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Libby Marks

Workforce Transformation 101: Expert Insights & Best Practices

Get to grips with what workforce transformation means and why now’s the time to start – even if you start small.

Businesses operate in an increasingly competitive, volatile, and disruptive landscape. To survive, organizations – and the people who work in them – need agility, resilience, and an ever-changing skill set. 

Workforce transformation is concerned with building such a workforce. Transforming businesses so they’re prepared for success – whatever the future holds. 

We’ve talked to workforce transformation consultant - and Runn webinar series host - Nora Fleischhut to understand what workforce transformation involves and why businesses need to embrace it. 

Plus to answer the most important question – with something so big and business-critical – where on Earth do you start?  

What is workforce transformation?

Workforce transformation is concerned with developing your workforce to meet future demands effectively. But it isn’t just about asking what your people need to learn or change.

It requires a holistic review of your organization’s structure, leadership, culture, skills, resources, roles, and more – so that everything is aligned with your business strategy and future direction. 

Workforce transformation goes hand-in-hand with your workforce planning process to equip you with the people and skills you need – and ensure your organization equips them to do their very best work. 

Workforce transformation aims to increase overall business competitiveness, productivity, innovation, agility, efficiency, and adaptability. 

But – increasingly – it is also about creating an environment that attracts, retains, and empowers its employees, becoming an employer of choice for top talent. 

Why is workforce transformation so imperative?

Workforce transformation is imperative nowadays because of rapid shifts in the operating landscape. 

Where predictability, performance, and efficiency used to be enough to secure business success, that’s no longer enough. Dynamic market conditions – and the dizzying pace of technological and social change – mean that agility, adaptability, flexibility, and resilience are now key.  

Technological change

The rapid evolution of technology represents opportunity and disruption for every business - especially with the onward march of AI. Tech isn’t just reshaping roles but entire industries - and not just once but on an ongoing basis. Organizations need to build a resilient workforce that is comfortable with change and committed to lifelong learning. 

Evolving business landscapes

Technological, economic, societal, and environmental change is making market conditions dynamic and unpredictable. This requires a workforce that is agile and innovative, able to respond positively and productively in an ever-changing landscape. 

Rapid digitization, post-COVID

During the COVID-19 pandemic, global lockdowns forced rapid digitization of working practices, opening up new operational opportunities (and challenges). With remote and hybrid working remaining once lockdowns lifted, organizations need to support and upskill people to thrive in these environments.

Global talent competition

Digital-first, remote workplaces are also transforming recruitment, opening up a world of talent and opportunity  – but also global competition. Businesses need to adapt to become an employer of choice in this brave new world. 

Economic and competitive pressures

As economic pressures continue to bear down on businesses and their customers, organizations need to double down on value, customer service, operational efficiencies, and more.

We spoke to workforce transformation expert Nora Fleischhut about why now’s the time. She said: 

We’re on the edge of a paradigm shift - the end of one era and the start of another. The old logic isn’t working anymore. The age of inputs and outputs, of predict and control, that started with the Industrial Revolution no longer works. The cold, transactional view of people as replaceable cogs in a machine, of maximizing efficiency at all costs, of managers knowing the one best way of doing things, is on its way out.

Against this backdrop, it’s clear that organizations can’t rest on their laurels. Old business models are evolving – at best – and dying at worst. Businesses need to transform their workforces or fall – fatally – behind. 

Types of workforce transformation

It’s common to talk about types of workforce transformation - like: 

  • Digital transformation – Transforming roles and organizational capabilities through digitization and adoption of cutting-edge technologies.
  • Skills transformation – Upskilling and reskilling employees to enhance their technical, personal, and leadership skills.
  • Cultural transformation – Changing the way your organization and its people think and behave, to unlock new ways of working and align culture with values.
  • Operational transformation – Transforming your business processes and practices, for example, transitioning to a fully remote work model, or implementing different work schedules.
  • System and process transformation – Rethinking existing structures to create more agility, reduce bottlenecks, and improve efficiency.

However, in our opinion, these distinctions aren’t always helpful. Tackled in isolation, these types of workforce transformation are unlikely to deliver truly transformative results. But tackling them all at once can be too overwhelming. 

So what’s the answer? Nora Fleischhut has provided some tips and best practices below.

What does workforce transformation actually involve? 

Practically speaking, workforce transformation combines a range of complementary strategies, all to create a workforce that’s fit for the future of your business. 

