Intelligent automation has arrived displacing human workers, AI and machine learning are now performing activities once thought only achievable by humans, and demographic changes are shaping human workers from generational and geographic perspectives. Because of this, organizations are struggling to understand and define what the workforce of the future will look like, while employees are worried these changes will leave them behind. There are, however, steps leaders can take to address the challenges of the future of work that will benefit both employers and employees alike.

Employees matter more than ever: create a more engaged employee experience

No matter the technological advancements we make, we will never entirely replace people as the main source of talent. This basic reality means as we accelerate automation in the workforce; the people linked within that workforce chain are going to become even more critical to their organization’s success.

It’s certainly true that intelligent automation in the form of robotics will begin to displace workers and roles as we know them today, but human skills that machines and robots won’t possess in the foreseeable future will be increasingly emphasized in the way humans work and job rolls requiring human skills will grow rapidly. Today, while large segments of the workforce are employed to help fulfill processes and transactions, tomorrow’s world will require a different type of human worker.

Forward-thinking leaders should be looking at increased opportunities to create an engaged workforce and foster an environment that can flourish as automation becomes more apparent. Organizations should also be constantly challenging themselves to determine what’s working – and what’s not. It’s not good enough to fit into whatever is classified as “best practice” at the time. Rather, organizations should create and enhance their own workforce experiences and ensure those practices are relevant to their own specific needs.

Be flexible

The very nature of work is changing. Even over the past ten years, we’ve seen the rise of remote work and the gig economy, two factors that have fundamentally changed the way people relate and identify with their employer. This is only going to become more relevant as time goes on. Especially as intelligent automation begins to displace human workers in traditional roles, these human workers will begin to seek out alternative relationships with employers. Similarly, employers will have already begun to adapt by seeking out skills that are only needed for short periods of time, or highly specialized skills that don’t fit into a general hiring budget.

According to the 2018 MBO Partners State of Independence in America, over 42 million Americans currently consider themselves “independent professionals” a number that is expected to grow to over 50% of the entire US workforce in the next five years. The new normal is now a varied career path, one that may employee a mixture of full time work, gig, part-time, remote or self-employment. Organizations need to have a plan on how to engage with a workforce that has a wealth of choice, and what strategies work best in terms of engaging that workforce.

HR will need to take the lead not only in workforce planning and formulating what the entire workforce will look like in addition to the traditional employee, but also by creating governance around how project teams function in more diverse worker environments. HR’s ability to plan for how rewards including benefits and retirements factor into all types of worker contracts and harmonize parity will also be a significant departure for many organizations which treat contingency and gig work and exceptions instead of a common practice.

Maximize talent through analytics

Analytics has traditionally been the domain of the highly technical IT worker with business practitioners and HR left to trust in the work of a few people. Like all technologies, democratization and ubiquitous presence is rapidly infiltrating the world of analytics. Especially given generational changes with digital mindsets, younger employees now demand direct access to insights and expect sophisticated visualizations without a waiting period or a middle-person. In the future of work, waiting for insights just won’t work.

Analytics is a hidden gold mine when it comes to creating a critical business advantage. Having the ability to understand internal people movement, predict retention and attrition and eliminate potential biases in hiring can put an organization light years ahead of the competition. In order to remain competitive, organizations need to sharpen their focus and apply dollars where they’ll have the most impact. This requires businesses to be far more sophisticated in their understanding of their workforce and adopt a more analytical approach. This should penetrate all areas of people management, from initial hiring all the way through to reducing attrition.

Turnover is just one example of the power of analytics. For many organizations, voluntary turnover costs millions of dollars. Taking all factors into account, according to Bersin by Deloitte, the total cost of voluntary turnover is nearly $110,000 per employee for an average organization.

Take a seat at the table

Historically, HR has been pigeon holled into a role that manages headcount and creates process and transactions. While that may have been sufficient for companies in the past, HR needs to play a far more important role now, and in the future. This means the team needs a voice at the executive table, to align HR with the broader business objectives.

HR hasn’t been able to fully claim that “seat at the table” because HR initiatives still aren’t truly business oriented. If we think about HR Transformations (which are really about redesigning how the HR department is organized, redesign HR processes, and deploy HR software), we can quickly see why HR’s core initiatives of the last decade haven’t landed with the C-Suite. Using HR programs and people analytics to diagnose problems, triage priorities, and create meaningful interventions where the business needs are, is how HR will gain traction and a solid seat at the table. Automating HR transactions into a manager self service environment just isn’t what the business cares to think about.

The benefits for this work both ways. Having more transparency into the practices and developments happening in HR can help an organization understand their most critical asset (people) better and therefore make decisions that improve the lives of their employees. Likewise, by having a better understanding of the key business directives, HR can think about how to implement new strategic visions that help support those overall goals and create a workforce that empowers the organization towards those objectives.

Own your narrative

Organizations may not be able to see around every corner, or predict every new change in the future of work. But one aspect that is entirely in the control of business leaders is the ability to be completely transparent about how their organization intends to handle these changes, and provide employees with a clear vision for the future.

In an era of subjective truths and “fake news”, employees, and just as importantly customers, are increasingly looking at organizations as a source of honesty and truth. Therefore, it’s important for organizations to communicate a clear, compelling and honest narrative about how the business and its leadership are planning and delivering on the future of work.