CWS 3.0: June 15, 2011 - Vol. 3.14

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In the Spotlight: Customizing the Work Experience May Be the Answer

The June issue of CWS 30 features Susan M. Cantrell, author of Workforce of One. Cantrell and co-author David Smith present the case that companies will need to treat individual employees as a workforce of one to motivate and retain them in a competitive global arena. Based on extensive Accenture research, the book outlines approaches an organization can take and show how standard HR practices can be replaced by customized work experiences for employees. Cantrell is a research fellow at the Accenture Institute for High Performance. She also has her own research and consulting practice. Editorial Director Subadhra R. Sriram chatted with Cantrell about her book, being a contingent and the growing role that a contingent workforce is playing in today’s economy.

Q: Explain the “workforce of one” approach.
A: Basically, the idea is to treat your workforce as a workforce of one rather than as a single monolithic entity with standard one-size-fits-all people processes, ranging everything from learning to performance appraisals to career succession to work place environment. People are individuals and they need different things from their organization in order to be able to thrive. Each individual tends to learn in different ways. Why don’t we treat them as a workforce of one, and tailor or customize our learning strategies to the way people learn best or our reward strategies to the way people are motivated best. We also need to modify our career paths to what uniquely motivates individuals and harnesses their strengths and capabilities.

Q: How will you apply this practically to the contingent workforce?
A: One of the things that is happening is we are seeing a big shift to more and more companies using a contingent workforce, not only to cut costs but to provide the individual with more flexibility and customization. You get more flexibility when you work, where you work, and the kinds of projects you work on by being a member of the contingent workforce. Companies need to treat them and tailor their people processes to meet their unique needs as well.

Q: What recommendations would you make when someone wants to apply this to their particular workforce?
A: There are a lot of different ways of using a contingent workforce. Let’s take people that used to be employees. You already know them. They’re prescreened. You have all of their history. Recent people who have retired are often sought after and used. Another category is mothers who are out on leave for a couple of years. Being able to create those kinds of networks and then maybe bring them back into the organization.

With the advent of the recession, so many companies had their employees take furloughs. What happened then was individuals learned how to mix and match opportunities from multiple companies. It actually hastened the approach toward customization, and individuals learned they can stitch together a portfolio of work from different projects from different companies. That’s something that actually has grown since the recession. Individuals have realized the benefits of that. They get to choose work, taking into account their passions and interests. We’re seeing a lot of companies cater toward that, especially with the younger generation who want that flexibility and who are really less interested in climbing the career ladder, but more concerned about doing really engaging work.

I’m sure you know of the big trend in the contingent workforce is the idea of “talent in the crowd.” Crowd sourcing— the idea of carving projects into small bite-size components and putting it out to the crowd in small chunks, which allows individuals to work different types of hours, to be able to work around whatever is going on in their personal life and giving the company the ability to be flexible based on changes of supply or demand quite rapidly.

Q: What are the trends that led you to the workforce of one concept?
A. What was interesting was this concept came directly out of talking to employes and managers. I interviewed a couple dozen employees and managers, across industries, across geographies and asked them a very simple, but broad question: “What would it take for you to perform better in your job and in your future jobs and to create more value for the company?” We had done a statistical research study that linked best practices in terms of people management to financial results. What we found was the greatest impact in terms of financial results statistically speaking was how supported employees felt in their work. Very few employees felt much supported.

I just went out and did almost basic market research and asked what would it take for you to feel supported in your work and improve your performance. That was where the workforce of one concept was born. People said loudly and clearly, HR isn’t particularly relevant to me. All of these processes designed to support my performance don’t. They need to be local and uniquely relevant to me to really make an impact. Again, I need to be able to customize my jobs to really draw on my unique strengths and passions. I need to be able to have motivators that are unique to me. I need to be able to have learning designed to the way I learn best.

