The Transformed Talent Terrain.

The Future Does Not Fit in the Containers of the Past. Edition 35.

Even prior to Covid-19 the talent landscape was undergoing seismic changes driven by technology, demographic shifts and societal changes.

Over the past 15 months Covid-19 has accelerated, accentuated and amplified these changes and added some additional alterations which are likely to lead to the largest shifts in decades on how talent is managed, grown and retained and how talent manage and grow their careers.

There is a divide between white-collar office workers and blue-collar front line/ factory workers and this piece focusses on the changes impacting the former versus the latter and is possibly more relevant in Western countries than those in Asia.

The five intertwined forces.

Five forces ricocheting off and re-enforcing each other are sculpting a new terrain.

1.Demographics: Most countries outside of Africa and the Middle East are aging as people live longer and there is less immigration and fewer children being born. This means more people are going to stay in the workforce longer. In addition, those aged under 34 having grown up in a very different economy (less growth and more shocks), technological (digital natives) and social set up (more liberal and more ethnically diverse) and have very different mindsets and expectations than those over 50 that might be currently leading companies and making up most of Board leadership.

2.Unbundled Workplace: Post vaccine the office is not dead but it will play a lesser role for a variety of reasons from talent preference to work part of the time from home or near their homes ( a third place that is not home or the old HQ office), a need for companies to either manage costs ( lower real estate costs) or be more aggressive in filling open roles and finding scarce expertise (allowing talent to live wherever they want), Covid-19 has made remote work a reality and very few companies will be able to compete for talent without being open to it.

3.Technology: While broadband technology, cloud-based computing and communication software like Zoom and Slack have enabled remote work and collaboration we are on the cusp a quantum jump of enabling technology including integrated AI for improved competency, Voice and Augmented Reality for leaps in communication, and 5G for faster and more resilient connections.

4. Government and Policy: Most governments are tilting resources to labor and collective infrastructure rather than capital and private enterprise, recognizing that after years of disinvestment in society and poor market driven outcomes in some areas such as climate change the pendulum may have swung too far. It is also clear that company leadership is now being asked to take stands and work with, or influence government.

5. Culture: After a long while diverse voice and points of view are now both being heard and paid attention to all over the world as it is clear that for too long too many talented people’s potential was never unleashed or recognized as well as many company cultures needed to be rethought to ensure greater fairness, equality and opportunity.

The challenges and opportunities facing company management.

The new terrain provides some unique opportunities for companies to re-invent themselves to create more fluid, flexible, faster moving and lower cost talent organizations, while also raising challenges in managing cultures, engendering employee loyalty, controlling corporate narrative and dealing with an increasingly complex legal and political talent framework.

1 in 4 workers (26%) plans to look for a job at a different company once the pandemic has subsided, according to Prudential's latest Pulse of the American Worker Survey, conducted by Morning Consult in March. The number of workers planning to bolt their jobs is even higher (34%) for Millennials, the largest generation in the workforce today.

1.Faster moving, more flexible AND lower cost organizations: One of the key differences between a Hertz and an Uber is that Hertz has many fixed costs (they own the cars and have full time employees) while Uber has mostly variable costs (non-employee drivers who bring their own equipment to work). Uber could dial down their costs and then flex their company into food delivery and not just human delivery.

Due to modern technology, the furloughs and cost-reductions of some companies who grappled with a reduction in demand and new supply chains and creative ways to expand talent pools of companies who grappled with meeting a jump in demand, every smart company is re-visiting many “givens”.

Do all employees have to be located near their offices? What is an office and where should they be located and how much space does each company need in which markets?  Do all employees have to be full time? How can they re-aggregate different teams and talents around the world in virtual space? How can they combine internal talent with external talent? Is there a new type of worker who is neither full time nor free-lance?

Make no mistake companies who believe they can re-start or go back to where the world is in 2019 are very few if any. There are too many smart people in board rooms and leadership of firms who know this opportunity to re-invent the acquisition, retention, organization and housing of talent will not come again and if they do not adapt to the new realities, they may no longer be around for the next time.

2. Managing cultures and work product: When some talent works remotely most of the time and others work in the office or when some talent is full time and others half time and different countries have different work environments how does one manage a culture?

Does culture require a campus? Is cult like training and indoctrination a part of creating a shared story and fabric of being? Or can stories be told and shared, training proffered, and relationships built without a major need for physical space or gathering outside of a few interludes or for particular phases of a career (early or on boarding).

And if these gatherings are needed do people have to come to the museum like campus of the HQ filled with artifacts of the past or could they all gather for a week at a remote location in a fun place? Automattic has all its employees gathering once a year for a week while teams that work together gather once a quarter for a week at locations of their choice. All the relationship building, training and creative brainstorming is achieved without offices.

Does work product and quality control require physical rubbing of shoulders for white collar workers. Do creative types have to hang out with other creative types for the spark of an idea to be elicited?

