Technology has made today's workplace entirely different from the one employees knew just five years ago. And at the rate mobile devices and remote work capabilities are advancing, it won't be long before the workplace completely changes again.
But it's not just evolving technological trends like wearable devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) that companies need to account for. Legislative changes around health care and labor laws, as well as the changing generational makeup of the workforce, will also require employers to adjust their strategies going forward.
To help businesses start preparing for tomorrow's work environment, human resources experts and business leaders weighed in on some of the most important issues that will affect or continue to affect the workplace over the next several years. [The Evolving Employee Handbook: 6 Issues to Consider]
Freelance and remote workers
Thanks to nearly ubiquitous mobile devices and Wi-Fi, more and more work is being done outside the traditional office. But as companies add freelancers, independent contractors and full-time telecommuters to their workforce, they often find that managing remote workers requires a whole new approach to leadership.
"Managers need to know who they're managing," said Matt Poepsel, vice president of product management at business consulting firm PI Worldwide. "In a time when managers are finding themselves in charge of workers all over the globe, the act of 'getting to know' all of them seems nearly impossible."
From an HR perspective, Poepsel said that successfully managing workers who aren't physically there means learning more about the individual employees and freelancers on your staff.
"The key to making it all work is having a plan that ensures an efficient and cohesive working relationship that keeps both employees and employers happy," Poepsel told Business News Daily. "For example, [our client] Raidious [looked at] individual team members' motivational needs and behavioral drives. They then used that insight to assign roles and responsibilities, manage job expectations and drive the team's performance over time."
While there's some disagreement as to the exact start year of Generation Z, one thing is certain: The oldest members of the post-millennial group will be off to college and joining the workforce within the next few years, and employers need to be ready for them.
There's certainly some overlap between Gen Y and Gen Z, both in age (depending on whom you ask) and workplace preferences. But these two groups are not identical, and can't be treated as if they are, said Denise Lage, vice president of channel sales and strategic alliances, Americas at workplace solutions provider Condeco Software.
"Unlike millennials, who gravitate to places of work that offer the best happy hours, game nights and on-site gyms, Gen Z-ers look for a workplace that minimizes distractions so they can fully focus on making a difference both in and out of the office," said Lage, whose company recently conducted research on Gen Z workplace attitudes. "They value being productive and will not tolerate any logistical or technological hiccups in their workday."
Ulrik Bo Larsen, CEO of Falcon Social, employs Gen Z-ers at his enterprise social media management platform, and noted that their technological proficiency is one of this generation's most defining characteristics. While older millennials grew up during the dawn of the digital age, much of Gen Z was born into it, and employers should prepare to use this truly "digital native" generation to their fullest potential.
"I'd advise employers to take advantage of the fact that this will be the most online, social generation yet," Larsen said. "Get them involved in your branding through employee advocacy programs. With Gen Z, you'll soon have a hive of social media experts on staff, so encourage them and benefit from their reach – but they will expect to be involved and activated in return."
Social media use
Like the millennials that run them, newer companies accept social media as a part of everyday life. Even many established brands have jumped on the social media bandwagon – they know that connecting with customers and sharing company information via Twitter, Facebook Instagram and the like are integral parts of their marketing efforts.
Where it gets tricky, however, is when employees start using their personal social accounts to post comments about their workplace. Most employers would love to have their staff promote the company to their networks, but that freedom to post also means inviting the possibility of negative comments – and you can't legally stop them.
Kim Davis, senior vice president of corporate human resources at benefits broker NFP, said that according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), people have the right to discuss their employment terms and conditions – for better or for worse.
"Employees can have these conversations and we can't and shouldn't stop them from highlighting their engagement with the company," Davis said. "But you can set limits – talk about the appropriate use of social media, who can post on behalf of the company, how often you can access personal accounts during business hours, etc."
If you want to encourage (but never force) employees to become your brand ambassadors on social media, check out Business News Daily's guide here.
Work-connected smart devices
Today, most companies have some kind of BYOD (bring your own device) policy regarding the use of personal tech devices for work purposes. Several years ago, these policies primarily meant smartphones and laptops, but today, employees also have tablets, smart watches, fitness trackers and other Internet-enabled devices – all of which can connect to employer networks and access work data.
Jim Haviland, chief strategy officer of Vox Mobile, said that businesses will no longer be able to ignore the crossover of personal mobile devices into work territory, especially when it comes to wearable tech. Rather than banning such devices from the office, employers will have to create a mature, realistic approach to data security and privacy.
"Wearables will open up a new chapter in the privacy debate as they make real-time personal information available to enterprise applications," Haviland said. "Some of this exposure will offer great personal benefit, like worker safety, but the ground rules for use and access are yet to be written or tested legally. Sound policy around wearables will require IT, operations, legal and HR to work together on policy and communications."
Haviland noted that the best way to avoid future problems involving personal devices in the workplace is to make sure employees have a clear understanding of the rules around their use. He advised having your company's legal and HR departments play a lead role in outlining technology use policy.
Similarly, Davis said that device-related policies should address not only use-case scenarios, but also confidentiality and security. Companies should set guidelines around operations that are important to the business: who owns the device and what happens when it's lost, stolen or compromised.
"Be clear on what to do, and the responsibilities of the employees who carry these devices around," Davis said. "Tell employees ... what [data] is being collected, processed and stored. It has to be covered – it's critical that policies are clear and consistent. Help employees understand how important what they have in their hand is, and how to use it without hurting themselves or the business in general."
The changing role of HR
Changing company policies to meet the demands of the modern work environment also means acknowledging that the role of human resources as a whole is shifting to become more strategic and critical to everyday business operations. Claire Bissot, a certified senior professional of human resources (SPHR) and HR consulting manager at business services provider CBIZ, advised employers to steer HR managers away from being "glorified generalists" and instead work toward becoming real strategic thinkers in the organization.
"You have to get the HR department engaged with the staff and leadership," Bissot said. "In the HR field, [professionals] tend not to step up to the plate with succession planning, recognition programs, business strategy, etc. HR is beyond paperwork — they're human capital managers."
Max Yoder, CEO of online training software company Lesson.ly, noted that while technology does help modern HR professionals do their jobs, they need to remember that their job is to first focus on the "human" element of their companies.
"Now that a newer generation has jumped on board and requires different types of communication and management, there have been tendencies in human resources and management to fail to [adjust]," Yoder said. "If HR wants to remain top of mind, they will need to become more valuable than the technology that's preceded them in the last few years."