Whether you work in a startup or a huge multinational conglomerate, your organization exists as part of one or more country ecosystems, with layers of laws, regulations, rules, practices, and customs that define ways your organization must treat its workers.
And how those layers of rules operate inevitably influences your organization’s culture. They dictate many of the activities the people function performs, defining what is allowable with practices ranging from hiring to firing.
Countries and regions are ecosystems in which every citizen should be able to thrive. But few geographies function that inclusively. Instead, there are always populations that benefit from the design of country ecosystems, and there are those who can be dramatically underserved.
The future of work in a country or region is determined by a complex set of factors. These include:
- Employment laws. In April 2020, the United States shot up from 3.7% unemployment to over 11% unemployment — in three weeks. In Germany during the same period, the unemployment rate rose from 5.1% to 5.7% What was the difference? The Hartz Reforms in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s changed the German rules for the ways that workers could be laid off. While those rules can make it challenging to fire a worker for cause, they also require employers to retain and retrain workers, and to support a pool of unemployment resources to help them change jobs if needed.
- Economic conditions. It’s a simple truism that a good economy can mean high employment. But those rules have changed dramatically in a post-pandemic world. For example, though the United States in early 2023 was reeling from high inflation, the country also had 11 million open jobs. As many of the rules of economies change, we no longer have as many predictively linear impacts on the future of work.
- Job quality. Key issues for work in a country or region don’t revolve around the simple binary analysis of employed or unemployed. As the author Zeynep Ton has pointed out, “good jobs” include good pay and benefits, manageable hours, appropriate shifts, reasonable working conditions, and meaningful work. The policies of some countries make these conditions far more likely, while other countries leave them to market forces, which can have a significant impact on job quality.
- Workforce mismatches. In September 2022, the Queensland Government of Australia invited me to spend time with their workforce group, exploring strategies for dealing with a challenging problem: Not enough hospitality workers in their hotels and restaurants. The post-pandemic demand for travel had shot through the roof, but the pandemic had shut off a flow of workers to the region. In a world of exponential change, those mismatches are likely to occur with increasing frequency.
- Skills mismatches. Without widely-available and broadly-effective training programs in higher education, vocational programs, and employee development in organizations, high demand for key work roles will continue to mean significant shortages that can’t be quickly fixed. This is especially true for the 60% of jobs In the U.S. that are ‘place-based’, requiring a worker to be onsite. Healthcare work, construction, hospitality… All of these require most workers to be onsite. That’s especially challenging for fields that require long training periods.
- Technological disruption. Without policies to continually monitor the impact of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, rapid technology adoption can mean a significant and unanticipated shift in the need for critical skills.
I would understand completely if your response to all of these macro-economic issues was simply: Sure, but what can I do?
Plenty. In the same way that communities are ecosystems, so are regional and national systems of work and learning. And you can always become more knowledgeable about how those ecosystems function, and how you can have an impact.
HR can take action
The first step is to take the time to understand how your national ecosystem works. Your HR role may require you to understand the rules and regulations creating complexities in the process of hiring and compensation.
But there are plenty of other national ecosystem elements, such as systems of education, the dynamics of employment in different industries, and the connective tissue between these elements.
Having a deeper understanding of a country’s systems of work and learning can help you to better determine the ways you can contribute to and influence them.
The second step is to take part in professional communities that bring together stakeholders from different domains. Believe it or not, decision-makers in schools, colleges, non-profits and non-governmental organizations, and government agencies, often don’t have any deep understanding about the ways that decision-makers in organizations work, nor do they even know where to start to try to collaborate with them.
The third step is to prioritize where you think you can have an impact, and dive into that issue. It may be a local issue, like building apprenticeship programs with local community colleges. Or it might be a national issue, like bringing attention to the critical skillset your industry needs to have the talented workers it requires in the future.
Whatever you prioritize, work with stakeholders inside your organization to help them understand the challenge and opportunity you see, and encourage others to become involved at the community or country level.
What should you do next?
- Commit yourself to learning. No country or region has a completely-optimized system of work, and few organizations are guaranteed the flow of human talent they will need in the future. Learn how your country’s system works, and identify opportunities to become involved in improving it.
- Leverage your organization’s resources to connect with others at the country level. For example, countries like Singapore have built the connective tissue between industry and educators, encouraging employers to work together to define their needs for future skills, and continually delivering requirements to educators so their programs can teach those critical skills.
- Educate people inside your organization about the opportunities you see. It can be especially valuable to help line-of-business decision-makers to understand these macro issues, and to continually co-create practices to adapt when specific skills are harder to find or develop.
Knitting together the four domains of individuals, organizations, communities, and countries
In recent years, the landscape of the future of work has been continually subject to dramatic shifts, and there is no reason to believe this will ever slow down.
By stepping back and seeing the broad set of issues in each of these domains, HR professionals can be far better equipped not only to quickly adjust to rapid changes, but to help workers and decision-makers throughout the organization to continually adapt themselves.
You might even consider enlisting others in your people function to stand up a working group where you regularly and frequently do independent research in each of these domains, and come together to share insights and determine how best to adapt the organization’s operating system for change.
That’s a process that can help a broad range of stakeholders, today and tomorrow.
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