Remember, this isn’t about changing people. It’s about changing your organization so that people are properly skilled, supported, and deployed for maximum impact.  

Some obvious examples of workforce transformation include reskilling and upskilling employees to empower them with the skills they need for the future of their role – such as familiarity with new technologies – and to equip your business with the capabilities you need for your strategic direction. 

The first steps towards this are strategic capacity planning and a skills audit, followed by appropriate skills management and development.

This workforce transformation strategy goes hand-in-hand with other activities, such as strategic recruitment and retention practices to secure top talent and in-demand technical and digital skills. 

Plus role design to create meaningful positions that align with your strategy, create impact, and unlock employee engagement. And – obviously – investigating and investing in transformative new technology and approaches.

You might also look at organizational structure and business operations – finding ways to streamline decision-making and cut down on bureaucracy, for example. Or ways to incorporate freelance contractors into your business for added capacity and agility. 

Then there’s cultural transformation too – everything from embedding cultures of innovation, continuous learning, and radical candor – to embracing people-centric practices like employee wellbeing programs and DEI initiatives.

Six benefits of workforce transformation 

You might have begun to guess at the benefits of workforce transformation from reading about the imperative behind it. 

Workforce transformation can increase competitiveness, reduce costs, and give you the talent advantage. This all helps you navigate and prosper in choppy economic waters. 

Let’s look in a bit more depth. 

  1. Higher efficiency and productivity – Workforce transformation aligns skills and technology to the work at hand, which can help people do more, better. 
  2. Lower operational costs – Workforce transformation can cut costs by eradicating duplication and wastage, and optimizing and streamlining workflows.
  3. Increased innovation – Workforce transformation equips employees with new skills and resources. Paired with a culture that encourages experimentation and innovation, it can foster new approaches to problem-solving.  
  4. Employee engagement – Cultural, operational, and skills transformation can create a more engaging environment, supporting higher staff satisfaction, as well as recruitment and retention goals. 
  5. More agility and adaptability – Supporting your workforce to develop more resilience, agility, and autonomy can help your business respond more positively to changing market conditions.
  6. Increased revenue – Transforming your workforce to be more productive, innovative, and agile has the potential to increase revenue and growth. 

Six challenges of workforce transformation 

To say workforce transformation is challenging is a massive understatement. It’s likely to be a rocky road, fraught with uncertainty and some level of resistance. 

The good news is that the challenges below can be overcome by implementing change thoughtfully and in partnership with the people it affects. 

  1. Organizational buy-in – Getting buy-in for workforce transformation is one of the biggest challenges. Whether that’s getting senior leaders to see the need for change or rallying the rest of the business around the decision. 
  2. Resistance to change – No one really likes change. It sounds like hard work and it's scary. People hear workforce transformation and inevitably think job losses. The key to overcoming this challenge is transparency, communication, and co-creation of your transformation program. More on this below. 
  3. Knowing where to start – As we said earlier, the sheer scale of workforce transformation can be overwhelming. Trying to improve how a business operates – and how its people deliver – is a lot of work. And the stakes are high. 
  4. Lack of data for decision-making – With the future fortunes of your business at stake, you need data-driven insights, not guesswork. But many organizations lack the insights they need –  into both internal and external factors – to make confident decisions. 
  5. Talent gaps – If you do take the brave step to overhaul your business, you could hit a wall when it comes to skills, especially in digital and new technology. The skills gap is growing and organisations face stiff competition to secure the talent they need for success. 
  6. Implementation issues – Many organizations lack the internal expertise – or even capacity – to manage a workforce transformation project. Some leaders are also disinclined to trust internal change champions, so it may be necessary to bring in external consultants. 

Where to start with workforce transformation?

Knowing where to start with workforce transformation is one of the major challenges. So we’ve got a few pointers to start your journey. 

(Your precise approach will depend on the nature of your business, the challenges you’re facing, and numerous other factors. So there’s no step-by-step guide you can follow - sorry!)

Recognise the need for workforce transformation

The first step is to recognize the need for – and value of – workforce transformation. 

Sometimes this might be triggered by business problems like employee turnover, low productivity, or falling customer satisfaction. Alternatively, the catalyst could be transformative technology or industry disruption. Or you might just recognize that times are changing and you need to change with them.

If you’re interested in learning more about workforce transformation, Nora recommends the following two books.

