Through the many conversations with current and future clients, it’s become clear to me that digital business transformation spans far more than technology. It requires a complete rethink and restructuring of how we work. Workforce structures as we know them are becoming obsolete. Success is dependent on the freedom and flexibility to keep building – businesses and careers.  

Smart business leaders are lifting traditional restrictions. Where we once all gathered, often needlessly in an office, we’re now scattered around the world, working virtually, collaborating online, only coming together as business or social needs require. We can do this, because as we hit the 2020s, next-gen workplace technologies are no longer next-gen. They’re reality.

The greatest change ahead lies in the structure of the workforce. Already we’re seeing the flattening of hierarchies. CEOs are no longer seated in the boardroom, but as likely to be in a client meeting or planning session as a project team member. This is because the focus is now on skills and collaboration. On mixed networks of internal and external resources, with hybrid teams combining people and robotics.

Satellite teams draw in the talented to ensure best results for customers, the business and employees. This is the only way to remain top of the game in what is an extremely competitive, fast moving and critical digital world.

 

Flexteam

The description of an employee is evolving rapidly and so management styles are having to as well. This all fits with a new flexible team set-up. People no longer want to be task driven. They want to be recognized for their contributions. They want to be on a fast-paced career trajectory, and working for a single employer might not be enough to get them there. Unlike before, that career trajectory isn’t continuously upwards: careers will look more like lattices, with people choosing jobs to fit today’s lifestyle.

What we’re starting to see is a rise in skills purchasing frameworks. It’s been commonplace in the procurement world for a while and it’s spilling over into the world of work. Rather than working for a single employer, which can restrict the contribution individuals feel they can make, people are choosing who they want to work for, where and how, and market their hard-earned and unique skill sets.

Likewise, for a business, an ‘employee’ is hired to deliver on a specific task. This might be a long-term assignment, or this could literally be one single deliverable. As example, M&As are increasingly common and require lots of specialist skills, but only for a set time. The same applies to major IT projects, real-estate developments or specialist R&D, for example.  

For this approach to succeed, there must be a change from a pyramid to a more parallel workforce structure. It demands a lot from future leaders: Open and clear guidelines, while communication and collaboration are key, especially when some only join for a very short time. Even so, the team needs to gel and work well together. Everyone on the project is as vital as the next. As leaders, we need to adapt to allow everyone to be a decision maker.

Diversity in a team is essential. The more senior can share the virtue of experience, while accepting the younger team members’ new ideas and inspirations. Cross-functions all bring value to each other’s specialisms. Openness and honest communication is important and there does need to be a final decision maker to be ensure projects move forward. Each peer group should be as present in flexible teams as they are in our customer base; we need to continually adapt our external approach as well.

Future teams will see increased human-machine interaction. Automation will propel a new wave of efficiency and performance and allow highly skilled workers to remove repetitive activities and focus on the more professionally rewarding tasks. The business leader who smartly manages humans working side by side with ‘bots’ will thrive. She must continually assess if her people focus on what’s important and automate anything that isn’t.

Automation will inevitably lead to changes in team structures and redefine roles. That’s bound to be disruptive, and it’s up to us as business leaders to lead our team through those changes. 

 

Getting change right

However, like all change, the move to a flat hierarchy must be smartly managed. Where this move to flexible teams is working well, is where there has been a clear definition of the benefits. It’s hard to remove what’s hardwired in people, especially those for whom the expectation is a ‘career for life’. The reality of the digital world is that life is ever evolving and so your career will be too. As already mentioned, the traditional pyramid style of ‘manage or be managed’ no longer fits the skills needed to win in the digital world of work.

 

Why is change so hard?

Last year, Professor Gianluca Carnabuci of the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin (ESMT Berlin), led a project to find out why, as people, many of us are struggling to move to new ways of working. According to the findings, cognitive schemas (the pattern of thought or behaviour that organizes categories of information and the relationships between these) make us see leaders and followers even if there are none defined.

As business leaders, managers and colleagues, we need to work together to promote teamwork. This does not devalue experience or remove career growth opportunities. Rather the opposite. By being open to other’s ideas we can actually be more successful.

 

Ten steps to building teams for continuous business success

  1. Manage changes in workforce structure well
  2. Lead and keep leading your team into the digital world
  3. Review the skills you have in-house against existing and potential skills needs
  4. Build a skills framework / satellite teams
  5. Set-up the infrastructure to allow teams to work productively / remotely
  6. Provide strong communication and collaboration processes
  7. Develop a culture of continuous feedback
  8. Encourage employee engagement across all roles and departments
  9. Increase productivity through automation
  10. Encourage ideas and input from all

While these are good steps to take, alone they are not enough. It takes great leadership to build the consistently high-performing teams we need today. Future leaders won’t necessarily follow the traditional career path. Where in the past the team expert often became the manager, that wasn’t always a successful career move. Being good at your job doesn’t mean you’re a natural leader.

Business leaders in the digital world are those who can look at the short and the long game, engage well with people and motivate their teams towards a common goal. They have a thorough understanding of managing humans and bots to deliver the best results. These leaders can equally make the difficult decisions needed to get there. The rise of the flexible team structure will go a long way to enabling this success. Business leaders with an eye for people, well-honed soft skills and a clear perspective on the nuances of digital transformation will be well positioned to thrive.

 

Andy Monshaw, CCO, Alight - NGA Human Resources