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5 traits of the workforce of the future

This article first appeared on MIT Sloan School of Management.
Post-COVID, business leaders are challenged to reengage the emerging workforce in a new landscape.

Post-COVID, business leaders are challenged to reengage the emerging workforce in a new landscape. Image: Unsplash/ Mimi Thian

Kara Baskin
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Post-COVID, business leaders are dealing with a new working landscape.
  • If they are going to be successful, managers need to consider the five traits of the emerging workforce, according to MIT Sloan experts.
  • These include being data-literate and being comfortable working with artificial intelligence.

Post-COVID, business leaders are challenged to reengage a workforce in a new landscape: one that’s more digitized, roboticized, diverse, and dispersed than ever before. Those who fall behind do so at their own risk.

What do managers need to know about employees as they set a course for success in the upcoming decades?

Five traits of emerging workforce

MIT Sloan experts weigh in on five traits of the emerging workforce

1. They’re data-literate.

Data-driven companies enjoy increased revenue, improved customer service, best-in-class operating efficiencies, and improved profitability.

“In a world of more data, the companies with more data-literate people are the ones that are going to win,” said MIT Sloan senior lecturerMiro Kazakoff,who teaches courses on communicating and persuading with data.

This requires data democratization, the idea that data should be in the hands of every employee.

“Everyone’s going to play a role and be responsible for moving [firms] forward in new ways of work that include data,” said Barbara Wixom, a principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research. “Data's a team sport, and the entire organization is the team.”

At the enterprise level, data should be viewed as an organizational asset, not the property of individual departments that created or collected the data, said Michelle K. Lee, ’88, SM ’89, a former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office who spoke at the EmTech Digital conference earlier this year.

Leveraging that data requires collaboration, said Cindi Howson, chief data strategy officer at analytics platform provider ThoughtSpot. Some companies will need to reorganize around data and analytics, Howson said in a presentation at an MIT data symposium last August. This might mean combining business people with technical employees and coders.

The most successful firms have data and analytics embedded inside every business unit, with some degree of centralization, Howson said.

2. They’re comfortable working with artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robots.

Most experts agree the future of artificial intelligence is the future of work. And robotic technology is expected to keep expanding, with the global robotics market worth $260 billion by 2030, according to one estimate.

It’s no guarantee that growth will be all good. MIT economist Daron Acemoglu found that for every robot added per 1,000 workers in the U.S., wages decline by 0.42%, and the employment-to-population ratio goes down by 0.2 percentage points.

If we don’t focus on the right type of AI, Acemoglu said, there are “potentially disastrous consequences for income inequality and social cohesion.”

While there have been concerns over AI replacing humans in factories and warehouses, savvy employers will deploy artificial intelligence where it can complement humans instead of replacing them — in areas like education, health care, and training.

In manufacturing, collaborative robots, or cobots, are poised to augment human labor. With cobots, human workers can offload easier tasks to robots and focus on more ambiguous, challenging work, thereby improving productivity and worker well-being, according to MIT professor and roboticist Julie Shah.

In all cases, employers should deploy intelligent technologies with care, keeping in mind there may be friction between tech-savvy junior employees and senior staff that upsets traditional power hierarchies. One way to address this challenge is to create a peer-training program that rotates both senior and junior employees through the role of trainer, suggested MIT Sloan work and organization studies professorKate Kellogg.

Collaboration with developers is likewise key: Machine learning developers need to talk to end users to keep the iteration process alive.

“They need to engage in a back-and-forth process with [users] to build, evaluate, and refine the tools, in order for the tools to be useful in practice,” Kellogg said.

3. The emerging workforce is empowered.

According to research by MIT Sloan professorThomas Kochan,director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research, workers report experiencing a sizable “voice gap” at work — that is, a gap between how much say or influence they feel they ought to have and how much they actually have — on topics such as wages, working conditions, and fair treatment.

This won’t last: Nationwide, low-wage workers are finding their voice and finding purpose, and employers ignore them at their own risk, said MIT Sloan professor of human resources and managementPaul Osterman.

“The high levels of anger we’re seeing, and the political instability that flows from it, likely has to do with the size of economic inequality today. … I would argue the business community has a self-interest in worrying about these issues,” Osterman said.

