Why the Future of Work Is a Challenge for Government

The federal workforce needs to be reskilled. Expect major disruptions ahead.

A hopeful article in Harvard Business Review concludes that, in the private sector, “Employees are eager to embrace retraining” and organizations need to take advantage of this opportunity. Government agencies need to hear that message as well.

Co-authors Joseph Fuller, Manjari Raman, Judith Wallenstein, and Alice de Chanlendar surveyed workers and business leaders in 11 countries and found the two groups saw the future in different ways. Business leaders were anxious about finding and hiring the skills their companies needed and worried about what they would do with existing employees. The workers, however, saw opportunities and benefits from the pending changes, and were “much more eager to embrace change and learn new skills than their employers gave them credit for.”

Forces Shaping the Future of Work

The authors identified half a dozen forces that are shaping how work will be done in the not-too-distant future. Organizations have to begin now to prepare for the transitions that will be driven by:

  • Accelerating changes brought about by technology, such as robots and driverless trucks
  • The growing demand for technical skills, such as cybersecurity
  • Changing employee expectations, such as a desire for greater team autonomy
  • Shifting labor demographics, such as an increase in older workers
  • Different work models, such as an increasing reliance on work done through complex partner ecosystems instead of within a single organization
  • Evolving operating environment, such as greater political and economic volatility

Interestingly, in their survey of workers, the authors found: “significant majorities of workers reported that they—and not their government or their employers—were responsible for equipping themselves to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving workplace.” Still, there were actions that organizational leaders can take.

The authors identified five ways leaders can get started:

1. Don’t just set up training programs, create a learning culture. Organizations can no longer engage in training at specific times (e.g., upon hiring new employees), but rather they need to develop a continuous-learning model. This might be online or in-person, but increasingly will involve job rotations and hiring for attitude.

2. Engage employees in the transition instead of herding them through it. As organizations transform, they have to engage employees in the change, not merely inform them. One organization, instead of targeting reductions, required all employees to resign and re-apply for the newly-created positions in the redesigned organization.  

3. Look beyond the “spot market” for talent. Allow employees to retrain for new jobs rather than turning to the broader market. For example, as AT&T moved from a hardware-centric to a software-centric company, it undertook a strategic workforce skills assessment and identified 100,000 employees whose skills would no longer be needed, and identified areas where there would be skill shortages. It then invested $1 billion to develop online training for new jobs such as cloud computing and an internal talent pipeline for these re-skilled employees.

4. Collaborate to deepen the talent pool. Competition for scarce talent generally ends in failure. Private sector utility companies, for example, have joined together to build a new talent pipeline by targeting elementary, middle, and high schools to encourage students to work in their industry and develop needed skills. In the federal government, this is done by some specialized agencies needing STEM talent, such as NASA and the Department of Energy, but there is not yet a systematic approach across government.

5. Find ways to manage chronic uncertainty. Organizations need to be able to respond quickly to shifts in their environment. Some private sector companies have internal platforms that allow employees to volunteer to work on projects outside of their own function. This allows employees to develop new skills and benefits the organization by drawing on untapped talent within their organization. This approach is used in some federal agencies, called GovConnect, organized by the Office of Personnel Management.

The key lesson, according to one manager interviewed by the authors, is: “If you give people the opportunity to learn something new or to show their craft, they will give you their best work. The magic is in providing the opportunity.”