Talent risks and opportunities 


Mercer’s Kate Bravery and Ilya Bonic discuss the growing importance of the people agenda in boardrooms.

This article was first published in Brink on May 10, 2022.

The people agenda has become a prominent piece of every boardroom discussion. How could it not? Organisations large and small are simultaneously navigating the future of work — and the necessary work and HR transformations required — responding to an exhausted workforce, and navigating high inflation, tight labour markets and slow supply chains. Such navigation requires not just a map for directions but also an understanding of the priority “destinations.”

Mercer’s 2022 Global Talent Trends study — which collected the thoughts of 11,000 executives, HR leaders and workers across 16 countries and 13 industries — sheds light on what is keeping executives up a night (spoiler alert: cyber risk and inflation), where HR is placing their bets (spoiler alert: skills, skills, skills) and what employees around the world really want from work (no surprise: flexibility).

In Part II of this conversation, Marsh McLennan’s Richard Smith-Bingham continues his conversation with Kate Bravery, the study’s author, and Ilya Bonic, head of strategy at Mercer, to discuss talent risks and opportunities in 2022. You can read Part 1 here.

SMITH-BINGHAM: Ilya, how is Mercer, whose mission is to advise clients on partnering equitably, approaching this topic itself?

BONIC: It’s always interesting to be simultaneously experiencing the same people challenges as our clients. Like many, we have some jobs that can be done anywhere and some that need to be done in an office. We are a people business, and that more often than not thrives when there is in-person interaction — both colleague to colleague and consultant to client. We have approached return to work with a baseline hybrid approach: Let’s all try to get back in the office a few days a week and get back some of the magic that happens when we’re all together.

At the same time, we recognise how flexibility and remote work has been life-changing for some and we’re having our managers work one-on-one with individuals to find solutions that are best for all. In the end, it’s all about balance and choice.

Shifting from jobs to skills

The big one for us in the coming year will be how we rethink rewards for a more agile world. What I mean by this is: How do we continue down the pay continuum from performance-based to skills-based pay? With resources always an issue, we need to get better at moving our talent to the work based on their skills and taking advantage of new work models such as talent consortiums to flex as necessary. Underlying all of this is delivering on well-being: All of our decisions need to be seen through the lens of caring about the physical, mental, emotional, and financial health of our people.

SMITH-BINGHAM: Kate, around the world, strategic workforce planning (SWP) and building skills-based organisations came out pretty high. I get why, but how are people doing this differently? 

BRAVERY: We’re seeing a big uptick in talent analytics, SWP and talent marketplaces. Agile companies are more likely to be focused on systems — for example, Eightfold, Gloat or leading SWP platforms like EQ8. And companies with energised employees are one-and-a-half times more likely to have analytics on which reskilling efforts are positively influencing careers.

However, not all marketplaces are equal. The most effective ones are transparent, targeted, and nimble. When implemented well, these are transforming how talent is hired, developed, moved, rewarded, how they find mentorship, etc. — democratising both learning and opportunities. AI and automation are making a lot of this possible, but it’s the culture and policies needed to sustain these new ways of working that are proving harder to crack.

BONIC: I agree Kate, but it’s tough to get that right. Globally, despite these pockets of best practice, no one is doing it consistently well at an enterprise level. For me, this won’t happen until we truly rethink the flow of work, such as the “new work operating system” that Ravin Jesuthasan writes about in his new book, Work without Jobs. This can be indeed a practical roadmap for the future of work, as the new system deconstructs jobs into tasks/projects, skills/capabilities, and qualifications, showing how these enable agile work reinvention as these elements are continuously recombined into fluid work and agile organisation designs.

BRAVERY: Yes and no. I believe you can make great progress in pockets here, as long as you have a shared vision of what a skills-based organisation could look like for your firm and focus on the use cases that will deliver the best return for implementing a skills-based approach. But yes, those that are further ahead on agility in our study are seeing greater benefits from these technologies.

