The democratization of technology has put us all in the driver’s seat of creating personalized content, and on the flip side, raised expectations of how we expect the marketplace to cater to our needs. Personalization is ubiquitous—from the choices of creating our dream salad at Sweetgreen or building the perfect monogramed sneakers at Nike, to apps that offer tailored workout plans, data driven viewing suggestions on various streaming services, and algorithms on social media platforms recommending products that will solve all our problems.
With the marketplace of consumption finely tuned to help us be, grow, and express ourselves as true individuals, the time is ripe for the workplace to catch up. For decades, we’ve been stuck with the model that dictates a “one-size fits all” for employees. While the workplace has been slow to catch up, we are seeing three major trends showing that the shift from a one-size-fits all to a “one size fits one” ecosystem is here.
1. Wanting it all: Flexibility & control
Seeing well ahead of the trends in 2015, the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) study, Beyond Uber: Driving the Evolution of Work, highlighted an important emerging trend: Workers—whether full-time employees or the growing masses of non-traditional workers (e.g. contractors, consultants, and contingent workers)—demanded more flexibility and control over their work. This includes how, where, and when the work gets done. What was once rare, and a next practice for organizations that were creatively sourcing talent became an overnight status quo worldwide in 2020. Data backs the efficacy of the flexible work model—i4cp’s research has found that organizations offering such arrangements experience heighted productivity, performance, and more.
Employers that want to attract and retain the best talent should prioritize the well-being of their employees, and this starts with providing a sense of flexibility and control—even for workers who must be on-site to perform their jobs. Allowing workers to leverage the inherent freedom of a flexible work environment by fitting work around their lives creates the space for a happier workforce and increased productivity.
As we consider a return to the office, the impulse to mandate strict policies or structured hybrid solutions pushes against the concept of giving workers flexibility and control. Employers refusing to allow workers freedom and flexibility to personalize their work arrangements will continue to see a migration of their talent to employers that get it. Workers want to be able to personalize when, where, and how they work. Facilitating this means increased productivity, decreased turnover, lower overhead, and greater diversity for employers—it’s a proven trend that should continue to evolve.
2. Managing differently: The people leader
Along with the stories of upheaval and even chaos during the last two years, we’ve heard of managers leading their teams with courage, humanity, humility, and compassion. We call them “people leaders.” The pandemic offered many people leaders their first glimpse into the lives of employees outside of the office, and their first opportunity to see their teams as real live humans. The effect? These people leaders showed authentic empathy and compassion to their employees and actively worked to ensure that they were providing their workforces a psychologically safe work environment. Transparency became a key ingredient for success; timely and relevant communication on the matters that effected people’s lives created a foundation of reciprocal trust. Good communication strategies were designed to create a sense of community, connection, and belonging. Listening became more important than giving direction.
True people leaders seek to understand the viewpoints and opinions of others and allow for the safe expression of feelings in the workforce. As strategies and priorities continue to change day-to-day, people leaders focus on developing talent that could adapt quickly and address evolving business needs. With a greater range of skills needed in the ever-changing landscape, people leaders have learned to see and develop individuals. While breaking down silos to share learning and best practices at scale, top talent was cultivated on an individual level.
Antithetical to the way work was traditionally done (pre-pandemic), the more personalized the manager is, the greater their teams are set up for success. Organizations have benefitted from people leaders responding to their team members as individuals—the well-being of individuals, again, has a direct impact on organizational productivity. The result is that the well-being of team members remains strong, and the organization benefit too. In organizations that supported these people leaders, the data shows high positive correlations with market performance, higher productivity, healthy cultures, increased collaboration, and innovation.
3. Driving solutions: The Toolbox of technology
If your organization has been developing, innovating, connecting, and collaborating faster than others, there’s no doubt it’s because technology plays a pivotal role in your operations. When the war for talent first exploded during the 1990s, we clearly heard the common refrain:
The best talent expects their employers to have the latest technology. As we fast-forward to the present, outdated tech or the absence of certain technologies altogether render employers archaic. With a marketplace immersed in predicative analytics, prescriptive algorithms, and sometimes uncannily concerned technology, employees of every age are looking for workplaces that reflect the same reality.
One response has been an explosion of HR platforms competing to personalize the workplace experience for the masses. Leveraging the power of data collection and artificial intelligence, these platforms are creating hyper-personalized solutions for employees at scale. Technology is serving as a great equalizer—identifying individuals based on their skills, needs, and changing behaviors and personalizing development plans to suit. Progression paths become easier to identify, jobs can be better aligned to the talents of the employee and learning content can be personalized around goals and skills gaps.
Another reality of technology is the convergence of the virtual with the physical. Every aspect of this dimension has found at least one counterpart in the metaverse. The boundaries between the physical and virtual world continue to blur and overlap. High-touch human services such as therapy and doctor’s visits went virtual in the pandemic. The virtual aisles of online shopping platforms cross back into brick and mortar at Target and Walmart. Art finds itself migrating continually between the two worlds as NFTs (non-fungible tokens/units of data stored on a blockchain that can be sold and traded) make it possible to hold ownership over pieces you’ll never touch and experiences such as the Van Gogh Immersive Experience, which delivers virtual art in a physical space. The appetite isn’t for one or the other, it’s for the additive experience of both worlds to forge a reality which increases access to more overall.
This dichotomy is further magnified in the workplace. Workers increasingly crave a hyper-personalized work and development experience while organizations grow physically more disparate, diverse, and technologically streamlined. Process, scale, and efficiency is the name of the game for high-tech organizations. This seemingly stands in stark contrast to employees who want to be recognized as individuals. Scripted performance reviews, pre-written job descriptions, and mass trainings aren’t as effective as straightforward, constructive communication tailored to the employee.
Today’s workforce is for the most part, technically sophisticated and socially literate—there’s an expectation that the information they share with their employer, whether publicly sourced or purposefully shared will be leveraged. They will expect to develop their professional profiles to record their skills, knowledge, abilities, experiences, interests, and hobbies, and to be able to map out development goals and aspirations. In turn, people leaders can access these profiles for context on their team and to develop employees more purposefully. Employees can be self-empowered to take assessments that identify gaps in their career plans, while managers and technology can work in concert to point toward learning opportunities, assignments, projects, coaches, and mentors that will help fill those gaps.
Motivating people leaders for a personalized future of work
Ultimately, the accountability for the success or failure of the one-size-fits-one experience will fall on progressive people leaders. Most organizations have clear processes to measure the success of their managers with easily evaluated, comparable, objective success metrics on business performance. That performance is recognized by meeting set expectations and generally rewarded with financial incentives.
What organizations need now are consistent, comparable, objective ways to measure operational performance for people leaders. When it comes to the hiring of talent, there’s so much more to track than the cost and time to hire—the quality of hire is as or more critical. It’s imperative to measure people leaders on the quality of their talent development, the internal mobility of their teams, and the projects that are created. Also, the quality of attrition should be part of the people leader’s performance equation. Not only the turnover number, but also who (high performer and/or regrettable) and why people are leaving or staying.
It’s important that effective people leaders have their own career advancement opportunities in recognition of their success. Dictating that managers lead the way for a one-size-fits-one work environment without measuring its success through the health of the culture, innovation, collaboration, and growth would be insufficient. As always, it is important to remember that what gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded gets repeated.