Kochan urges employers and employees to engage in a new social contract that delivers strong return rates for investors while supporting high-quality careers. Tenets of such a contract include:

  • Careful selection of employees with strong technical and behavioral skills.
  • Continuous investment in staff training and development.
  • Respect for worker rights.
  • Opportunities for workers to adapt to changing technologies and work requirements.
  • Fair and transparent compensation systems that ensure employee incomes rise with enterprise and overall economic performance.
  • A voice for workers in the critical business decisions that will shape their future.

4. They respect, expect, and understand the value of “good jobs.”

Today’s employees have standards: This means good pay and benefits, a stable and predictable schedule, a career path, security and safety, and a fair and equitable work environment.

As such, employers need to go beyond offering job training or higher wages for low-wage jobs. It’s also important for firms to improve the quality of the jobs they provide, an issue that affects roughly one-quarter of American adults, Osterman said.

If not? Underinvestment in people leads to operational and customer service problems, which lead to lower sales, which lead to shrinking budgets, said Zeynep Ton, an operations management professor at MIT Sloan and author of “The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits.”

“This vicious cycle is costly for investors. It hurts customers. It is downright brutal on workers, from their wages to their schedules to their treatment and dignity. Everyone loses,” she said.

In their book “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It,” MIT Sloan professorErin Kellyand University of Minnesota sociology professor Phyllis Moen call for a dual-agenda work redesign, an action plan that links employees' well-being and experience with a company’s priorities and goals.

The pair studied a company that had undertaken a work redesign initiative which included options such as working from home or implementing a hybrid schedule. They found that employees who went through the work redesign had a 40% lower turnover rate during a three-year period.

Have you read?

5. They’re committed to advances in equity and the environment.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 83% of tech executives are white. At Apple, 6% of the tech workforce last year was Black. At Google, just under one-quarter of interns were Black and Latinx, and 5.5% of new hires were Black.

To close the tech gap, it’s essential to cultivate diversity in the emerging workforce, according to Malia Lazu, a former Berkshire Bank executive vice president and current MIT Sloan lecturer who focuses on inclusion in the innovation economy. Actions include exposing all kids to STEM at an early age; making higher education more affordable and more equitable; hiring based on skill set rather than degree; and assessing and diversifying professional networks.

Last year, associate dean for innovation and inclusion Fiona Murray and associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion Ray Reagans detailed ways MIT Sloan is changing institutional culture, a blueprint they hope other organizations can adopt.

“We are addressing the school’s traditional reliance on our existing networks to recruit staff, faculty, and students,” they write. “To change that, we’ve hired specialized recruiting firms to tap into broader, more diverse networks when hiring staff.”

Equity extends beyond the hiring process, according to MIT Sloan management professorEmilio Castilla,who recommends that organizations approach promotions and raises through an unbiased, data-driven lens.

More broadly, research by assistant professor of work and organization studiesJackson Lu has found that leaders with multicultural experiences are better communicators and are particularly effective when leading multinational teams.

For younger employees in particular, the idea of equity extends to governance and environmental issues equally. The Cone Communications Millennial Employee Study found that 64% of millennials won’t take a job if it doesn’t have a strong corporate social responsibility policy, and 83% would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues.

In the last 15 or 20 years, a shift from reactionary to proactive environmental practices became the norm, with a company's sustainability performance now tied to its success, said Bethany Patten, lecturer and senior associate director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan.

“The tides have changed in terms of organizational design,” Patten said.

In setting environmental priorities, many companies are taking an “inside-out” approach, which accommodates input from employees, among other stakeholders, said senior lecturer Jason Jay, co-director of the Sustainability Initiative.

The approach requires convening those who define the culture of a company — board members, the C-suite, and employees — and discussing what the company exists for and the mark it wants to leave on the world, said Jay, who with professor John Sterman co-teaches “Strategies for Sustainable Business,” an online course from MIT Sloan Executive Education.

Companies often separate their environmental progress from diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice efforts. They shouldn’t.

“Climate change is necessarily a justice issue,” Jay said.

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