Too many business leaders launch a digital workforce management (WFM) transformation plan without first understanding what WFM means in an age where the workplace is being shaped not just by technology but gig workers and demands for more flexibility. That’s the key message to emerge from author Jarrod McGrath’s new book, The Digital Workforce.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion at tech disruptor Atlassian’s headquarters, McGrath said that too many organizations don’t understand, nor do they execute WFM plans effectively, and are “woefully unaware” of how technology has an impact on staff and their business.
McGrath added that this knowledge gap is understandable: WFM is a relatively new concept that people are struggling to define more than ever before.
“Ask 10 different people and you’ll receive 10 different definitions,” McGrath said. “Consequently, when companies try to roll out a digital WFM transformation project, there’s no base line you can measure it by and the results of such a transformation are difficult to judge.”
He added that digital WFM extends beyond traditional notions of scheduling, headcount, and optimizing the talent mix (full-timers, contingent workers etc) and must be viewed through the eyes of employees, business leaders and customers.
“How does each of these stakeholders stand to benefit from a shift from manual WFM to digital WFM?” McGrath said.
Georgina Poulos, global director people at retailer T2 Tea, has considered all three stakeholders in her organization's quest for digital WFM.
"Underpinning improved team member experience is the redeployment of administrative hours through automation," she said at the event. "Not only does this benefit team members, but it can also provide fantastic customer experiences and result in improved business outcomes."
Effective WFM in 2018 is heavily reliant on data, McGrath added.
"If you’ve got really good data you can go a lot further along the digital transformation journey," he said. "For example, if you’re trying to optimize the number of staff you have in your store verses the amount of sales you make, the only way you can get that right is to have very accurate data to start with so you can make your estimates or forecasts based off something that’s credible."
Another critical element in digital WFM is AI technology.
"AI sparks a number of fears, from a Terminator-style apocalypse to the threat it poses against jobs,” McGrath said. “It will put certain roles to the sword but it can also free up workers from laborious and repetitive tasks. If applied correctly, it could mean employees at all levels could make a more significant impact on the business and leave the grunt work to the robots. Getting it right means approaching it from a human capital perspective, rather than a capitalistic perspective."
Retail, health and service organizations have the most to learn, but also the most to gain, from digital WFM, McGrath said.
However, while the world is now immersed in what McGrath and others describe as a "Fourth Industrial Revolution", WFM is still handled by tools that date from a bygone era.
“We’re in the midst of this still relatively new industrial revolution, with the Internet of Things, workforce robots and blockchain technology playing a part in how workforces are managed,” he said. “But much like policy makers, business leaders have not been able to keep up with these advancements and are failing to leverage technology in areas such as human resources, payroll and workforce management.”
McGrath said the problem is exacerbated by the fact that newer generations entering the workforce simply expect technology to play a positive role in how their work is structured.
"Businesses are failing to enact policies around flexible working, for example, frustrating employees who need this flexibility to, say, participate in the gig or sharing economies in addition to their day-to-day jobs."
While he conceded it can be "overwhelming" for HR leaders ascertaining where to start on a digital workforce management journey, the key is to ask this fundamental question: what is our business strategy?
"Often you can have a strategy that’s related to a workforce or project initiative but if that’s not aligned to the business strategy you’ve got a disconnect straight away," he said. "If ultimately the senior leadership team is not fully across why you’re doing it, it will be questioned."