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Why human-centred management will decide your organisation’s success or failure in 4IR

Professor Stephen Wyatt | Business Express
Professor Stephen Wyatt

You’ve probably not only heard about but are also learning to manage in a ‘4G’ (four generation) or even 5G workforce. And if you aren’t already active in promoting inclusivity or aware of the benefits of diversity (greater talent pool, broader range of perspectives and modes of thinking) then you are in a dwindling minority. However you describe yourself, the fact is that increasingly our colleagues and co-workers are not-like-us. If we are to retain the benefits of diversity in the workforce, then not only do we not want everyone to be like-us, we equally must accept that their behaviours, beliefs, values and personal situations are unlikely to be like ours. The challenge for many organisations is to define equitable policies and practices that drive for the common-good, without imposing a ‘one size fits all’ approach that could crush inclusivity of diversity. Human-centred workforce management (HCWM) practices are the establishment, transparent communication and consistent application of policies that describe intent, define out-of-bounds and provide guidelines for application of policies but leave space for interpretation to accommodate individual circumstances without having to make ‘exceptions’.  

Previous industrial revolutions have placed the emphasis on adapting working practices to technological innovations; none more so than the rise of the ‘scientific approach to management’ adopted at the beginning of the 20th century which led to task specialisations and organisations arranged by functional departments. In the current 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) machines are increasing able to take on tasks (robotics, data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning). 4IR relevant skills (creativity, problem solving, managing machine-human interfaces) are decidedly in the domain of humans and are in increasing demand and short supply. In 2020 the World Economic Forum estimated that to 2025, 95 million new jobs would be created requiring 4IR relevant skills. The demand for talent with 4IR skills is increasing and is far outpacing supply. This is changing the balance of power in the market-place away from employers to those with 4IR relevant skills. To thrive (or even survive) in 4IR companies must attract, train, deploy and retain talent with 4IR relevant skills…..leveraging the benefits of diversity. The shift in the balance of power between talent and employer has become more evident since the pandemic with now widespread recognition of labour shortages and the trend labelled the ‘Great Resignation’ whereby a third of Millennials and Gen-Z are reportedly expecting to resign from their current employers. In China a similar movement has been labelled “tang ping” – literally meaning to “lie flat” as workers decide to stop working for companies with exploitative policies. 

Whilst every individual is unique, many societies are suffering similar structural problems which create common concerns for the working populations. The wealth gap or poverty divide has been worsening in most developed countries, in the UK the top 1% control just over 20% of total wealth, whereas the top 10% control over 50% of the total wealth – leaving the other 90% of the population with less total wealth. In the US the division is greater, the top 1% control approx. 32% of total wealth whilst the bottom 50% of the population control just 2% of the total. This is one of the major causes for what the World Health Organisation labels an ‘epidemic of stress’. The majority of the workforce in many countries struggle to earn sufficiently to have economic security, to pay for adequate health care and save for retirement. We are working until we’re older (hence the 4 or 5 generations in the workforce), we often juggle more than one job at the same time, typically all adults in a household are working and, depending on life-stage, also looking after young children or elderly relatives. Workplace practices such engaging workers as contractors rather than employees, zero-hour contracts and non-permanent contract periods further increase the stress and anxiety for workers, reducing the benefits that individuals are entitled to and not providing a platform to allow them to make long-term plans or take on financial commitments. Human-Centred Workforce Management policies and practices are designed to support the individual making their own choices, within boundaries, such that they can balance their competing priorities; whilst being equitable across the workforce. 

Human-Centred practices enhance employer branding. In this era social media and platforms such as Glassdoor increase the external visibility of the reality of the experience for the employee or contractor inside a corporation. Talent with skills relevant for 4IR are digitally savvy with an aptitude for finding and assimilating such information on a prospective place of employment and also for sharing information about the place that they are working. Managing employer reputation is increasingly important; authentically adopting Human-Centred policies is core to building and sustaining such branding.    

One of the most important areas in which to adopt Human-Centred policies and practices is to ensure that the company fulfils its ‘duty-of-care’ towards all workers, whatever their contractual status; as the company is dependent on attracting and retaining good contractors as well as good employees. Contract workers, term or permanent employees should all be supported with benefits that demonstrate empathy with their situation. These may include child-care, health care, well-being activities and support services or training, mentorship and career development guidance. As the balance of power in the market for talent swings towards talent and away from the corporation it is perhaps ‘penny wise – pound foolish’ to differentiate the benefits and support available to individuals on the basis of types of contract.    

Human-Centred policies recognise that the pressures and circumstances differ between individuals and as such individual workers will seek to engage with work and a given workplace in different manners. One of the most researched areas is the management of the boundary between ‘work’ and ‘family / private – life’. This has even resulted in legislation (e.g. in France) on the ‘right to switch off’. Facilitated by mobile technology (e.g. smartphone) outside of the office or office working hours, many people check and respond to messages, requests from clients, colleagues and bosses. Is this right? What is clear is that some people resent such ‘imposition’ on their ‘private life’ whereas as others like being always in-touch and on top of things. One-size-fits-all regulation could be detrimental to one or other group. A human-centred approach would say that it’s OK to respond the next day to messages from your boss that you receive after working hours, but equally if you wish to respond at midnight – that’s OK too, its your choice. The boundary condition being that at the latest, by mid-day the next day, the boss would have received a response. 

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Similar human-centred approaches are required for topics such as remote vs. in-office working. Some people particularly need the social contact at work or feel the need for connectivity and adhoc mentorship or need to escape an over-crowded house with poor internet connectivity, whereas others may want to avoid the commute or have child or parent care duties they are trying to juggle and so much prefer remote working. A human-centred approach will set boundary conditions based on performance or service-level expectations and within those to allow individuals to self-manage; for example everyone being in the office on ‘Mondays’ to exchange insight and updates and build community, the rest of the week welcome to work where-ever but with high speed / quality connectivity for customer interactions. 

Human-centred approaches can also extend to an individual adjusting the scope of their job (known as ‘job crafting’) whereby the individual is allowed to expand or redefine the definition of the job so that they can bring to bear particularly relevant skills and experiences previously acquired, for example a maintenance engineer expanding their role to provide training during the on-boarding of new production-line staff in order that there fewer break-downs and less requirement for maintenance. Changing the scope of a job to reflect an individual’s competencies and passions often increases the motivation and engagement of the individual. A further extension of this concept is the creation of an internal market to match individuals with projects or role assignments. Opportunities to join initiatives are ‘posted’ on a virtual board with descriptions of the skills required, the objectives and relevant conditions (e.g. time, resources, team leadership). Individuals can put themselves forward to work on initiatives that are particularly relevant for them and for which they believe they have the required skills (this model of matching talent with opportunities is known either as ‘Team of Teams’ or ‘Flow to Work’)

Talent is the critical differentiator of corporate performance as we transition into the 4th Industrial Revolution. Winning with 4IR relevant talent requires building a reputation as an great place to work (whether on contract or as a permanent employee). Where the individual can balance the conflicting pressures between work and the rest of their lives; that helps to mitigate their stress and anxiety. Where their skills are developed to stay current and they are deployed to the tasks and teams that are most relevant for them and for the skills that they bring. Human-centred policies of workforce management are critical to corporate success in 4IR.

Stephen Wyatt is Professor of Strategy & Leadership at University of Bath, Industrial Associate at the University of Cambridge and author of Management & Leadership in the 4th Industrial Revolution (Kogan Page, £19.99).


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