Human-led and tech-enabled

SMITH-BINGHAM: Ilya, digital exhaustion and, well general exhaustion, comes through loud and clear in this year’s study. Do you think this is a point in time or a consideration to influence strategy?

BONIC: Across the board, everyone is worried about exhaustion and feeling, themselves, exhausted. Exhaustion tops concerns about delivering on the transformation agenda this year. However, here’s an interesting distinction: High-growth companies — that is, companies anticipating double-digit growth this year, are putting an emphasis on investing in modern learning tools and AI based productivity tools.

It may sound contradictory, but in some ways, digitisation can help with exhaustion, some of which is due to technology. Most importantly, though, is that new automation and other technologies must be introduced in a humanistic, collaborative way, something almost all executives say they are or are planning to do better this year. Just because we can adopt new tech, doesn’t mean we should.

BRAVERY: So true. In the report there are stories about HR teams that have had a real epiphany during this period around the upside and downside of tech they have rapidly adopted. They are now asking themselves — who does this tech serve? What impact does this have on time to learn our business? Time to operate? Time to manage? Out of necessity we became tech led, Now, we need to be human led and tech enabled. This sometimes requires a rethink of how we are using technology and a restructuring of centralised teams such as HR.

Simultaneously, 42% of firms this year are individualising comp and benefits to appeal to the needs of different persona groups, and 36% are redesigning their HR function. Some are moving away from the traditional centres of expertise and business partner models of the past to ones that align with shifting priorities such as project management offices or centres of competence — for example teams providing centralised skills assessment.

This is pretty exciting as it has HR/finance and other teams in the flow of work rather than offering advice from the sidelines. For example, global grocery chain ALDI used personas to inform its Target Interaction Model for HR — with the goal of getting the right balance between touch and tech with the people. One in three executives say nurturing a climate of human-centric leadership and trust is critical to the 2022 people agenda. We will see more organisations take these kinds of actions as HR rethinks how it best enables talent coming into their firm.

The future of work

SMITH-BINGHAM: One of the things that Global Talent Trends has always excelled at is helping companies see ahead. Given how close you are to the findings, what are your predictions for the Future of Work?

BRAVERY: We actually asked this question in this year’s survey. Employees believe the future of work is more balanced — it was the top response — with individuals who work in nursing, retail and teaching most likely to put this at the top and tradespeople who those work in manufacturing less so.

Personally, I would describe the future of work as “challenging,” but in the best ways; the ways we all crave when we talk about doing value adding, meaningful work. We will see more intentional human interactions and work humans excel at, such as creativity and executive decision-making, rise to the surface as we leverage AI and tech. We will be more respectful of each other’s time when in task mode and more indulgent with our time when in creative mode.

BONIC: Now is the time to embed stakeholder capitalism in your strategic intent. Into your cultures. What we see across organisations anticipating double-digit growth is their people are thriving and they have in place a set of strategies focused on listening, honesty and building together.

They are using insights to reset for relevance — relevance in the eyes of all their stakeholders. They are navigating the new world of remote, hybrid, and gig working by figuring out how to partner equitably. They are delivering on total well-being, building for employability, and harnessing the collective energy of their people. And they are making progress on all of this because they understand that figuring out how we work, learn, and laugh together is a fundamental human pursuit.

Kate Bravery

A Senior Partner and Mercer’s Global Advisory Solutions & Insight Leader. She has worked in Asia, Australia, the US, and Europe – helping organizations achieve a talent advantage through their people.

In her current role, she supports Mercer’s thought leadership agenda, knowledge management and colleague sales enablement. She also leads on solution innovations for HR buyers and colleague learning in the Talent, Reward & Transformation practices. She has held office, practice, and market leadership roles at Mercer and prior to her current position she was the Career Global Practices Leader and before that the Growth Markets Regional Practice Leader for Talent Strategy and Organizational Performance.

Kate is the author of Mercer’s annual Global Talent Trends study and speaks regularly on the future of work. She is currently partnering with the World Economic Forum under their Good Work Alliance project to define Good Work standards and metrics. She is a non-executive director of Digital Frontiers.

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