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Workforce Transformation: creating a people-first workplace


April  2022


There has been a big shift from businesses dictating HR strategies, to HR dictating the business strategy, because ultimately the workforce is the most important asset organisations hold. Pre-pandemic businesses were thinking about the concepts of flexible work, and now, they are actually having to reconfigure what they do, how they do it, and where they do it and find ways to innovate at speed. In our latest podcast, our workforce transformation experts Maura Jarvis and Pavan Bilkhoo discuss the importance of businesses understanding where they are going from a skills perspective and how the whole strategic workforce planning is key to designing the skills journey. How can organisations position themselves as a real talent magnet in the working environment?

  • Workforce Transformation: creating a people-first workplace - Podcast transcript

    Podcast host:

    Tiree Houghton: Client Strategy Director, Mercer Marsh Benefits


    Guest speakers:

    Maura Jarvis: UK Transformation Leader, Mercer

    Pavan Bilkhoo: Workforce Strategy Consultant, Mercer


    Tiree Houghton: Welcome to Mercer’s ‘Energising the employee experience’ podcast with me your host Tiree Houghton, each week I’ll be joined by guests who will share their experiences and insights to help you create a people-first workplace to attract and retain the best talent. On today's episode we're going to be discussing workforce transformation and I'm delighted to be joined by my brilliant colleagues Pavan Bilkhoo and Maura Jarvis. Thank you both so much for joining me today. Pavan, could you give a quick introduction to yourself.


    Pavan Bilkhoo: Hi everyone, my name is Pavan, I work in our workforce transformation team in London and my background is in HR and I am a HR transformation self-confessed nerd.


    Tiree Houghton: Thank you and Maura.


    Maura Jarvis: Hi lovely to be with you today, Maura Jarvis, I lead the transformation practice in the UK and like Pavan also background in HR, all things HR is what I've spent my career doing and absolutely love it, so I suppose Pavan I’m also a HR nerd.


    Pavan: Welcome


    Tiree Houghton: In brilliant company. As a result of the pandemic we've seen an acceleration in business change, suddenly what was a be good to do is now a must for businesses, this business change ultimately impacts HR strategy. So how have HR had to adapt here.


    Maura Jarvis: I think what's really interesting Tiree, is that businesses have had to reconfigure themselves, as a result of the pandemic. So, I think pre pandemic lots of businesses were thinking about the concepts of flexible work, for example. But it was really something that was almost  inferiorly in terms of what was going on, and when the pandemic hit, organisations were forced into actually having to reconfigure what they do as a business, how they do it, where they do. And they had to adapt to it really from a survival perspective and really move into a new business model because there was no ability to just carry on as normal.


    So, I mean if we just think about some of the obvious examples in our own environment around like the impact on retail, for example, you know suddenly you couldn't go down to the store you had to do everything online. And just think about, you know what a fundamental shift that was for some organisations in terms of how they did their work, where they did their work, when they did their work, etc. And so I think part of the impact on the business strategy changing has been that HR then had to become a lot more agile, they had to look for ways of innovation, they had to do things at different speeds.


    The employment model started to change if we look at the ask on leaders as an example. They went from having managed people within their line of sight to having people working remotely, not having the team together. And so I think all of that change actually landed at the HR’s door, which is quite unusual because previously business change often landed sort of in the business operational part of the organisation. I think with the pandemic what happened is that everybody was looking to HR for the first time, saying how do we solve this, how do we work remotely you know how are we going to still carry on. And I think that's where you know HR really had to step up to the plate and had to really be the leader in the business in terms of giving some of that advice.


    I mean Pavan and I think you'll be able to comment really well in terms of some of the changes we've seen in HR as a result of this.


    Pavan Bilkhoo: Yes, I think, to bring some of what you just said to life, I mean the NHS is a great example of that. So how many unskilled untrained workers did they use to help the vaccination program, how many new models of employment that they have to use as a result of that? So HR have had to kill their traditional cyclical activities to really respond to changes in the workplace.


