How leaders can adapt to the rapidly changing workplace

How leaders can adapt to the rapidly changing workplace

Technology is changing the workplace as we know it. And as the technology evolves, the redesign of work becomes essential. But how do leaders navigate their teams through these changes? Hertta Vuorenmaa, Research Director of Finland’s Future of Work project at Aalto University School of Business, discusses the transformation of work and how servant leadership can lead employees through the changes.

The transformation of work and employment significantly influences societal functioning, shaping both individual identities and broader societal dynamics. As technology evolves, the redesign of work, including how it is led, organised and regulated by institutions, becomes imperative. Throughout history, work transformation has brought about positive societal changes. To ensure sustainability, emphasis should be placed on the quality of remaining jobs and the structures governing employment, rather than solely focusing on disappearing jobs.

During this transition, effective leadership must prioritise human sustainability. This means focusing on maintaining quality jobs and aiding the integration of those who lose their jobs into society by helping them acquire new skills. This aligns with the global imperative for sustaining livelihoods and ensuring a smooth transition for all individuals impacted by changes in the job market. Moreover, it is crucial to explore how society, organisations and individuals can collaboratively establish new employment-related institutions, definitions and social structures to enable socially sustainable work for as many people as possible.

Key trends of change

The ongoing evolution encompasses the rise of intelligent technologies, the fusion of physical, digital and virtual realms and the deepening interconnectivity in both information dissemination and human interaction. Key technological advancements driving this transformation include mobile and virtual technologies, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, robotics, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, biotechnology and Quantum Computing, all of which contribute to blurring the boundaries between physical and digital domains.

Presently, the labour market exhibits at least two noticeable forms of polarisation. The dichotomy between knowledge-based work and manual labour became starkly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, accentuated by the divide between remote and on-site work arrangements. Knowledge workers are further stratified into those possessing sought-after expertise and those whose roles are susceptible to outsourcing or automation. As technology continues to advance, many current human-performed tasks will be automated, leading to enhanced efficiency and productivity among knowledge workers. Automation will predominantly replace physically repetitive and cognitively routine tasks, rendering certain professions obsolete while concurrently birthing novel job opportunities.

Consequently, job polarisation, globalisation and digitalisation exacerbate inequality within the labour market, raising concerns about job loss and its ramifications on individual identity and purpose. While economic concerns stemming from structural shifts can be addressed, preserving a sense of purpose and identity in the face of disappearing professions presents a more profound challenge. Thus, the imperative for supplementary education and retraining becomes paramount, with targeted investments in lifelong learning crucial for enhancing employment prospects.

Despite ongoing advancements, experts lack a unified vision of the future of work, given the unpredictability surrounding the development of key technologies such as AI and robotics. Ensuring public investments align with equitable education for all is imperative, requiring collaborative efforts from political leaders, public sectors and private organisations to formulate workforce policies fostering socially sustainable employment.

Leading through change – the role of servant leadership?

When considering leadership approaches, the primary challenge lies in recognising that the issue isn’t solely about the technologies themselves or their potential, but rather in how you lead your people through these changes. Effectively and sustainably guiding your team or organisation through the adaptation to multifaceted changes, including the adoption of new digital tools, is paramount. Organisations are confronted with the urgent task of seamlessly integrating various new technologies, not limited to AI, while assisting employees in navigating swiftly evolving work environments. In tackling such challenges, the servant leadership approach emerges as a facilitator of trust and inclusion, both critical for ensuring employees ability to learn, to effectively embrace and utilise technology.

Rooted in principles of empathy, humility and service, servant leadership underscores the significance of prioritising the needs of others, empowering employees and cultivating a culture of collaboration and trust. Within the context of digital integration, servant leadership provides a robust framework for guiding organisations through periods of change and uncertainty. By prioritising the needs of employees, leaders can establish a supportive and nurturing environment where individuals feel valued, heard and respected. This fosters a sense of psychological safety and belonging, empowering employees’ ability to learn and unlearn and consequently their ability to embrace new technologies with confidence and resilience. Additionally, servant leaders lead by example, embodying the behaviours and attitudes they seek in others, thereby in an ideal situation being able to inspire a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.

Central principles of servant leadership, distilled from extensive research literature, are:

• Thoroughly analyse the organisation and its people to identify strengths and weaknesses in the work culture
• Reflect on why individuals would choose to be part of the organisation and prioritise efforts to enhance their experience
• Clarify goals, expectations, tasks and performance evaluations to provide clear direction
• Empower employees by allowing them to influence their work and trusting in their expertise
• Foster mutual trust by respecting employees’ autonomy and supporting their initiatives
• Emphasise innovation by encouraging every employee to contribute to the development of their work
• Keep the interests of your customers and society around you at the forefront of your decision-making processes

Forging a path forward

The challenge of rapidly integrating new digital tools and being able to acclimatise employees to unlearning and learning within a changing work environment is one of the defining imperatives of contemporary leadership. By embracing the principles of servant leadership, leaders can navigate this terrain with confidence and foresight, fostering a culture of empathy, collaboration and continuous learning. By prioritising the needs of others, empowering employees and cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning, servant leaders can inspire individuals to embrace change, adapt to new technologies and drive organisational success. As organisations continue to navigate the complexities of digitalisation, servant leadership offers a compelling framework towards creating a more humanly sustainable working life globally.

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