Retool not Retrench to Build your Workforce as Jobs Change

Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts, CEO - Trevor-Roberts 

There are unlikely to be many jobs that won't change in the next few years because of the impact of automation and technology. As roles change, how do organisations ensure they have people with the right skills and, importantly, what do they do with their existing staff who may not currently have the skills needed?


The most common belief is that it is quicker and easier to retrench the person in that role and hire someone with the skills you need. This approach, however, appears to be the least effective for three reasons:

  1. The negative impact on other staff and morale because of the redundancies are often overlooked. People start looking over their shoulder wondering when they will be next.
  2. There is an assumption that the skills you need can be found easily in the market. If the whole industry is changing then the demand for people with the same skill sets is huge. The Disability Services sector is a poignant example of the difficulty of finding staff.
  3. It is assumed that people will not, or cannot, adapt to the new types of activities that are required of them.

There remains an inherent bias in our workplace that people can't change. In fact, the early scientific evidence was that our brains were 'fixed' as we moved into adulthood and therefore our capacity for change was marginal. Recent evidence has smashed this belief showing that the adult brain is 'plastic' and can re-wire itself to learn new skills.

Yet when it comes to job redesign after a significant part of a role is changed due to automation or restructure we assume that people won't or can't change to the new role. 

We tend to give up on our employees too quickly.

There are a few trends that indicate that a better outcome may be reached if we focus on our existing people. First, our understanding of neuroplasticity demonstrates that adults are capable of incredible feats of learning. Second, research by Rosenthal and Jacobson found that simply believing in your followers made them improve. Called the Pygmalion Effect, leaders who believe that their staff can change and improve, will in fact change and improve.

Third, there has been so much talk about the changing nature of jobs that people expect their job to change. There is an acceptance (albeit reluctant at times) that they will have to adapt and learn new skills but just don't know how.

Finally, the most common reason for job redesigns is to enhance the customer experience. These are positive changes that can motivate employees, as these changes foster an employee’s desire and ability to help others, which is one of the key motivators in the workplace.

Few organisations appreciate how valuable this rationale is and how much people will adapt and invest discretionary effort to help customers.

There are two discrete steps involved in bringing people along on the journey to reskill rather than retrench them.  The first is to build their adaptability. Career adaptability is the capacity to think of oneself differently and be open to changing contexts. It is a mindset about being open to learning new things, exploring new ideas and being willing to try (and fail sometimes!). This step is often missed in culture change processes where the emphasis jumps straight to the technical learning rather than the mindset required to succeed with the acquisition of new skills. 

Second, build the new skills that are required. Advances in combining adult learning principles with technology allows for innovative delivery mechanisms for learning such as micro-learning and augmented reality.

As jobs are redesigned on an increasingly regular frequency, let's not give up on our employees too soon. Help them adapt and evolve to the new roles first and only use redundancy as a last resort.

www.trevor-roberts.com.au | Phone:  1300 876 118 | Email:  edwin.tr@trevor-roberts.com.au

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