From the company’s perspective, they are dealing with more diversity than they have ever had to deal with before. Diversity on every front, it’s not just demographic diversity in terms of gender, and ethnicity. What’s interesting is that they’re also realizing that even within groups, not every African American female living in America, for example, is going to want or need the same thing. They need to go much deeper than those stereotypes that typically occur when we just select the workforce based on demographics.

Companies are very conscious about being able to harness that diversity and capitalize on it. This is really going to be their key to success when they compete on talent, which is the way most organizations really compete today.

Q: What led you to write the book?
A: We knew that companies had to figure out some way of tailoring their people processes to individuals. What we didn’t know when we started the book was how they were going to do that in a scalable way, a manageable way, a cost-effective way. In other words, what would that practically look like? That was the nut that I think we really tried to crack. Sure, it’s a great idea. I think everybody would agree with it, but how do you do that in reality? I think that’s the real value of the book.

Q: What’s the relationship between this approach and the ongoing talent shortage state?
There is a relationship. In fact, my current project right now is looking at the lack of skilled workers that we have in our workforce. In order to crack that, we need to be able to attract and retain them like you wouldn’t believe. Creating a customized employment relationship is going to be the key. Research shows that people want something more. They want to be able to have a company that helps them shine, helps them do interesting work, helps them develop, and helps meet their personal needs at whatever stage of life that they’re in. This idea of offering them a customized employment relationship, we feel is really going to be the key that helps companies deal with this talent shortage, the skills shortage that all businesses are facing.

Q: How would you tailor rewards for contingent workers?
A: Before I answer that specifically, let me set a broader context. Companies must start to extend their people practices to the contingent workforce. What I would recommend to companies is to not necessarily assume that they (contingents) are all motivated in the same way. For example, I am a contingent worker. I’m highly skilled and I choose it strategically rather than being forced to.

Basically, apply what I recommend in the book for managing your employees to the contingent workforce. What does that mean? It means being able to give them a menu of reward options to choose from. Maybe they don’t want to take it all just in salary. Maybe they would like some breaks on services as well. There are some agencies that offer benefits to their contingent workforce.

You could actually have tailored benefits and tailored rewards. Maybe somebody would like a better health plan as a contingent worker. Some of these agencies are starting to offer those too.

Q: Mention two companies that impressed you in terms of how they have taken this workforce of one approach forward.
A: P&G, because they are customizing and tailoring people processes across the board for their employees, but they are also being very strategic. They are starting to think about it very strategically for the contingent workers. They have been written about for their efforts around crowd sourcing a lot of their product ideas

What really impressed me when I interviewed them was the fact that they are really consciously starting to think through how to extend their HR policies to contingent workers. That is something that most companies aren’t very strategic about. Just because I am a contingent worker, for example, does that mean I don’t get training or learning opportunities? What does that mean in terms of motivation and rewards? How do I keep them engaged if they are creating so much value? I think P&G is leading the way in terms of being strategic about it.

I’ve seen a lot of really neat models. Some of them I mention in my book. I think a medical supply maker, Nations Health. They divide the work in such tiny pieces of call center calls that they farm it out to thousands of individuals rather than a few long-term contractors.

Q: What does the future hold?
A: I don’t think organizations are going to go away. I’m asked this all the time. People usually say with the workforce of one, the first thought they have is we aren’t going to have any companies — it means everybody is going to be their own worker? I don’t think that will ever come to play. I do think, though, that companies will continually use more and more of a contingent workforce. Business models have to turn on a dime. They need this ability to tap talent on demand; there is no doubt about it. This idea of being able to tap prescreened pools of talent when and where they need them is going to be a critical capability for organizations to be able to succeed in the future.

With that, I think this model of contingent workers is going to evolve. We are already showing that it is evolving to a model where there are highly skilled people adopting it. It’s going to evolve where employers are going to think strategically about their contingent workers and think about applying people processes, extending them to their contingent workers

This idea of creating a customized work relationship, being a contingent worker for a while allows you to get that customized relationship at certain stages of your life. Then, going back into an organization might be better for other stages of your life.

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