Workforces: A “Wicked Problem” Where Boards Can Help

By Melissa Swift


Talent Risk Management Strategy Online Article

Over the past few years, boards have become far more sensitized to the potential for workforces to both generate incredible value or pose incredible risk depending on how they’re managed. Workforces represent a “wicked problem”—a complex array of issues underlie how they function and perform. However, there are some concrete starting points for board members to drive the right conversations to truly tackle workforce challenges.

Here are three workforce strategies that are especially relevant for boards.

Develop metrics to measure and monitor work intensity. Work intensification—where workers are asked to perform more and more units of work per single unit of time—has quietly and increasingly bedeviled workplaces for decades, culminating in the burnout epidemic and an associated labor crisis now in play. Workers in different contexts may experience work intensification differently. Warehouse workers may be asked to pack too many boxes while office workers may sit through too many meetings. But an array of academic research shows that this phenomenon can slow the business gains sought through work intensification, while creating negative health outcomes for workers. In this context, it’s critical that organizations develop concrete metrics to monitor work intensity to understand when “enough is enough” before impacts such as attrition or pervasive health issues kick in.

What a board member can do: Ask your executive team to concretely measure and consider work intensity going forward. Ask for and examine data that may give you signals that work has tipped over into excess intensity—anything from turnover in critical roles to health plan data on experienced rates of anxiety and depression.

Create a “single account of the truth” on the workforce of your organization and systems and processes to maintain it in real-time. For many, many organizations, it’s a tale of two workforces: one hired with the involvement of human resources (HR) and fully managed through mainstream financial systems, and one—consisting of contract or contingent workers—often hired through procurement, managed through opaque and imprecise financial channels (for instance, workers are managed as groups and not as individuals with individual compensation), and, strikingly, frequently not interviewed by anyone. The latter group’s employee experience can also be dramatically disparate from the organizational mainstream. Deployed properly, contingent labor can be a marvelous source of agility for organizations, but managed as a second, shadowy workforce away from HR and finance’s normal channels, this group can generate meaningful amounts of financial, operational, and reputational risk.

What a board member can do: Ask finance, HR, and procurement to work in synchronization to map out, on a very basic level, who works for you and what you pay them across full-time employees and contractors alike. This critical information, missing in so many organizations, should then be recorded in real time in key technological systems. Posing questions such as, “Do we capture contingent labor in our human resources information systems?” can be extremely helpful.

Scenario plan your flexibility and location strategy against possible changes in your talent markets as well as in the way you work. Years after the seismic disruptions of 2020, organizations are continuing to find the fundamental question of “Where does our work get done?” challenging. We grapple with a constant balancing act, weighing decisions about culture and productivity against volatile markets for key talent ranging from data scientists and nurses to hourly workers across an array of roles. Thoughtful organizations are utilizing scenario planning to give themselves more options to keep work going as labor market conditions shift quickly in real time, asking themselves what will be needed to ensure business continuity. Solutions may range from more flexible real estate contracts to more broadly drawn job specifications and fluid ways of working to more varied pay practices.

What a board member can do: Initiate a conversation about key areas of workforce risk to identify if there are particular roles, geographies, levels, and more prone to turnover or talent attraction challenges. You’ll also want to discuss what market changes might cause those areas of risk to shift. The board should also understand, at a high level, all the levers of flexibility the business can utilize to keep key seats from sitting empty, examining not just the “where” (location strategy and return-to-office policy) but also the “who” (hiring different talent populations, such as formerly incarcerated people), or the “when” (Should the timing of shift work be broken up differently?). At the board level, you don’t have to be in the day-to-day weeds of the flexibility conversation, but you do want to ensure that your organization has the workforce agility to tackle whatever disruptions are coming.

Workforce challenges may be a wicked problem, but they’re not an insurmountable one. Armed with the right questions, boards can play a crucial role in ensuring that companies think intelligently about the humans they employ, creating scenarios in which both the employer and employee win.

Melissa Swift
Melissa Swift is the US transformation leader at Mercer and focuses on helping organizations transform their work and workforces. Swift is the author of Work Here Now: Think Like a Human, Build a Powerhouse Workplace, in which she details 90 strategies that organizations and teams can employ to both fuel productivity and create happier working populations.