  • Reinventing Organisations by Frédéric Laloux
  • Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan

We also recommend listening to Edwin Jensen – CEO of Fuse Cooperative – talking about how he transformed his business during the pandemic in our Putting the Human into Resource Management webinar.

Get leadership buy-in

Next, you need to get leadership buy-in. Later, we’ll talk about the importance of top-down and bottom-up transformation – engaging everyone in the process. But senior leaders need to set the vision for the transformation process and get everyone excited about what’s to come.

(Spoiler alert: Leadership transformation will also be a key part of the process – reframing the role of leaders and managers from control and oversight, to coaching and development.)

Identify firestarters and energy blockers

Once you’re committed to the journey, you need to work out where to actually begin. Nora suggests a two-pronged approach to this.

  • Start with the people who are keenest to get involved – your firestarters 
  • Start where energy is most blocked 

To find out where energy is most blocked, Nora recommends looking at The Ready’s Operating System canvas. This has twelve key areas that organizations can consider and rate themselves on. This creates a heatmap of issues that you need to address. It’s a great way to break the process down and prioritize action.

Workforce transformation best practices

We asked Nora for her best practices that support meaningful, substantial workforce transformation, and here’s what she’s learned from her decade supporting business transformation – plus some of her favorite quotes.

  1. Start with why 

At the heart of any successful workforce transformation is a clear understanding of the 'why.' Before embarking on any change initiative, leaders must articulate the purpose, mission, vision, and values of their business – a concept famously articulated by Simon Sinek as Start with Why

By defining why your business exists and, more importantly, why it needs transformation, you set the stage for meaningful engagement. Employees are more likely to embrace change when they see the overarching purpose of the business, the need for change, and their personal role in achieving it.

  1. Ignite, inspire, invite

Transformation is not just about implementing new technologies or restructuring processes. It is about capturing the hearts and minds of the people who choose to work with you. Leaders need to ignite passion and imagination among employees. 

They should inspire people with a clear vision of the future and how workforce transformation can get them there. Nora recommends ‘showing, not telling’ – engaging people’s emotions and values, not just logic. 

Then they need to invite people to join them on the journey. Forcing people to do something always creates resistance.

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. - Antoine de Saint Exupéry
  1. Commit to inside-out transformation

All too often, businesses approach workforce transformation as a top-down exercise.

Senior leaders set strategy, managers execute it, and shopfloor employees simply go along with things. But great leaders know that ‘boots on the ground’ often have the best insights into what needs to change.

They see the day-to-day work, they experience the bottlenecks, and they deal with customer complaints. To truly transform a business, senior managers need to set the vision, direction, and guardrails – but everyone needs to contribute their unique expertise to the project. 

This won’t just help the business find new ways of working – it will also engage people more in the project – and could be the first step towards meaningful cultural change. 

Fleischhut recommends leaders ‘Remember the power of co – co-design, co-creation, collaboration, and communication.’

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. - Benjamin Franklin
  1. Sense and respond 

It makes sense that – when one of the aims of workforce transformation is to increase agility – you should approach it in an agile way. Nora recommends moving away from five-year plans and trying to predict the future. Instead, embrace small-scale experimentation, sense whether it is working, and respond accordingly. 

Nora advises finding ‘firestarters’ – people who share your ambition to make change happen – and giving them a fixed window to experiment with different ways of working. 

She recommends three months, as this gives you time to see a difference but isn’t so long that you waste time on ideas that aren’t working.

She uses the example of meetings – a common timesink and bugbear in modern businesses. Your experimenting team could simply stop having meetings for three months and measure the impact of that change. 

Whatever it is that you choose to try, share the outcome with other teams and help roll out best practices if they want to adopt it. 

Take one small step to workforce transformation – with Runn

We can’t help you wholesale reinvent the way you work. But we can help you experiment with new ideas and technology. 

Resource management software helps businesses improve how they:

  • Match people to opportunities - for the benefit of the business and the individual
  • Plan their workforce in the face of uncertainty and unpredictability 
  • Develop people’s skills, capabilities, and confidence
  • Use people’s time and optimize their working hours
  • Ensure fair and balanced workloads
  • And a whole lot more

If you’re ready to ‘start small and experiment’, sign up for a free 14-day trial today and see how Runn could help you transform your workforce.

No credit card, no commitment, no catches.

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