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To Win Today’s Top Talent, Organizations Must Be Flexible

Today’s workforce is the most educated, globally-mobile, gender-balanced and ethnically diverse ever. And looking forward, there’s every reason to hope that their unique talent, skills and creativity will drive equally-unprecedented innovation and results for both individual organizations and collective society.

To convert all of that potential energy into a world-changing force, organizations of all types, sizes and geographies must acknowledge the structural changes that have and are reshaping the employer-employee relationship, especially for those now entering the workforce and those rising to middle management.

Consider, on the one hand, the macro-economic scenario that has shaped the youngest workers’ worldview. A Japanese person under 30 years old missed the booming 1980’s; she has only ever known slow growth at best. In America and Europe, most of her peers may never recover the experience and earning potential they lost to the Great Recession.

The marked contrast in experience between today’s youngest workers and their parents has resulted in a new set of norms and expectations. Even in Japan, where the idea of “lifetime employment” still holds some allure, younger workers express increasing doubts that big domestic brands and trading companies can guarantee the stability they offered to their parents. And quite frankly, realizing that your employer might cut your role in hard times impacts both your sense of loyalty and the risk calculation of switching firms.

At the same time, consider the increasing demographic pressures on developed economies. Japan’s shrinking domestic workforce is motivating significant policy interventions—both to facilitate increased labor participation from women and to open more industries to foreign-born labor. America and Europe will soon encounter a similar squeeze, as businesses there already struggle to fill high-skilled roles, especially in health, science and technology.

These demographic pressures are changing the definition of work and who counts as a worker. They’re also contributing to a market imbalance that bestows considerable advantage to top talent in key sectors of the knowledge economy. The workforce of the future can, does and will continue to vote with their feet.

Given all of these forces, organizations that want to attract and retain top talent must adapt—and in some cases, overhaul—their business practices. Whereas stability was the watchword of 20th century employment, today’s workforce—the workforce of the future—seeks flexibility on nearly every dimension:

1. Growth: No career path is linear, and the workforce of the future is drawn to opportunities that allow them to explore responsibilities beyond their job description, such as serving on an internal committee or interviewing intern candidates.

2. Mobility: The growth of study abroad programs is driving demand for international assignments and transfers. Indeed, as they consider their next career move, today’s knowledge workers can and are beginning to cast wider and wider nets.

3. Balance: With work culture defaulting to “always on,” the workforce of the future seeks reciprocity in the form of alternative work schedules and telework arrangements that will support not only child-raising but also a range of other personal pursuits.

4. Self-Expression: The blurring of lines between professional and personal also empowers today’s workforce to be more out and proud—not only about their sexuality but about a whole range of formerly taboo topics from politics to mental health.

5. Inclusion: As more workers bring their full selves to work, they do so with increasing confidence that the right work culture will elevate and celebrate the distinct value that people from diverse backgrounds contribute to the organization.

Organizations embracing flexibility across these dimensions will know when they’re getting it right. The telltale signs are the volume of employee referrals in your recruiting pipeline and how your employees talk about you online. If you’re not sure the answer to these questions, you’re likely not listening to your employees—and that’s another strong sign that you’re not there yet.

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