Charting a course through the modern workplace can be as difficult for those on the road as those seeking to provide the roadmap.
The COVID pandemic may be in the rear-view mirror, but the tumult it created continues to reverberate through most aspects of life, impacting economic policies, disrupting supply chains, feeding into inflationary pressure, reshaping working conditions, and attitudes toward employment.
In the maelstrom, employers big and small are navigating how, who and why they employ someone while ensuring their business remains profitable and that – in the case of listed companies – shareholders as well as workers and customers all benefit.
The 2023 Future of Work report from Melbourne University’s Work Futures Hallmark Research Initiative, found that “Australia’s work future will be punctuated by serious challenges driven by technological, demographic, health, inequality, and environmental changes”.
These issues are not isolated to Australia – they are global, it said.
Drawing on data on the work experiences of 1,400 Australian workers since the pandemic, the report identified four critical future themes:
- Unsafe: Workers feel their work and workplaces are unsafe, sites of discrimination for women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, caregivers and people living with chronic illnesses.
- Unwell: Work, as it currently stands, is making many Australians unwell, with many working harder and reporting greater exhaustion than pre-pandemic.
- Uncertain: Australian workers have a limited understanding of how the upcoming technological changes driven by automation and artificial intelligence will impact their jobs, creating greater uncertainty.
- Opportunity: Despite these massive issues, Australian workers see greater opportunity to support workers to build happier, more satisfied work lives especially through the rise of flexible workplaces and flexible work practices.
University of WA Business School lecturer and Coordinator of the Consortium for Diversity at Work Dr Jacquie Hutchinson has been charting workplace changes and drivers throughout her career as industrial organiser and industrial relations tribunal member, human resources expert and academic.
She says while COVID was certainly a disruptor, workplace changes over the pasty 20 years have been driven by a combination of technology, globalisation including population mobility and supply chain disruptions, and the employment relationship.
“Increasingly what we have seen of the past 20 years is that change to not only the expectation but the reality of tenured employment,” Dr Hutchinson said.
“That change is not just in terms of conditions – that is important particularly around digitisation and technology – but also in the attitudes of employers and employees, particularly employees.
“The idea that if I stay here for 20 years, I will get a promotion or reward. Those things have gone.
“We have a culturally diverse labour market in Australia but it’s not necessarily something that is taken advantage of.
“There is greater female participation but that tends to be in the lower paid or part-time casual workforce, and we have older retirement ages, short-term contracts, gig employment, greater mobility of the labour market.
“The career literature tells you that workers now are going to have at least seven different jobs, and not necessarily with the same skill set.”
The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that in the year ending February 2023, job mobility – the number of people who changed jobs during the year as a proportion of people who were employed at the end of the year – remained at 9.5% for a second year in a row, the highest rate in a decade.
The share of job mobility remained highest for professionals, at 24% of those who changed jobs.
Dr Hutchison said smaller companies had a great capacity to understand the relationship between the business and its employees.
“They are close, whereas larger organisations are so bureaucratic with their levels of management and supervision,” she said.
Global mining-tech company IMDEX is constantly reviewing and refining its employee value proposition to ensure it is as relevant to employees in South America, Europe, Scandinavia, Africa and North America as it is to those in Australia as it competes for candidates from highly technical disciplines in a global market.
Chief People Officer Kiah Grafton identified that there was a need to shift the company’s culture when she started with IMDEX to ensure employee benefits were appealing to workers from diverse backgrounds given the nature of the workforce.
The HR team were operating initially from a purely foundational, transactional base but this is no longer the case.
“We’re still at the beginning of the journey, but the change so farhas been transformational” Ms Grafton said.
” Six years ago, we had no focus on our people, no performance review mechanism; we were below ground zero in terms of employee value proposition.
“It’s a testament to the leadership group who prioritised the drive for cultural change and it all started by listening to our people to truly understand what they believed would make a better work experience for them at IMDEX.
“Often you will have engagement surveys that are tick and flick exercises without the substance to commit to action.
“We reviewed the results and yes it was uncomfortable at times, but this made us more proactive, in defining actionable initiatives we could provide our employees.
“Ultimately this has ledto them feeling more connected globally. ”
Dr Hutchison said that, increasingly, when employers contacted her as part of a reference check, they were less interested in academic results than the student’s ability to get on with people, deal with conflict and their level of digital literacy.
“The move is away from cultural fit to ‘contribution to our culture’,” she said. “When people go for jobs, they are often asked what can you bring to our company? What is it about our company that you think is the reason you want to work here?
“Smart organisations will be talking to their workers all the time and encouraging them to think about what sorts of things they might like to do in the future. To build their employability.
“Most people want to be seen to be doing something that other people value. The best way you get to know people is working with them and giving them something new to do. If you have the behaviour that promotes that, workers value it.”
As part of its transformation, IMDEX has custom-designed the ‘Better Together’ training program to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. The program was a direct outcome of the companies engagement survey results, with a desire to instill a collegiate approach which fosters support, and values critical thinking.
“It is undeniable that businesses perform better through commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, with demonstrated improved productivity and engagement, and this results in a reduction in risk because if people call out behaviour early, we can get in front of it,” Ms Grafton said.
“I want to continue to attract and retain the best possible talent and the best talent is a diverse workforce; that will give us diversity of thought, challenging the status quo.
“IMDEX is a classic example of how it is working; and we have only just started our journey.
“Flexibility remains key. The employee value proposition for us is going to be very tailored in accordance with what the regional needs are.
“Rightly or wrongly companies will roll out your stock standard EVP and stick with that. That’s not a differentiator. For us we have an opportunity to be global and take that a step further. What might be good for Australia is not going to work for our South American workforce.
“We will still have a corporate EVP in place, but every year we identify what are the one to two breakthroughs we want to see from an employee perspective in the regions in which we operate.
“What makes us a compelling place to work? Is it the opportunity to branch out from your subject matter of expertise; is it global mobility; is it the opportunity to have the career that you truly want rather than just the job?
“It’s trying to think a little bit differently from the pack. We started by reviewing our values and our employees were integral to this, they built our values through a consultative process.
“Now we have an opportunity to extend these values in the creation of a refined EVP that considers the holistic employee experience, and we are excited about that.”