Coping with change

Human resources is trying to keep up in disruptive environment, says roundtable

The rapid pace of change  and the democratization of work were among the topics discussed by senior HR leaders at a recent roundtable hosted by the Strategic Capability Network in Toronto.

For Cheryl Fullerton, the headline for 2016 was “disruption.”

“I heard open acknowledgement from virtually all industries that they would be doing things dramatically differently in five to 10 years. The usual reasons were cited: technology, globalization, demographics. But there was a new level of acceptance of how disruptive change would likely be, and that it could and would revolutionize everyone… education, health care, government services, manufacturing, retail, entertainment, etcetera,” said the executive vice-president of people and communications at Corus in Toronto.

Change management

Overall, 2016 was surprising because of the pace of change, said Suanne Nielsen, chief talent officer and corporate secretary at Foresters in Toronto.

“In my entire career, I thought I’d seen it all and it even increased more so. And I don’t see it changing at all going forward. We’ve got to increase our game as HR professionals to maintain the pace of what we’re doing in the organization, while still introducing some of these new concepts.”

But how many employees are comfortable when it comes to disruptive change, and can build the agility and resilience needed to cope, asked Ian Hendry, president of the Strategic Capability Network and vice-president of HR and administration at Interac in Toronto.

With a core business that’s constantly under threat, the issue of change is a familiar topic, said Heather Briant, senior vice-president of human resources at Cineplex Entertainment in Toronto.

“There is quite a bit of discussion about it, and the realization that change is inevitable — and it’s a fairly healthy discussion. We’re quite a traditional business, but I think that there’s more we could do around the changing nature of work and how automation and technology are going to change our existing roles. Right now, it’s happening organically and at enough of a measured pace that it’s manageable, but we don’t know when that will be.”

RSA does a monthly pulse survey to gauge people’s response to change, said Mark Edgar,
Toronto-based senior vice-president of HR at RSA Canada.

“And it doesn’t make pretty reading sometimes because you’ve got people saying, ‘We’re not 100 per cent buying into this change.’ Generally, with this level of change, organizations have 40 per cent of people who are really up for it and keen and want to drive it forward; you’ve got 20 per cent in the middle who aren’t quite sure yet, who are waiting; and 40 per cent who are paddling backwards. It’s a classic bell curve in a way, so it’s just about evening itself out. But to have 60 per cent of your population who aren’t actively engaged, that’s a lot.”

For 2017, the number one challenge is building a talent pipeline of people who can flex and adapt to rapidly evolving changes, said Fullerton.

“We need to support people in building skill and experience sets that emphasize flexibility in application… critical thinking and problem-solving. This means re-imaging career paths, development programs, recruitment strategies and more.”

It’s not about what you know, as information can be easily found, but finding insights, opportunities and solutions, she said.

“I see it as people carrying around a backpack of tools and being prepared for anything — like (TV character) MacGyver.”

While employers do need to have employees onside with the changes, it starts at the top, said Norm Sabapathy, executive vice-president of people at Cadillac Fairview in Toronto. And many people at the executive and board levels are not ready themselves.

“There’s a surprising amount of resistance when it comes time to really deal with disruptive change. If you’re going to say, ‘Oh yes, we’re going to be more change-ready, we’re going to prepare people and shift mindsets,’ (that’s one thing), but to really get people ready to make a pivot in your business and deal with something truly disruptive, I’m not sure organizations can count on the board and the executive level as being truly ready, so more proactive preparation should be done.”

The focus on innovation has increased, and Foresters is working on that, said Nielsen, but the real impact is on the people in the middle, where strategy meets execution, at the level below executives but above managers.

“They’re the ones who I find are the most stressed out, in all of our surveys, that’s the group that are most disengaged, that’s the group that are suffering.”

Having focused on alignment with the executive team, RSA’s next focus will be on the next level down and getting those people engaged, said Edgar. “If you want everybody to feel this level of excitement, rather than feeling very anxious about what’s going on, it does start at the top.”

But there’s a gap, said Hendry.

“If you think about it from an organizational standpoint, I’m not sure how clear executives are around how the business is going to change. Disruption is happening on a broad scale that is going to radically change every business, so (it’s about) the ability to stay ahead of what’s happening in your environment that will help you make a decision with respect to how your organization is going to meet the change. The problem is the gap between what might happen that we don’t expect, and then filtering it down to a manager level where all they hear about is ‘innovation,’ ‘Things are going to change,’ and they’re naturally fearful.”

But executives should be expected to know that, and it’s HR’s job to help, said Edgar, either by swapping out the wrong people or giving them the right skills.