    And I mean just all of my clients at the moment, how many cycle pay changes have they had to get through the net over the last 12 months, so I do think this has been a really positive change for HR. They have had a seat at the table for the last two years and now they are really in a position to say, we can do things we can make change happen and we can make change happen quickly, so there is no excuse for a five year agile transformation programme.


    Tiree Houghton: That's great, and I’ve been talking to my clients about a shift, and I think it's accelerated by the pandemic of actually, it's not about businesses dictating HR strategy, HR are having to dictate what business strategy is because the people are the most important part. And where we see so many companies going on that journey and shifting perhaps towards the tech sector there at the heart of that change and driving that change.


    Pavan Bilkhoo: I mean these organisations have not just changed their business models, but the types of people that they need to employ has almost done a complete 360, so that's where we're seeing lots of conversations about talent and the war for talent is real and it's happening all across the world, not just in Silicon Valley. So, I think there's a lot of conversations that people are having with us around strategic workforce planning and how do I find these amazing pots of talent and where are they.


    Maura Jarvis: I think the other thing that's been a real shift and very welcome and long overdue shift has also been around, and I think you touched on it around the employee centricity.


    So, in other words, I think, in the past we've had organisations investing millions in technology to innovate their businesses and take them to the next level. But technology is only one part of that equation, and I think really in the last few years we've seen the importance of people and people coming into the centre of that little universe as such.


    So, I think before we always heard businesses saying, people are our most important asset but actually now we are really seeing that in practice. And I think to your point Pavan around the whole issue around talent, is that now talent is not something to be taken for granted, or not something that one can go and find in the market if you are just paying the right amount of money. We've really seen a massive shift in the whole talent dialogue, what talent is looking for and how you know organisations can position themselves as a real talent magnet in a working environment.


    Tiree Houghton: I think that's so true. I think I could probably, every single one of my clients, I could go in and say that you know in some of their literature, whether it's their annual statements their website, they have a statement saying that people are the most important asset. And that's always been there and they haven't done anything about it or proven it but suddenly that is really changing because, as you say, post pandemic there's been a real power shift and then suddenly the employees are having the power to dictate where they want to work, how they want to work and businesses are having to adjust and actually live up to what they've been saying for quite a while, which I think is amazing for the employee and changing kind of everything.


    Pavan you touched on one thing that was about the war for talent and I guess, this is something that I don't know of any of my clients who aren't struggling with retention and recruitment at the moment. It’s becoming a wider and wider issue and as more businesses shift towards that tech focus that we know is happening it's only going to become more of a problem. So what would your top tips for businesses that are finding themselves in this position be, how can they address it, where are they best starting to tackle this problem.


    Pavan Bilkhoo: I think the first thing is to create talent processes that are employee centric. We have historically, as HR professionals tried to make our jobs easier and easier, automate the steps in a process that are meaningful to us but we rarely look at the employee lens. So looking at things on an employee basis is going to be really important. I'd like to bring Maura in here to talk more about some of the really interesting assessments that we can do to look at which EVPs are actually being used in the market and how do you compare.


    Maura Jarvis: Thanks Pavan, I think that's one thing if we look at the EVP is traditionally we've had a one size fits all EVP. I think really what we're seeing now is a need for a personalisation of that EVP so that you've got multiple personas in the business. I think linking into that is also a trend around not making assumptions as to what those personas are looking for in the EVP, but actually using employee listening to talk to your employees to find out what really matters to them and what are their preferences and then designing customised EVPs around that component.


    I think the other thing to raise around this whole topic of war for talent is around really the business understanding what are the skills that they need to have in the future. We've mentioned earlier on that businesses have had to reimagine themselves, they've had to diversify into different industries, different service offerings.


    I think the whole skills landscape has changed dramatically. What we are working on with a lot of clients is having a look at this strategic workforce planning and really understanding what are the skills that they need, not just at the moment but in the future and do they have those skills, what are those gaps that they've got in the organisation. Do they have the people that are currently employed do they have the ability to reskill and upscale those people to be able to meet that talent requirement and skills requirement?


