The nature of work is evolving rapidly. While new technologies, ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to digital mobility and virtual collaboration, are generally seen as the most radical drivers of this change, other trends may be just as impactful.

We can see them playing out all around us. The lines between our work and personal lives are shifting. Diversity and demands for equality are reshaping the workplace. We’re living longer, which requires us to master more and different skills over time. Social and environmental pressures are combining with the emergence of the gig economy to drive demand for more flexible working conditions.

For many, these changes are a source of anxiety and insecurity. But they also bring opportunities for organizations to allay these fears and make their people’s working lives more productive, meaningful and fulfilling. Key to achieving this will be the ability of organizations to rebalance their workforce, focusing more on collaboration between technology and humans, and harnessing human skills such as creativity, empathy and ethics alongside digital skills.

How can organizations prepare for this future? PricewaterhouseCoopers' new global survey of more than 1,200 business and human resources (HR) leaders from 79 countries, produced in collaboration with London Business School Professor Lynda Gratton, investigates this question. It gives some powerful answers. Among its many findings, some of the most striking are around the need for companies to provide the workplace experience that employees want, and increasingly expect.

While this is vital, it’s also a growing challenge. Our research confirms that organizations know how important it is to create the right everyday experience at work. When we ask them to rank organizational capabilities by importance in relation to the future of their business, eight of the top 10 relate to workplace experience.

Preparing for tomorrow’s workforce, today
Image: PwC

But other findings suggest this is an area where companies are failing to deliver. Thirteen of the top 20 ‘at risk’ capabilities - those where respondents say a capability is important, but that they are not taking action on it today - also relate to people's experience.

Why the mismatch? People’s workplace expectations, which are boosted by their engagement and interactions with services such as online retail and on-demand entertainment, have outstripped companies’ current ability to deliver. As our research underlines, what people experience outside work is increasingly affecting the way they approach their jobs. The result? They want the same speed, intuition and customization at work that they’ve become accustomed to when dealing with organizations outside it.

This is a challenge that businesses are currently struggling to meet. But the tools are at hand to close the gap between expectation and workplace reality. The solution lies in the smart use of employee data and analytics to create the personalized experience that staff crave.

This starts with measurement that goes beyond group-wide assessments and annual employee engagement surveys, to focus on the needs and wants of the individual. Armed with the right information, organizations can apply analytics to augment and personalize people's experiences, using capabilities including organizational network analysis (ONA), real-life journey maps, the identification of core pain points, skills-mapping, career navigation, listening and well-being tools.

Throughout, it’s also important to retain employees’ trust and make sure they don’t feel they’re being monitored in ways that they’re uncomfortable with. This means ensuring they know how their personal data is used and what it’s being used for, and providing them with opt-out options. At the same time, organizations should demonstrate the value of sharing personal data through clear communications encouraging people to opt in.

Improving the workplace experience is just one area where data analytics can help organizations prepare for their future workforce. As well as understanding how to create a compelling people experience, analytics - and especially predictive analytics - can give businesses a critical edge in gauging their future talent needs, and eliminating potential biases in selection, assignment and appraisal.

The companies in our study are well aware of these opportunities. They attach high importance to data analytics in planning and supporting the future workforce. But once again, a gap emerges between aspiration and reality. Despite the wealth of data they hold, and the growing sophistication and usability of the tools on offer, many tell us they are falling short. Four of the top ten ‘at risk’ capabilities in our research relate to workforce analytics.

Interestingly, participants in North America report stronger progress in these areas than their counterparts in Asia and Western Europe. And almost all industries say they’re finding it difficult to make headway with employee data and analytics, with the exception of health, where data is used in skills identification and tackling biases in hiring and reward.

Overall, the message is clear. Investing in digital tools to drive people decisions is a ‘no regrets’ move to prepare for the future.

We’ve identified three strategies which organizations should focus on now.

1. Apply analytical rigour

Build data analytics capability and invest in digital tools to sharpen the precision and proactivity of talent planning and performance management. The HR function needs the right skills, but the business also needs the right baseline data to be accurate. For example, one key challenge is that job descriptions don’t reflect what people do.

2. Personalize the experience

Draw on robust employee data to create a personalized experience for your workforce. People increasingly want to work in a way that suits them. But let your employees know how their personal data is being used and why. This is vital for maintaining their trust.

3. De-bias people processes

Tackle unconscious bias in recruitment by tracking hiring and promotion rates among underrepresented groups, and using analytics and digital engagement to broaden the talent pool. But make sure decisions are guided by a person trained to understand algorithms, rather than by an algorithm alone.

Organizations that get this right today will make better decisions about their workforce and ensure they stay competitive tomorrow.

You can download the report here.