Designing adaptable jobs is opportunity for utility companies

25 May 2017

Managed carefully, extending the working life of people assets can be an opportunity. The challenge for utilities is to design jobs that adapt with the workforce, write James Clement and Alex Graham, both advisors at Egremont Group, a London based management consulting firm.

How often do we hear that “people are our greatest asset”? This sounds good. It might even be true. Typically, the best and brightest are thinking long and hard about how to maximise return on investment from physical assets over decades, if not centuries. Yet our people assets are typically managed on a 12-month cycle.

Working longer

For utility companies, managing people assets is requiring some change of thought. Successive governments have announced a steady increase in retirement age and within the next ten years the state pension age will be pushed back to 67. Many frontline operators such as maintainers and technicians, who are doing physically intense roles, will have to work 15 to 20 years longer than their colleagues do today. This is quite a change from recent times when many colleagues left in their 50s with gold-plated pensions.

For utility companies, managing people assets is requiring a change of thought

This presents a challenge for the utility sector. Frontline maintenance work is often arduous and physical and while the ongoing improvements in health and technology help, even the rosiest predictions do not envisage people in their mid- to late 60s being as physically capable as today’s 50-year-olds.

Losing knowledge

It is not just a physical issue – getting the best from ageing “intellectual assets” is also a problem. As workforce demographics change, the generation who knew the quirks and eccentricities of the operations and network have been retired out – and with them a lifetime of on-the-job knowledge.

To this day, long-retired colleagues are still being rung up and asked to recall the intricacies of the network when something has gone bang in the night. What happens when they are not around any more to call? This is particularly a problem because much of this intimate and intricate knowledge has never been written down.

Designing flexible careers

Managed carefully, extending the working life of people assets can provide a significant opportunity. The challenge for utilities is to design jobs and careers that adapt with the workforce over time.

Putting the right career management structure in place means what is lost in physical labour capability can transition to harnessing the intellectual capital of human assets. Starting this process now, when it applies to a smaller proportion of the workforce, will be much more manageable and a lot less costly than waiting until there is a multitude of employees companies do not know what to do with.

The challenge for utilities is to design jobs  and careers that adapt with the workforce over time

A future-back approach

The first step is to change perspective and take a future-back approach to career planning, plotting the employee journey over decades. With careful thought, long-term planning and training, the workforce will be equipped with the competencies, aptitudes and attitudes to enable them to move into less physically demanding roles – roles that continue to utilise their experience as their lengthened careers progress.

Consciously “re-purposing” people assets (that is, talent) ready for new roles, before they become physically unable to manage the demands of front-line work, ensures that motivation is kept up and vital knowledge is retained.

Providing people with defined late-stage career pathways will help them transition into new positions when the time is right. Rather than facing the headache of an ageing workforce as a costly asset liability, if planned for, these same assets could become a knowledge bank helping to power the organisation into the future.

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Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

17 April 2019

Soft skills matter in the workplace just as much as technical expertise, writes Samantha Caine, Managing Director of Business Linked Teams.

For too long technical expertise has been seen as the marker of a strong candidate for development into a sales or leadership position. Sales and leadership candidates are tasked with demonstrating a diverse and wide-ranging set of technical skills, yet their aptitude in these technical skills or ‘hard skills’ cannot signify great leadership potential. This is why a healthy balance of soft skills and technical ability is required. 

So what exactly is the difference between technical skills and soft skills? In engineering, it’s crucial to demonstrate knowledge of physics as well as a strong grasp on mathematical equations. Yet, in any industry, it’s important for leaders to be able to interact with other people effectively with soft skills like communication, empathy and adaptability. 

Business Linked Team’s 2018 study into internal leadership development revealed that 69% of large organisations are prioritising the identification and development of future leaders from within the workforce. As more and more organisations begin to invest in sales or leadership development within their existing workforces, more focus needs to be placed on ensuring the right soft skills are in place. 

With those soft skills in place throughout the workforce, the business will benefit from a wider pool of potential leaders developing under their noses, and it should be the same where sales candidates are concerned. 

It’s not just about easier access to ideal candidates for these positions without the rigmarole of recruiting from outside of the organisation. The leadership development study also found that 89% of HR decision makers say succession planning has become a top priority. Those currently serving in leadership positions can’t lead forever and the same goes for those generating sales for the business.

Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

From people leaving for new opportunities or retirement, to people simply stepping aside to focus on other areas of the business, successful leaders and salespeople require experienced and capable successors that will be ready and able to confidently step into their shoes and pick up the mantle without the business experiencing any lapse in performance.

Soft skills make stronger candidates

When it comes to the soft skills required, a strong leader must be able to manage through clear communication and effective time management, coaching and goal setting. They must be able to demonstrate empathy and empower their teams to be successful, productive and fully engaged. And beyond simply giving direction, they must also be able to take direction from those above them and cascade the business strategy down through their teams. 

A strong sales candidate must possess the ability to communicate value to the customer, negotiate well and protect margin or the ability to increase the scope of a particular sales opportunity. 

With the relevant soft skills in place, the business will benefit from increased productivity, greater agility against changing market conditions and greater transparency. In turn, this will provide visibility on issues and inefficiencies while removing opportunity for miscommunication. All of this can transform the culture of a department, improving employee satisfaction and reducing staff turnover. 

Ultimately, developing leadership or sales candidates will require the business to strike the right balance between technical skills and soft skills, and this requires an effective and sustained learning journey.

A balanced learning journey

Facilitating and supporting the development of leadership and sales is best achieved by establishing training groups. By cultivating training groups, businesses are creating talent pools that will inspire and support each other on the learning journey. However, personal goals and learning objectives must be defined for each individual based on their own existing skillsets and the skills that each individual needs to develop. 

With the emergence of e-learning, businesses recognise the value of online-based learning activities, yet many make the mistake of opting for one-size-fits-all solutions which are solely focused on self-study. A development solution will only deliver true return on investment if it combines e-learning activities with group learning activities that provide opportunity for shared experiences and support.

A blended learning solution that combines self-study and face-to-face group learning activities will aid strong development of the talent pool through shared experiences. Through these shared experiences, those undergoing the training will organically develop a support network that supports the development of the group as much as it supports the development of each individual. 

The blended learning approach is supported by one of the seven principles of human learning that socially supported interactions aid the individual development of expertise, metacognitive skills, and formation of the learner’s sense of self. The strongest opportunities for development can be unlocked by blending workshops with online activities such as virtual sessions, peer coaching, self-study, online games and business simulations. But it’s crucial to provide a blend of one-to-one and group sessions too.

Beyond delivering a better learning outcome for the employee, the blended learning approach allows organisations to adapt their training quickly and easily to shifting business demands in an ever-changing landscape.