Sara Johnson: Leaders must adapt to the changing world of work

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint
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The world of work is changing—and so are workers’ expectations. The call to leaders is clear: adapt now or risk the organization’s future.

Adaptability is one of the keys to effective leadership. Those who adapt well know how to adjust their style when the situation calls for it. Another key is continual learning—being willing to find new ways to do things that will help you lead others and your organization while also improving worker satisfaction and organizational outcomes.

These elements of effective leadership are especially necessary in our current work environment. As employees around the world return to offices and work sites, leaders must recognize and act upon the reality of our new world of work. Not doing so means potentially losing good workers and watching organizations fail as a result—and the price of this turnover has a ripple effect on our communities and society, including economic impacts, hiring challenges, and an increased competition for quality workers.

Evidence of a workforce shift is already mounting. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 11.5 million workers quit their jobs between April and June of 2021. People are rethinking what is important to them and, well, it’s no longer “business as usual.” According to Shahar Erez, CEO of the freelance talent platform Stoke, “The Great Resignation is propelled by three forces: the changing generation, the economic crisis, and the realization people have had that they can have a different social contract, spending more time with family when they work remote and skip the commute.”

In addition to those factors, workers say personal safety is also a consideration during the ongoing pandemic. As new strains of COVID-19 spread, working in a collective environment doesn’t feel safe to some.

So, how does a leader adapt to navigate these new realities? Learning fast is necessary as is recognizing that what was once important to their workforce is no longer a priority. In the 2000s, many companies focused on fun—creating workspaces with recreational activities so their employees could play and decompress at work. Fast forward to today and fun has fallen by the wayside.

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “Future-Proofing Your Organization,” the authors note that what matters to employees now is having their work connect to a meaningful purpose. They also value inclusiveness and autonomy. Workers want to be trusted to do their jobs—on their terms—and leaders need to understand how to balance their employees’ personal needs with the company’s ongoing business strategy.

For years, we have said that a good business strategy includes a focus on customers. Customer-centric business practices have been put in place to achieve this strategic goal. It is now time to use employee-centric business practices that will meet the needs and demands of your workforce—a workforce that will now choose where to work based on how autonomously and meaningfully they can work.

Leaders, my advice to you is this: quickly make the shift to being more employee centric. While it may force you into uncharted waters, adapting will help the future success of your organization, those you serve, and your employees as we navigate this new world of work.•


Sara Johnson is clinical assistant professor for the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Envrionmental Affairs and director of IU Executive Education.

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One thought on “Sara Johnson: Leaders must adapt to the changing world of work

  1. There is another dimension of organizational leadership that is critical to success now and in the future. It is the necessity of the leader to engage employees/workers in a conversation to explain the critical relationships between customers, suppliers, management, and employees of a company as a fundamental, basic requirement to succeed. Leaders often assume anyone working understands these critical relationships, when in fact many workers don’t. Basic realities such as “it is the customers that enable the company to provide pay and benefits to employees” must be explained and discussed so that there is an established culture that respects all customers, even the difficult customers, by providing excellent customer service whether there is direct contact with the customer or not. (A line worker may never have any contact with a customer but if they perform their duties with the maximum level of performance and integrity, they contribute greatly to “excellent customer service”.) The same approach applies to working relationships between management and workers and suppliers. One of the greatest deficits in the current work world is an emphasis on “professionalism” regardless of the nature of the work. Anyone performing any work or service for compensation by another can approach what they do with a conscientious, caring approach to maximize performance which results in the best outcome for all. It is the responsibility of leaders to open the eyes of those they are entrusted to lead to understand such basic realities, in a kind and respectful manner.