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Leading change

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Telecommuting, gig work and Big Data are just some of the trends changing the workplace. Here’s how to adapt and lead in the new year.


This story appears in the January 2016 digital edition of SmartReport on Leadership. Click here to access this free magazine.


Many of us went to work today without seeing our bosses, and perhaps without leaving the house. Maybe we worked set hours, or maybe we worked whenever we wanted. Some communicated with dozens of people without saying anything out loud. Many of us used some kind of company-supplied device that helps us do our jobs but also tracks us — possibly without our realizing. Some or all of these things happened at offices, in company vehicles, at homes, at local coffee shops or in co-working spaces.

Many of us work long hours but aren’t full-time employees; some of us want to change that, while some employers don’t. Do we work for our contractor or franchisee, or for the parent company? How much should people be paid per hour? When should someone get overtime? Oh, and there’s the health care law that’s still being implemented. Cities, states and federal agencies, as well as the federal courts, are considering all of these issues while the public tries to wrap its mind around the concepts and employers decide whether to play offense or defense.

Some of us still have old-style performance reviews, but more and more people don’t. Some companies don’t even want to have management, fixed hours, vacation policies, offices or job titles. The alternatives are sorting themselves out, but they and almost anything “formal” we do at work increasingly run through some kind of software. So what happens when you report to an algorithm instead of a human?

It’s not just the core of work that’s being affected. Business travel isn’t the same. Does it make sense to go to that old-line hotel when Airbnb exists, to take taxis and private cars when Uber and Lyft are ready to get you there? How is your company handling that shift? Does it trust employees to turn in only the business-related receipts (digitally, of course)? Hint: Uber wants to help.

Even our health and home life are now employer concerns, especially at bigger companies that want to make a splash with generous parental leave, sick leave and scheduling policies. But many of us have none of those benefits or a meager version. What’s the cost of losing (or never getting) talented people because of your leave policies or because you offer hourly employees no scheduling flexibility?

On the positive side of workplace wellness, many organizations are determined to help employees be healthier, for everyone’s benefit. Enter company-issued fitness devices and other perks. Sure, they are fun, but they are also a treasure trove of data for employers — and potential legal liability. And do doctors even care how many steps you’ve walked?

Finally, let’s not forget the familiar tropes of “millennials!” (and the generation right behind them), Big Data and the human element of work, which refuses to disappear even as computers or robots encroach on our jobs.

This isn’t the future of work. It’s the now. What are you doing about it? How will you ensure your company is ready? How will you lead?

Here are a few areas managers and employers will want to focus on this year:

What is an employee?

This is not a philosophical question. If you have 45 full-time-equivalent employees, for instance, hiring five more will become a major financial question this year with the latest provisions of the federal health care law. Hiring 1099 workers or full-timers means tax withholdings, paying unemployment tax and various other benefits — or not.

At the same time, you can try to call all your workers independent contractors, or freelancers, or whatever, but you might get sued over your creative definition, like Uber, or find that you can’t provide the level of service and training you promised, as some startups have discovered.

And even if you settle the question of what kind of worker you wish to hire, you may have to deal with updated overtime rules. And if you have franchisees, you may need to brush up on joint-employer law.

Part of the issue is that the workforce has evolved faster than our definitions. There’s little agreement on the number of “gig economy” workers, for instance, because people can file taxes and declare themselves in myriad ways. Some people want the flexibility of being a 1099er, such as retirees looking to keep active, while others desperately want full-time work but are seeing only “flexible” part-time employment devoid of benefits and useful flexibility.

If talent is the differentiator, as we keep hearing, you’ll want to consider the quality and tenure of your workforce, and whether the additional costs of more full-timers is offset by the productivity and knowledge gains.

Where and when do your people work?

In many ways, geographically dispersed teams are not new or unique. Companies have had multiple locations and been in multiple countries for centuries. Militaries have always set strategy and direction from afar, then relied on largely autonomous, trained units to execute.

Perhaps we’ve been fooled by the ease with which so many jobs can be done remotely than to technology and other enablers. But if you’re allowing remote work or flexible schedules, giving permission is only the beginning.

You need training, processes, technology and trial and error to help these employees integrate with the rest of the workforce, to help on-site, 9-to-5 employees adjust, and to keep everyone motivated, satisfied and informed. If you simply let people work from wherever without any thought, don’t be surprised when you eventually rescind flexible work arrangements and damage morale.

And don’t forget about flexibility. There are two sides. One is giving employees, when possible, the opportunity to choose their own hours, and while doing so, helping them keep in touch with their goals and the needs of the organization. The other side is what retailers have been seeing: on-call scheduling is unfair to hourly employees, publicly unpopular and potentially a disadvantage as competitors move to more employee-friendly scheduling policies.

Flexibility is a two-way street. It’s not meant to help employees work part time for full-time pay, and it’s not intended to be a way for employers to gain flexibility while taking advantage of employees — at least not if companies expect high productivity and retention in return.

How do you evaluate employees?

The annual performance review and the stack rankings of the Jack Welch era appear to be in retreat. What’s replaced that is a mishmash of solutions involving frequent feedback, increased communication and goal-setting, and even attempts at dismantling corporate hierarchy.

Here’s the thing: Leaders still need a way to determine and document how employees are doing. Employees do their best when they are trained, informed and given feedback — and given opportunities to provide feedback themselves — on a regular basis. Companies benefit from a culture of trust, communication and good intent. There are many ways to get there, but processes won’t work if the people involved aren’t able or willing to take the right actions.

How do you manage employee data?

There is no shortage of data if employers wish to collect them, starting with recruitment and through all sorts of employee actions and interactions. That’s not even counting the publicly available data on employees through social media and search engines.


But many organizations have yet to figure out how to properly take advantage of this abundance. One, data still need analysis, context and prioritization. Without a plan and proper resources, all you’ll have is a virtual pile of papers. Two, there are always legal concerns over the use of data. To return to Fitbit, it only recently started offering what it called HIPAA-compliant capabilities. Three, can you protect your data? Do you even have a rudimentary cybersecurity plan?

And finally, there are the morale and trust factors. You can track keyboard actions, put mandatory GPS on company devices and have camera and audio recording everywhere, but what signal does that send to employees? If your business circumstances demand some form of surveillance, how well have you communicated why this is the case? Do your policies encourage good behavior, or do they encourage gaming the system?

What ties all these together?

Whether it’s managing dispersed teams, dealing with Big Data, hiring, motivating and retaining employees or anything else, leaders and organizations need to be thoughtful and patient as they guide employees — and themselves — through the changing world of work. All the new advantages of technology, logistics and data can bring great benefits, but they will not do the trick without human judgment, resource allocation and hard work.

In short, you still need to lead.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief, covering leadership, management and entrepreneurship.