The Workforce of One: Why the Revolution Will Be Personalised
No two people are the same. This axiom has been the driving force in the commercial world for years, with companies leveraging technology to provide ever-more-personalized experiences for their customers.
Where we once had fixed-schedule TV, we now have Netflix. Where high-street shops once dominated, we now have personalized online shopping experiences. Amazon knows the type of books I like, Google tailors my search results to suit me (so they say), and my smartwatch gives me detailed insights into my health, fitness, and sleep.
This is now accepted as standard. We live personalized, customizable lives – and as consumers, we expect nothing less. But in the world of work, it’s a totally different story.
The workforce of ‘one size fits all’
Businesses have been quick to embrace personalized experiences for their customers, but slow to do the same for their employees. Many still take a one-size-fits-all approach to work, treating the workforce as a homogenous group rather than a set of individuals.
In the past this made sense. Before the advent of modern technology, it simply wasn’t possible to organize work any other way. As a result, people were expected to be malleable and adapt to the work environment, not the other way around.
This may have been a necessity, but it came at a price. When the conditions of work are prescribed for all, the vast majority of people are forced to bend to a system that doesn’t suit them. You have employees who need to concentrate thrust into loud, open-plan offices; working parents unable to balance their professional and personal lives; and training that nobody seems to enjoy or benefit from. The result is stifled performance, low engagement, and the prevailing mindset that work is something to endure.
But thanks to modern technology, a more personalized approach to work is now possible. We now have the tools to measure and understand the myriad factors that make us tick, allowing us to shape work to the individual.
The workforce of one
Forward-thinking businesses are realizing the competitive advantage that comes with personalizing the employee experience. This approach is known as the workforce of one – a term coined by Susan Cantrell and David Smith, the authors of a 2010 book of the same name. According to Cantrell and Smith, businesses have already become successful by treating the customer as a ‘market of one,’ so why not extend this to the employee?
This means designing all aspects of work – roles, performance management, learning and development, rewards and recognition, even the workplace – to suit the individual, with the aim of boosting engagement and increasing efficiency.
How it works
While this may sound mind-bogglingly complicated to deliver, it actually isn’t – technology does most of the heavy lifting. Through a combination of AI, machine learning, data analytics, and natural language processing, technology can provide unparalleled levels of choice, customization, and insight.
With a chatbot, for example, every employee has access to their very own personal digital assistant. Bots can provide instant answers to work-related questions, help organize employees’ schedules, and simplify the processes involved in personal administration. Just like in the commercial world, chatbots bring unrivaled UX and convenience to the workplace, transforming the way employees access information and interact with the organization.
Advanced chatbots use AI and analytics to learn about the employee’s preferences – the way they work, their daily moods, and how different factors affect their performance and productivity. They can capture this data and then use it to personalize processes and provide useful, easily-digestible insights – like a Fitbit for work. Ultimately, this helps employees to shape their experience of work in ways that make it more enjoyable and engaging.
Workplace tech can also provide transparency around learning and development, allowing employees to pick and choose the training and e-learning courses they want to take. It can provide clarity around skills gaps, performance, and goals, and help employees visualize career paths within the organization.
It’s not all about technology, of course. Technology is merely the tool you use to deliver choices and insights. Behind the futuristic software and big data is a human commitment to embrace individual choice. That means devolving at least some of the decision-making power about how, when, and where work takes place from managers and HR staff to employees.
It also means cultivating a culture of open and honest communication. Through regular informal conversations, employees and managers can discuss job satisfaction, progress, goals, and career development, with a view to shaping work to better fit the employee.
For this to work, managers must have the right mindset. Traditional managers may see this approach as pandering to employees every whim, or too touchy-feely. But this misses the point – we want our employees to feel happy, supported, and engaged. Just like customers, that means understanding what works for them.
With employee engagement at rock bottom, it’s clear that most companies are failing to meet their employees’ needs. When you think about it, this isn’t surprising – many employers still treat their workforce as a homogenous group, ignoring their individual preferences. To improve engagement, we must start treating employees as a workforce of one.
For this to work, we must empower employees to make their own choices. We cannot second guess them based on what we think we know about them. The business world has been guilty of grouping whole demographics together as one, assuming they know what they need to be happy.
How many articles are there telling us what millennials are like, or what Gen Z want? When we make sweeping generalizations like this, we end up with empty gestures and gimmicks – offices with climbing walls and games rooms, where staff’s needs remain unmet.
In truth, we don’t know what each individual wants or needs; only they do. The role of employers should not be to tell people what work must be like but to give them the tools they need to make their own choices.