“Leaders and executives who need all the facts to make decisions, or don’t spend enough time being curious about what’s going on in the wider world, they won’t survive. So it’s our job to equip them or give them the chance to recreate themselves. But if they can’t, they might become dinosaurs.”

The generational element

Another related outcome is the notion that one size does not fit all, so it’s about being ready for customization of the employee arrangement in all ways, shapes and means, said Nielsen. And that change is not necessarily driven by millennials.

“It may be driven more by baby boomers… we are more in number and as we leave the workplace, the organization is saying, ‘There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that’s leaving so we want to rearrange the way you exit and go into retirement’ and maybe it’s on a consulting basis or freelance basis.”

There’s a generational element to it, said Edgar, but it’s not just about millennials.

“For me, millennials are a useful catalyst but they’re not the only catalyst,” he said. “There’s the technological element to it, so you have more opportunity to think differently about how you work. I think there’s a cultural element — how many of our HR colleagues of 2016 have chosen to step out of corporate life and to have more control and flexibility around their career? I think people are looking for something different in life. It’s almost that perfect storm of all these different factors.”

It isn’t just the millennial effect, it’s a cohort effect that reflects the life circumstances surrounding multiple generations, said Sabapathy.

“We have older workers who aren’t ready to retire, from an economic and social perspective. So we’re trying to come up with some contingent, part-time, remote working relationships to keep them in the game and keep their knowledge in the business because we’re in a specialized industry, and it’s good business to ensure their knowledge and skills don’t leave.”

Theories around millennials may be more of a consulting concept than a demographers’ construct, he said, “but that group is less tied to companies in general, they’re not necessarily interested in getting a gold watch from us, they’re interested in being there for the experience while it’s engaging to them. They’re happy to work remotely and interact through digital/social media. But then we have older workers on the other end that want the same thing, which is interesting — you’d think there’d be more of a difference between the two ends of the generational spectrum.”

Democratization of work

But with democratization of work, have employers really changed that many jobs in the way they are being structured, asked Hendry.

The topic of democratization of work is a big one, said Edgar.

“(It’s about) being able to break down work in a much more effective way and then making sure you’re resourcing that work so it’s delivered in the most effective way, rather than a more traditional, hierarchal, structure-based organization.”

There is also the opportunity to use design thinking to define the employee experience, he said, “so it’s recognizing that as HR professionals, we need to think differently about how we respond to the democratization of work by using skills like design thinking that many HR professionals wouldn’t have. So we need to think about how can you retool the HR function to be better equipped to deal with the future of work?”

There’s been a lot of talk about the growing contingent workforce but not many people are doing it yet, partly because of the behaviour change needed with leaders, said Edgar.

“It’s hard, people are still thinking in their silos… it’s something we as an HR profession have to take the lead on in driving through the organization. You need to build that burning platform around why doing this is actually the right thing to do because there’s more demand from the market of people who want to work differently… and (how it) generates value by doing things in a new way.”

Foresters has made a couple of forays on deconstructing work and using new talent platforms to bring in freelancers, said Nielsen. But managers can be a challenge.

“The talent platforms allow you to hire people literally anywhere in the world for work that you need done, and you do it on assignment. We’ve done that now with two roles and, in both cases, the leaders want to hold on to the talent, so they found other things to fill the time so they could offer a full-time opportunity, more of a traditional role, and in these two situations, the freelancer was willing to do that. But that’s not all freelancers and it’s not consistent with the direction we’re moving in.”

Employment laws work against HR in a way, so restructuring jobs is harder, said Nielsen.

“But I know we’re working around them. The organizational chart used to have all the boxes and a few dotted lines for people on contract.”

“Now, we have to come up with colour schemes to show people who are freelancers who aren’t really part of the team but who are an extended part of the team when needed. You may also have independent consultants; they just come in different shapes and sizes. The old organizational chart doesn’t work.”

It’s not so much that existing jobs have changed that much, but there are all kinds of people doing work that they weren’t doing 10 years ago, said Briant, “whether it’s gamification or creative design, just mainly driven by technology or the businesses that we’re in. So we have a much broader and diverse group of employees than we did, doing very different work, in a relatively traditional structure.”

While there’s a lot of talk about taking a piecework approach, the typical candidate still wants security, said Briant.

“They may want lots of flexibility, in different places at different times, and having the time to do this or that, but many of them are looking for the security of really quasi full-time employment, with accommodation, so that’s a lot different... We find more people doing that contract work are interested in becoming full time.”

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