By Ida Mozayani, Senior Director of Bain & Company Middle East’s Talent and Business Operations, Bain & Company Middle East and Andrew Schwedel, Partner and Head of Bain & Company’s proprietary Macro Trends and Futures programs
The relationship between workers and companies is changing radically, forcing leaders to rethink their approach to talent. In this new era, what will it take for individuals to reach their full potential at work? And how can organisations close their talent gaps and build a competitive advantage?
Rethinking talent strategy through the lens of the individual worker’s full potential will be transformative. It will place companies ahead of their competitors as a desirable place to work, allow them to better tap into the discretionary energy of their people, and enable them to unlock hidden talent pools that already exist within the organisation.
Through our research, we’ve seen three big ideas emerge for forward-looking business leaders as they embark on this journey.
From talent taker to talent maker
There is a “Great Reskilling” on the horizon. Organisations’ talent needs are more dynamic than ever, as a result of rapid technological change and the accelerated cut and thrust of this new era. To operate with speed at scale, many organisations are also discovering that new skill sets—like the ability to scale ideas successfully—are being added to their lexicon. For many established organisations, the default answer has been to look externally, hiring workers who already have the skills required, and letting go of those that don’t.
Leading companies of the future will reprioritise looking within at underutilised talent pools and reimagine their outdated models of learning and development. Organizations need to understand the specific skills and experiences of each worker and identify creative new ways to deploy these across the company.
Organisations can start by scaling up investments in learning. For organisations that take this seriously, learning will quickly become one of their single biggest investment items, making it a CEO-level issue.
Leaders can also think laterally about career journeys. Many organisations continue to invest in “future leaders” programs that propel junior managers up the corporate hierarchy. To make the most of their workforces, however, organisations will need to widen their talent funnels, by drawing on people who are neither suited to, nor necessarily interested in, general manager roles.
The professional management system continues to cast a long shadow over how organisations think about learning and development, prioritising generalist skill sets and vertical career ladders. Instead of trying to create all-rounders, organisations should cater to the diverse strengths and interests of their workforce. This requires unbundling traditional manager roles and getting creative with lateral moves.
Finally, organisations can change their mindset. Workers need to start viewing their current skill set as a depreciating asset. Those who thrive on change will view this as an exciting opportunity to sample a broad range of career paths. But others may be reluctant to drift too far from their current area of expertise. Organisations will want to encourage a middle ground that elevates the importance of adaptability without devolving into dilettantism.
A “growth mindset”—a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck—can help organisations find this sweet spot. A growth mindset, in contrast to a fixed mindset, sees ability as something that is developed, not predetermined. Those with a growth mindset embrace challenges and failures as opportunities to learn, actively seek out feedback, and find inspiration in the success of others.
Workers ≠ machines
Workers are not automatons. Compared with building widgets or transposing data, workers’ ability to excel at the uniquely human tasks that will increasingly dominate work is far more dependent on their underlying emotional state. With human skills come human frailties, which means organisations will need to take a more empathetic approach to managing workers in the decades ahead.
Workers today are bringing far more mental baggage to their jobs. Constant reskilling and a general increase in ambiguity will only compound these issues, stretching the personal capacity of many workers to the limit. But leaders can start to alleviate some of this stress with a few steps.
First, they can build personal capacity. Some may take the view that the overall well-being of workers isn’t a company’s responsibility, arguing that a job is only one part of people’s lives. We believe this is misguided. A failure to help workers will eventually lead to widespread burnout and the organisation’s inability to stay afloat amid rising turbulence.
Many organisations have been investing more in wellness activities over the last couple of decades, ranging from free gym memberships and yoga classes to counseling support. However, such initiatives can feel tokenistic and rarely make a major difference. Workers want leaders who display honest and judgment-free empathy around their professional and personal struggles.
Leaders can also redesign workflows for humans. The way we organise work today not only adds to the psychological strain on workers, but also limits their ability to perform at their best. The average office worker receives around 120 emails per day. As the cost of communication has effectively fallen to zero, office workers have become accustomed to shooting off messages with limited forethought. Many now use their inbox as a de facto system for organising tasks.
But this model is deeply unsuitable for the jobs of the future. Cal Newport draws a helpful distinction between “deep work,” where our brain is fully engaged in the task at hand, and “shallow work,” where we are operating on autopilot. Deep work is exhausting, but it allows us to tap into our uniquely human advantages in a world of increasing automation.
Finally, leaders can tailor jobs to support individual purpose. Over the past few years, there has been a surge in discussion around the need for organisations to define a clearer corporate purpose as societal expectations shift. Individuals who can see a purpose in their work that feels meaningful to them personally will be far better equipped to respond to the inevitable strains that come with a career today.
The challenge is that different individuals find purpose in different places. While a clear social mission is important for some, it’s less important for others. Organisations will need to look at every element of the employee value proposition and reflect on how they can use those elements to provide a greater sense of purpose for each worker.
A shared vision and values
The pursuit of a common vision is an essential bonding agent for organisations. Without it, trust and reciprocity atrophy, and the business begins to feel more like an impersonal marketplace. The best organisations also manage to sustain a distinctive character, underpinned by a set of unifying values, across the company even as they scale.
Achieving this will be even more difficult as remote and contingent work move into the mainstream, with the relationship between workers and companies feeling increasingly transactional. Creating opportunities for informal—and ideally, in-person—bonding will be critical for remote workers. Leaders will also need to work hard to ensure their contingent workers share the vision and values of the company, particularly when the relationship is one sustained over time.
To summarise, the next decade will be one of significant experimentation around work. There is still much to learn about which approaches will be effective. There’s also a large blank canvas for creative new approaches. But one thing is clear: Organisations that doggedly cling to old modes of thinking will struggle to stay relevant.
For workers, the coming decade will feel like one of ceaseless change and disruption. In this environment, it is more critical than ever for business leaders to try to understand the hopes and fears of their workers and invest to help them reach their full potential at work. Rehumanising the way we think about work will be the winning talent strategy of the future.