

In this environment, where staying in control of increasing complexity and ever shorter product life cycles is getting harder by the day, innovation skills and self-organization are emerging as the key success factors. Enterprises need organizational set-ups that are agile, customer-focused, and solution-centric; and they need employees and managers with the ability to interact in a self-organized and flexible manner.

Consequently, the “consumer experience” has become our central theme: It is our duty to put our consumers – our employees, managers, future talent, and alumni – front and center of everything we do. That means putting ourselves in their shoes and recognizing the expectations they have for delightful experiences at the “moments that matter” in a fully digital workplace. It means leveraging artificial intelligence-based chatbots and machine learning-based recommendations to provide suggestions, insights, and nudges that guide decisions and actions. Ultimately, we are looking to provide a similar kind of personalized experiences that people encounter when they shop online. To do this, we need to understand both the “what” (organizational data) and the “why” (experience data).

We also need to keep on investing – to support our employees, prepare the entire organization to keep pace with change, and give it direction by acquiring and enhancing skills and competencies. We need to be disruptive and innovative thinkers. We need to achieve a higher level of flexibility in our offerings, working conditions, and the work environment. And we need to say goodbye to a one-size-fits-all approach – while at the same time maintaining our operational excellence and reducing transactional costs.

Sounds like we need a lot these days. So, let’s just slow down for a minute.

There’s no doubt that now is the most exciting time to be an HR professional. It feels as if the sky is the only limit (oh, and the budget, of course). Thanks to the changing work environment, plentiful supplies of data, new technologies, and a whole lot more besides, we now have the best opportunities ever to define and position ourselves in a new way. HR professionals are becoming entrepreneurs, salespeople, challengers, tribe leaders; we are more empowered than ever before. It’s all part of a shift that is positioning HR as one of a company’s most strategic growth drivers.

We are also gaining unprecedented visibility at C-level – especially now that business leaders have identified employees as critical stakeholders in business success – amazing, isn’t it? Welcome to the 21st century! And we all know the simple reason: the results speak for themselves. Focusing on employee engagement leads to higher productivity and much lower turnover. In the language of SAP: The best-run companies continually invest in their workforce and put people at the center of their business plans. And that is true. It’s about change and transformation.

What is also true is that hype is the “ugly brother” of change and transformation – and always joins the party. And there’s plenty of hype these days. For me, it has two dimensions. One is the big “new”, which is used as a label for everything and nothing; the other is the increasing trend to self-expression and “rock star behavior” that I observe in the HR community.

Distracted by all the talk of #disruptive, #agile, and #virtual, we sometimes forget that we have no real clue about how exactly the core of work will change. I am always surprised by all the people telling us what work will look like in ten or twenty years. We only need to look at the unprecedented speed of change to know that it will be different and that we need to become agile and resilient. We hear a lot about “new” leadership, “new” recruiting, “new” onboarding, “new” pay, “new” whatever”, and about what we need to do differently if we want to stay successful. Is it really all so new? Leadership is a good example. To summarize the 20 or so articles I’ve read over the last few weeks about “new” leadership, a “leader” in the new world of work will be a “Swiss Army Knife”, someone who combines the increasingly vital range of technological, social, and emotional skills. The “new leader” must show empathy, lead by example through shared visions and ideas, act honestly and authentically, challenge the status quo, delegate, understand colleagues and employees, accept mistakes, provide scope for self-enablement, function as a coach, trust his or her colleagues and employees, and listen actively…. If I am not completely mistaken, these criteria described a good leader in the past as well. What is new is that, today, bad leadership becomes visible faster and has much greater impact on financial success – because bad leaders are unable to initiate and drive the transformations that are required to manage the challenges companies face in today’s environment.

More and more professionals at all levels are leveraging social media to find new business opportunities by building a professional brand, sharing content, and identifying business decision-makers. Their ambition is to increase social outreach, gain an online reputation, and position themselves in their industry or profession as experts in their field, as thought-leaders, or influencers. They are adopting B2B social media marketing methodologies like storytelling and social video to ensure that people see what they want them to see when they google them. We see this approach being adopted through communications into a company’s networks, but this happens too much and too often, so it looks more like spamming than thought leadership. We, as HR professionals, should take care to show our professionalism by providing best-class services and not relying on our social media engagements. The “cult of personality” that arises from having a constant presence in social media like LinkedIn or having one individual’s face or name – rather than the HR team’s – on every single internal communication is counterproductive. We should not over-celebrate the people who excel at self-marketing, because we may then overlook those who are doing the real smart work.

Just as an example: New business models are only successful if the underlying processes are fundamentally redesigned, simplified, and standardized. For those who stick to outdated, complex, and non-standardized business processes, even the most intelligent software won’t provide the desired business value. In other words, the hard work in the salt mine still needs to be done well (think about all the core services in the back office and the efforts of redesigning and simplifying processes) even if it won’t deliver a great picture for the next blog. Let’s have fewer rock stars – and more professionals who know their stuff and more people supporting each other. Let’s forget the “super-chicken model”, which only places value on individual employees perceived as outstanding. Because it’s social cohesion – a chat over coffee, one team member asking another for help, the daily collaboration – that leads to great results over time.

To sum up: Let’s take all the opportunities the digital world offers our profession and create the best possible experience for our consumers every day. Let’s build our profession based on professionalism – without getting too proud about becoming a strategic growth driver. And let’s try to avoid becoming self-obsessed (even if we do have a lot of clicks and followers – because so do a whole lot of fakes and fraudsters too!).