The Challenge of Engaging the New Workforce

Problem one: how to define "workforce"? As a study from the Conference Board shows, employees want to be engaged, but workers are also increasingly untraditional.

CEOs these days are more likely to find themselves at cross-purposes: They’re increasingly concerned about having the best talent, while also dealing with a workforce that’s more contingent, with job tasks that are increasingly automated.

That’s one of the main takeaways from “C-Suite Challenge 2018,” a study from the Conference Board based on a global survey of CEOs, CFOs, and chief HR officers. Attracting and retaining talent is the top concern among all the leaders surveyed. Chuck Mitchell, executive director, knowledge content and quality at the Conference Board, says that mirrors findings in prior surveys. But he notes that the trend has become increasingly pronounced.

“There’s really an emphasis like we haven’t seen in recent years on talent and retention and next-generation leadership,” he says. “Pretty much everywhere, the thinking across the globe is that labor markets have tightened considerably. People are feeling it.”

There’s a realization that there’s going to be there is this natural tension between the contingent workforce and a full-time workforce.

In response, Mitchell says, leaders are trying to address the issue less with compensation and more with increasing engagement. As the report puts it: “CEOs want to create and maintain an open, safe, and transparent culture where effective feedback can flourish. They are focused on ‘democratizing’ development: not only improving leadership development programs, but enhancing employee skill training and development at all levels of the organization.”

For people who advocate for improving talent pools from within, that’s good news. But the study also reveals a challenge in the workplace, because more nontraditional workers—part-timers and contractors—are part of the mix. Nearly 80 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that they “anticipate that the percentage of directly hired contingent workers and freelancers will increase.”

How best to “engage” with those employees? “There’s a realization that there’s going to be this natural tension between the contingent workforce and a full-time workforce,” Mitchell says. “For CHROs, for example, their number-two concern when it comes to the use of contingent workers is engaging and retention of their nontraditional employees.” (Crowdsourcing, the report notes, is on the rise as well—why use your internal team to solve problems when you can delegate it to the masses?)

The trend ought to concern association executives not just within their own staffs but those of the industries they serve, I think. After all, less workforce investment in traditional full-time employees risks eroding membership, professional development, and participation in events that associations rely upon (and that employers often invest in). Both CEOs and CHROs in the survey say that “finding workers with appropriate skills” is their top concern with nontraditional workers, which may suggest that the workforce’s skills might be diffused, and without a particular skill focus, there’s less of an obvious peer group—an association—to belong to. That’s a problem that associations can help with, but it may require a different form of persuasion than they’ve been used to.

And while leaders attempt to resolve that complication, automation presents yet another one. According to the study, 77 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat agree that “digital labor” will increase. And it’s not just low-level, unskilled tasks that will be affected. Mitchell cites the example of supply-chain analysis.

“There are companies that are using cognitive computing to do that function. Anecdotally, you hear that you can give Watson a data file, and in a half hour [it] can give you more data points, connections, and insights than an entire team of research analysts could do in a week.”

But regardless of how those changes manifest themselves, nearly everybody agrees that profound workforce changes are coming: Only 11 percent of respondents say they “don’t anticipate any appreciable difference from the workforce of today.” Organizations are feeling the pressure to be innovative, while also creating agile and sustainable work environments where people do work they feel has value.

That is, to say the least, a challenge. But executives are on the right path when they recognize the need to communicate with workers, look at opportunities to advance them, and provide them with an environment where their ideas are supported.

How have shifts in the nature of the workforce changed your staff—or the employees in the industry your association serves—and how have you responded? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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