    I think sometimes they are people who can be retrained obviously employment and employability is really important. You've got to have a strategy around that, have you've got a plan for that, you've got to be thinking about the business. What are we going to look like in two or three years’ time, what are the skills that we are going to need, how many of those people are going to need and then, very importantly, where are we going to go and find them.


    I think the other interesting thing that we've seen around talent analytics that has come into play in the last little while with a few clients has also been about where are those skills located. So if I'm looking for software engineers by example and I have a business that is located in Manchester or Birmingham are there actually people with those skills in that location. We are doing a lot of work with clients around location and talent analysis to try and find out are there certain locations where you really have a big group of people with those skills and that talks into the whole analytics thing.


    And then the last thing I would just mention on the talent war thing is around businesses and HR need to be a lot more open minded around where and the forms of talent that they find. We are seeing in our latest Global Talent Trends that 60% of employers are anticipating changing their employment models to incorporate more flexible type of employment contracts. Looking at gig workers, looking at permanent, part timers and looking at people who want to work a compressed work week. For example we are seeing a lot out in the press around the four day workweek etc. If you want to compete for talent those are some of the things that you need to be thinking about as HR, to say how do we stack up? Are we offering something that is unique and really attractive to the people who are out there and who are very much in demand from a skills perspective?


    Tiree Houghton: Thank you. I think one thing that stood out for me, is when you were talking about the skills. I think typically businesses think look elsewhere and actually the power of retraining comes back to that EVP and supports the employees in their journey by offering the career progression and that sense of purpose, making them feel involved with the company.


    And I think it's such a powerful way to gain the skills that you need but also build that culture and buy in from your employees. The other thing more you touched around data how critical is it that HR and businesses are using data to try and drive and support these changes.


    Maura Jarvis: So absolutely critical and I think that HR historically have often put forward suggestions of initiatives based on let's say backfill or a perception that this is what's required. What we are seeing is that if you want to have a seat at the table, very important that you are talking from a data perspective and that you are able to meet the business demands, obviously with data to back up the decisions that you are making.


    By way of example, we are working with a client at the moment and I touched on the location component. They are going to design where they are going to have their future business operating units on where the talent supply is. That kind of narrative, if HR is able to do at the table it's similar to the skills discussion that we were having just now. It really just lends credibility to all of the initiatives that HR is embarking upon. And also you've got a way of tracking that if the market moves, you know the data is going to give you that indication, from a predictive perspective as well. So often when we look at analytics we look at historical data, but I think the power in the space that we work in is the ability to also look at past trends and then to use that data to be predictive going forward so that you actually can plan for the future, but on a very, very solid base.


    Pavan Bilkhoo: I know HR gets a bad rap for data really and you know it's historically been under funded. Some of the technology has only really just got up to scratch where we can be doing some things that are around predictive analytics and looking at the organisation as a whole. I think HR has been on its own journey and now is in a position to be using powerful data and tell stories, and with that data they can really influence businesses to do things differently. Going back to my earlier point now is the time and we've got the data and technology to support HR to do something very differently so it's important that they use the tools that they've spent years implementing.


    Tiree Houghton: I think that's so true Pavan and I think where there's budget restraints in HR, naturally whether it's right or wrong, the step that's quite often missed is that data step.


    But Maura, as you said, when you're elevating these conversations to align to a business strategy, when you're speaking to your C-suite, the data is what they need to see and what they need to hear. So it is such a critical piece not be missed out by HR in order to meet the needs of the conversation but also then help shape and drive it because I do know from experience, it is quite often something that is skipped and, as you say it's that unconscious bias, of I think we know what it's looking like rather than taking that deeper dive into it and getting the true data.


    Maura Jarvis: I was just going say I think the other thing is that these different types of data that we can look at here and that’s the qualitative and quantitative so yes quantitative really important.


    But I think a lot of the qualitative data is also where you really going to win the hearts and minds of the people. So I mentioned at the beginning, around the importance of employee listening and the whole customisation of the EVP offering and I think that's where your employee listening can be very, very powerful.