What need is there for a manager to physically hover over a person to monitor work product? Has the quality of work declined significantly in distributed workplaces?

Much of the nostalgia for offices is built around serendipity, relationship building and collaboration which is probably true but in no way requires more than a small portion of a work month. (It is likely that the hybrid model will focus on month or quarter as the time period versus the week. Two days a week does not really allow people the flexibility to live far away from their workplace as one week a month or two weeks a quarter do)

Early indications imply that employees prefer working from home at least some or a majority of their time and bosses have got better at being bosses since they now treat employees as people versus as workers since they see them home with their families and pets as well as they have become better communicators since they can no longer expect employees to figure out what is needed through osmosis.

But a company culture is not just physical space and connections with bosses and other employees but also the opportunity to grow and the purpose and values of the company one works for.

Some of the best companies in the world have enhanced their cultures by taking more aggressive roles in standing up for the right things, working closely with government and giving back to society.

Attracting and retaining talent will be as much about policy, purpose and meaning as about fancy campuses or group gatherings and these do not depend on a firm’s organizational structure or the physical footprint of how their talent is housed!

3. The increased role of policy as part of a company’s C-Suite: Recently Tim Cook of Apple noted that while Apple was not interested in getting involved in politics, they needed to take a stand on policies. In many ways next generation talent expects their leadership to take stands.The pressure on the CEOs of Facebook, Google and others are increasingly internal as they seek to attract and retain talent.

If in the old days not taking a policy stand was the smart thing to do since all sides of an issue are potential customers, it is today seen as spineless and cross-purposes to the agenda of most companies to put forth purpose led agendas. If companies stand for a purpose, they will need to take stands on policy increasingly because their talent will demand it.

Clearly this is easier said than done and is fraught with peril but in the cauldron of continuous commotion inflamed by technology, culture, and diversity every leadership team needs to be aware that policy is as much about talent retention and giving muscle to purpose and values as almost anything else in a fast-moving far-flung talent landscape.

The risks and potential for talent.

The new terrain brings many upsides for talent including a) greater flexibility in working conditions to fit one’s lifestyle, b) increased opportunities given the ability to be hired by any company in the world as one’s physical location becomes less of a constraint and c) new access to learning and experiences as more and more events and people that may have been roped off at a Cannes or Davos or TED or Harvard are available via a Masterclass, a Coursera or a Google Certification. Even as events go back to physical it is very likely a low cost or free online option will continue.

On the other hand, there are some significant risks which include a) the loss of full-time income as companies seek to re-think full time employment, b) increased competition since while the new terrain allows one to perform a job anywhere it allows anyone in the world to perform your job and c) the need to navigate a complex web of different demographic and cultural cues with less ability to build in person relationships or learn from the nuances of the observed but the unsaid.

In order to thrive in this world, one may want to consider this three-pronged plan.

Prong 1. Take charge of your own career and plan it with a long-time horizon: Most people will work for four to five decades because they will be healthy longer, will find meaning in work or may need to work to make ends meet. A company remains in the S&P 500 for less than 15 years and as the world accelerates and shifts it is important to think about your career in different acts and plan for it. This piece entitled 12 Career-Lessons is one person’s perspective you may find useful:

Prong 2. Consider using the next six months to do six things that will serve you well including a) stop thinking about a new normal, b) build new screen skills, c) learn to operate as a company of one which means it is critical to build a brand, earn trust and be highly collaborative and d) learn to do with less so it increases your degree of freedom and gives you optionality and leverage. More details on the six-step plan here:

Prong 3. Cultivate and grow yourself: Your career grows when you grow. And you are more than your work expertise. You will outlive your career. You may outlive many careers. By keeping your career in perspective amidst the greater and broader life you live will help you succeed also at work and as a leader. So, a) learn to deal with love, loss and learning, b) be open. c) mind the gap between who you are and who you want to be, d) unleash the power of compound improvement, e) learn to improvise like jazz and f) read some poetry. More on all these here:

While the future is uncertain and unknown, if the past is any indicator on the whole things get better. Every person has talent and potential. Every person is both an employee and manager (even if all you manage is yourself). The future does not fit in the containers of the past and neither do you.

You are an immigrant crossing the line into tomorrow’s terrain for talent. And there is no one there but you who can turn you back…

Photography by Christopher Burkett.

Rishad Tobaccowala (@rishad) is the author of the bestselling “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” published by HarperCollins globally in January 2020. It has been described as an “operating manual” for managing people, teams and careers in the age we live in and The Economist Magazine called it perhaps the best recent book on Stakeholder Capitalism. Business and Strategy named it among the best business books of the year and the best book on Marketing in 2020. Rishad is also a speaker, teacher and advisor who helps people think, feel and see differently about how to grow their companies, their teams and themselves. More at