Firetail in Bratislava: The changing world of work and the inclusive society

By Chris Percy, Associate Director

 “From Industry 4.0 to Inclusive Society 4.0? Challenges for citizens, counsellors, companies, and policy makers.”

An international conference, now in its 43rd year and rotating to Bratislava, chose this theme and we’ll be sharing our thoughts about it at the conference on Thursday.

One way in which the world of work is changing is increased pressure and desire for career shifts, during our ever-longer, more flexible and increasingly disrupted working lives.

As people increasingly aspire to such career shifts, there is a risk of conflict with employers who prioritise HR practices that focus on cost-efficiency, consistency and risk reduction.

Our research starts to explore how a different approach to workplace culture could pay real dividends.

Firetail’s clients come to us for strategy with a social purpose – mission-driven organisations trying to understand how best they can improve the world.

The leaders we work with operate at the intersection of values, culture and strategy. Organisational design, the relationships with and between staff, and a team’s broader culture is not only crucial for the successful delivery of strategy, it also reflects it and originates it.

With my research interests around the future of work, organisational culture and rewarding careers, I’m very clear that being responsive to a changing world and trying to make it a better place must start with your people.

Your staff, operating under the often unspoken and invisible organisational constraints of today, are the people who must develop and deliver tomorrow’s strategy. Values and culture are not fixed. Opportunities identified in scenario planning often have implications for cultural shifts and organisational design.

Our hypothesis that career switching will increase comes from a range of trends that we draw on in our long-term strategy planning, including many that relate to the nature of employment. We believe that these same trends have significant implications not only for what mission-driven organisations do to help their customers and beneficiaries, but also for how they recruit, employ and support their own team. 

These trends include:

  • Platform models of engaging labour and channelling partnership working, in contrast to the traditional “pyramid” model of organisational design

  • An ageing society and workforce, with its implications for intergenerational equity, and opportunities for productivity across more diverse and distinct life stages

  • Global power shifts, as the rise of Africa follows the rise of Asia, shifting the global density of population, power and potential out of the equilibrium of the last century

  • An increasingly values-driven and demanding workforce, with the ongoing reduction in unskilled and semi-skilled labour via technological progress

  • The growth of voluntarism and open source, both inside and outside the workplace, as citizens channel their creative energies in new, self-directed ways

  • Ambitions for ever-more collaboration and co-production and responsive organisational behaviour, pointing towards different forms of internal governance, project management and communication

  • A growing diversity of ways of working, with technology-enabled options for entrepreneurship, remote working, flexible working and side hustles

I have teamed up with Nguyen Ngoc Tram, an HR professional whose experience in Vietnam and the US helps her to see employment issues from contrasting perspectives, to conduct an interview programme on this topic.

Our central question for the conference is how employers might respond to increased pressure for career switching. 

Our interviews and research revealed a plethora of options for enlightened employers all along the employee lifecycle, ranging from the embedding and expanding of current good practice to innovative approaches. 

  • Pipeline stage: for building interest and awareness among potential future applicants, employers can help people understand the reality of work in that area and how to chart different routes into the employment sufficiently far in advance to plan around it. For students, this an involve setting up joint activities and careers support in schools. For those in the workplace, it might involve open days for non-staff, promoting workplace transparency and networks than span organisations.

  • Recruitment: for first-time job seekers, an employer may focus more on trial periods, such as internships or meaningful probations, rather than the extensive assessment processes that have become increasingly common. For mid-career switches, it might involve opening up short-term job shadowing opportunities, projects and other activities for those in other firms. 

  • In organisation career progression: as well as a greater use of career coaching and planning ahead for staff (including training up managers to be able to deliver this), there’s potential for formal periodic reviews, such as the entretien professionel in France. We might also build a culture that promotes career breaks, flexibility and work adjustments, rather than at best tolerating them, burying the relevant policies in the hope not too many staff ask for them.

  • Exit management: can be turned into an opportunity for learning through less inhibited feedback (actually acting on exit interviews) and building a future relationship through proactive alumni communities. Well-managed career discussions and exits can also take the sting (and legal risk) out of discussions around succession planning and retirement.

In Bratislava, we will present evidence that these sorts of reforms could drive a significant productivity and impact dividend for employers – drawing on insights from the school-to-work transition literature, workforce mobility research on inventors and employee engagement data. 

However, interviews conducted for our presentation reveal that such a different approach to workplace culture and HR is a low priority for many, despite understanding and supporting the arguments for it. 

We’ll be there to ask why and how to catalyse action.