    And you might not instinctively think of that as data, but it actually is and you're able to track that, year on year. So I think just the importance of having the richness of both the qualitative and the quantitative and then using that to put together your business case, I think we'll just land so much better at the C suite level as you were saying, because then you really talking business language.


    Tiree Houghton: So lastly from me, if you were in HR shoes right now, where would you be focusing your energy and your budget on?


    Pavan Bilkhoo: I think it's going back to that technology point, so how are we using data that is available externally and internally to look at where I'm best placed for my business and how I’m best placed to grow. Whether that site, or whether that's a specific skills, I will be looking into the market to see which technologies are out there and how can that help me.


    Maura Jarvis: I think adding on to that, really investing in understanding where the business is going from a skills perspective, so I think a whole strategic workforce planning is really important and designing your skills journey. You mentioned just the importance of reskilling and upskilling, and really working with your current employees I think is very, very important. The other thing I would think is that EVP component that we mentioned as well, in terms of having the ability to customise that. Really have a cutting edge employee value proposition, so that people don't only want to join your organisation, but they also don't want to leave you because they just having the most amazing experience working for you and that ties into my career development, my succession, my skills, the culture and you've touched on quite a few of those.


    And Pavan, just one I know that's close to your heart also, I would just say is around preparing HR for the future, there's a lot of new skills that are required by the HR teams. I think the willingness to invest in your HR team just the same as you invest in everybody else in the organisation, I think it's something that HR possibly need to be fighting for and asking for. And if they are any CEOs or C-suite people listening to the call is that you know invest, invest in your HR people they really are the lifeblood of the organisation.


    Pavan Bilkhoo: If I was allowed to have another one, there is a whole piece of research that we've done recently around the relatable organisation. It’s really HR that need to be infusing the business, embedding, being relatable, being more human, and being more caring into the business. Now you can have that model but we cannot lose sight of the fact that employees are important and how do you make an organisation that's culturally relatable to many times a global workforce.


    Tiree Houghton: The good thing is the conversations with my clients I would probably say the majority of them it's about redefining that EVP and that's where the conversations are going with them so that's brilliant to see that it's aligned to your thinking.


    The key sort of takeaways for me is that it's something that we need to act now, before that war for talent becomes even greater and that divide between you and others in your industry or even out of your industry becomes too big and use the power of data in whatever form that may be. Then lastly, to really try and change that conversation to elevate yourselves as HR and leverage the amazing work that all the HR teams did during the pandemic. Where they were thrown into managing furloughs for everyone, plus their day jobs, plus reskilling, plus all of this stuff and they've proven themselves. So change that conversation at the C-suite to elevate and get that funding to enable to make those changes and see the results of all the work they've done. Is that anything else, or do you think that sort of sums up the key parts.


    Maura Jarvis: I think you've done a brilliant job of summarising it. The only thing I think that we have missed a little, I think is just and you touched on Pavan is around wellbeing. In our in our latest research we've seen that people, you know we know are exhausted and I just think HR does play a massive role in mitigating the risk and making sure that wellbeing of employees, talking to your points around caring Pavan is really critical. To make sure that we just looking after our people and really truly caring for them, because I think if you do that it’s going to allow employees to really thrive and to want to have a lifelong contract with your organisation.


    Tiree Houghton: Just a few things for HR to do then.


    Pavan Bilkhoo: And that kind of comes back to my point we need agility in HR they're not going to be able to do this, doing the same things, based on the same jobs that they used to do but it's really, really exciting times of refreshed, renewed and reenergised HR function. But, but we do need to do this in it in a way that doesn't completely kill the people that have been working their socks off during the pandemic.


    Tiree Houghton: Well thank you both so much for joining me I hope you've enjoyed our conversation, and I hope that everyone listening has got some key takeaways and had a few thoughts about how they should be tackling the workforce transformation within their businesses.


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Guests this episode

Maura Jarvis

UK Transformation Leader


Pavan Bilkhoo

Workforce Strategy Consultant



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