Forum Institutional

5 ways organizations can create sustainable workforces

Workforce sustainability benefits organizations by avoiding excessive turnover, maintaining a good level of productivity and underpinning business success.

Workforce sustainability benefits organizations by avoiding excessive turnover, maintaining a good level of productivity and underpinning business success. Image: Unsplash.

Aidan Manktelow
Insights Lead, Inclusive Business, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • Companies need to make work sustainable for their people and ensure that workforces are resilient and ready for the future.
  • But recent trends such as ‘quiet quitting’ and the ‘Great Resignation’, suggest that many organizations are falling short.
  • The Good Work Framework sets out five objectives to ensure workforce sustainability.

There is a growing focus on whether organizations are managing their people in a sustainable way – one that that satisfies material needs, does not detract from physical health and promotes wellbeing. Workforce sustainability benefits organizations by avoiding excessive turnover, maintaining a good level of productivity and underpinning business success.

But the reported trend of “quiet quitting”, people just working to their job description and not beyond (around half of American workers according to Gallup), shows that many employees do not see what is required of them at work as sustainable. The “Great Resignation”, which has been characterized by people reassessing what they expect from their work, and even whether they want to work at all, also persists and points to fundamental issues with workforce sustainability. Resignations in the United States have been running at over four million a month for the past year, a historic high.

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Companies are also under increasing pressure from investors and consumers to ensure that their people practices are sustainable. The percentage of institutional investors in the United States who agreed that the “social” in environmental, social and governance (ESG) was very important rose by 15 points to 69% between 2019 and 2020, bringing it above environmental concerns (61%) and governance (68%) for the first time.

Framework for workforce sustainability

Promoting workforce sustainability essentially requires providing “good work”. The Good Work Framework sets out five objectives for organizations that will together create workforce sustainability:

1. Promote fair pay and social justice

Setting a base for wages that enables people to live with dignity and provide for themselves and their families is critical for workforce sustainability. But the cost-of-living crisis has highlighted again the problem of low wages – which force many people to take additional jobs or work excessive hours to make ends meet. Minimum wages exist in 90% of International Labour Organization (ILO) member states, but in many countries fall short of what is needed to support a decent standard of living. This has prompted leading companies such as Unilever to focus instead on ensuring at least living wages. Other key drivers of social justice are worker representation and deploying technology, data and AI responsibly to augment rather than replace workers and to improve their wellbeing and job quality.

2. Provide flexibility and protection

Hybrid work, the emerging norm for a significant proportion of the workforce, offers benefits for workforce sustainability. First, it can improve retention. A flexible working policy is second only to job security as a reason for employees to stay in their current company and second only to pay and benefits in attracting workers to a new employer, according to data from Mercer. Second, it has been shown to help digital workers achieve greater productivity, reflecting reduced commuting time. Third, it improves diversity, making it easier for people to balance family and caretaking responsibilities. Companies also have a significant role to play in ensuring effective social protection, another key aspect of workforce sustainability.

3. Deliver on health and wellbeing

The ILO estimates that around two million people die from work related causes each year, while a survey in September 2020 showed that 34% of workers in the United States screened positive for depression and 57% were not fully engaged in their work. Delivering on health and wellbeing benefits companies by increasing employee retention and trust and supporting productivity.


How is the World Economic Forum promoting equity in the workplace?

4. Drive diversity, equity and inclusion

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has risen up the corporate agenda in recent years in tandem with significant demographic and social changes. COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated disadvantages faced by currently under-represented groups across businesses. Driving DEI allows companies to engage, energize, attract and retain talent.

5. Foster employability and a learning culture

The automation and digitalization of work, a more diverse workforce, and the green transition will require many people to learn new skills. The skills required for existing jobs are set to change by 40% on average from 2020 to 2025, and half of all workers will require reskilling, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs Report. There is a need for approaches that allow for consistent, lifelong learning and relearning at a much larger scale than at present.

Importantly, ensuring workforce sustainability requires organizations to promote good work, not just for their employees but also for their extended workforces, including gig workers (over one billion people globally), who are typically less well protected by regulation and safety nets, and workers in supply chains (615 million people globally), where working conditions often attract less scrutiny.

Making good work a reality

Meeting the objectives of the Good Work Framework and making good work a reality for all will require the following:

  • Leadership: human-centric leaders prioritize collective success from a team perspective and consider the human experience.
  • Workforce technology: a range of solutions have emerged that combine digital tools, data and analytics to support talent management and enable workforce sustainability.
  • Reporting: workforce disclosures are a growing component of ESG and corporate reporting and will drive workforce sustainability by increasing transparency and accountability. The Forum’s Good Work Alliance is currently developing metrics and reporting guidelines to complement the Good Work Framework.

Governments also have an important role to play through appropriate regulation and through promoting reskilling. Recent attempts to promote workforce sustainability have included “right to disconnect” laws in a number of European countries, and legislation establishing work-from-home as a legal right in the Netherlands.

Governments, business and civil society should all play their part in making good work a reality for all as a vital component of a sustainable future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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