The world of work is changing. We see it in our own organizations, we read about it daily, we hear it at family gatherings and social get togethers with friends. With so much changing and so much at stake, it can be daunting to see clearly what needs to be done. Everything seems to be at the breaking point and resources are scarce.

Organizations struggling to attract and retain staff can look to five drivers to identify where current employer branding and recruitment efforts might not be positioned well for the future. Leaders might ask:

  • Are we capitalizing on the latest workforce demographic trends to appeal to the best talent available within our local market? Are we seeking out hidden talent pools we may be ignoring because of faulty assumptions or lack of information?
  • Have we identified how career ownership is shifting the relationship between employer and employee? Are we prepared for a more flexible workforce that has more control over their own futures? Do we treat staff like assets to be depreciated over time, or equity that grows in value – even after they’ve left us?
  • Do we understand the difference between a talent economy and a gig economy? Are we using freelancers to build overall value and success or is our use of contractor labour creating precarity and risk for staff and the future sustainability of the sector?
  • Is our core work changing? How are new, emerging platforms challenging the way we work and who we work with? What new opportunities arise if we think of ourselves as a platform? What skills will we need to explore and capitalize on these new opportunities?
  • Do we treat technology as a tool with an understanding of how it could make us better, faster and more effective? Are we focusing on humanity in our workplaces?

These are big, strategic questions that challenge outdated thinking and encourage leadership teams to be actors in shaping the future. They are good questions for boards and leadership teams to grapple with and explore together – without fear.

Yet, the day-to-day work of organizations doesn’t slow down. Even without a future-proofed workforce strategy, every employer needs to maintain an engaged, productive and positive workforce. In small organizations, this essential responsibility falls to the front-line managers.

Front-line managers have the single greatest impact on the productivity and staff and volunteers. Everyone is wondering how the world of work will continue to change and what the personal impact might be. Staff look to the intended and unintended messages they are receiving from their direct manager to determine how bright a future they may have, and they are making career decisions based on what they assume to be true. In researching Retain and Gain: Career Management for Non-Profits and Charities, I uncovered that front-line managers tend to avoid career conversations with staff. They report not having the time for such discussions and being afraid that they will not have the necessary resources to address any employee requests that might arise. These conversations are deemed too risky. But organizations feeling the impact of the five strategic drivers must have on-going, regular and meaningful career conversations with staff in order to dispel myths, allay fears and rally employees to be part of shaping a vibrant future.

The future of work is human and the ability to rally staff and collectively shape a future where everyone thrives requires a deeper level of career competence than is typically part of leadership development programs.

With more than 40 everyday activities, many taking less than 10 minutes to complete, playbooks, such as Retain and Gain (available as a free pdf download), are important new additions to new manager orientation programs. More than 70% of organizations interviewed indicated that they lack training programs and tools to help new managers adapt to their expanded role and responsibilities. While much attention is placed on new employee orientation or high potential leadership candidates before they become managers, these direct managers are the transmitters of organizational culture.

Front-line managers have the greatest impact on who stays, who leaves and who languishes. They are the critical players in the unfolding story of how the sector will transform and become thriving workplaces of the future.

Lisa Taylor is the author the Retain and Gain: Career Management Series published by CERIC. She is also the co-author of The Talent Revolution: Longevity and the Future of Work (University of Toronto Press-Rotman). Lisa is President of Challenge Factory and lives in Toronto.