October 13, 2020 By IBM Consulting 6 min read

At the beginning of 2020, the workplace was already in the midst of a major transformation as it increasingly integrated flextime, telecommuting, and freelance talent. Over the last six months, however, things have changed even more.

In the remote environment that defines the workplace now, some roles are no longer relevant, some have become a hybrid of multiple previous roles and in many cases the need for entirely new roles have emerged. Without the same type of physical location experience to serve as an anchor for the company culture, business leaders are now searching for ways to lead while reinforcing long-standing company-wide values in the virtual workplace.

To help your workforce thrive, it’s important to understand shifting trends. Below, IBM experts share their insights into emerging talent trends, including the ever-increasing focus on employee experience and engagement, cultural leadership, and diversity.

Employee experience

Eric Bokelberg and Damon Deaner have worked with numerous clients in recent months that have focused on sustaining communication, collaboration, and culture within the workforce during these uncertain times. Ultimately creating employee “experiences” that can drive talent engagement.

“In the consumer space, we’ve spent many years getting these experiences to be as human-centered and personalized as possible,” says Bokelberg. “Now, we expect that same experience as employees. Why do I have these incredible, personalized, seamless experiences outside of work, but inside of work, everything is challenging and full of friction?”

For companies, it’s a challenge to take the best practices, tools, and techniques from customer experience management and use them internally to improve employee experiences. In order for workers to feel engaged, they must feel they are supported and valued. They must also believe that they’re getting the personalized resources they require to do their jobs. To achieve this objective, companies like Johnson & Johnson and Telstra are assigning responsibility for the employee experience to people with digital marketing experience.

While the focus on coordinating these objectives had already been part of company agendas, the recent pandemic magnified the focus on employee experiences. Forward-thinking companies altered the type of experience they provided to illustrate that they understood what employees needed most.

“Having an employee experience capability or team… is becoming more key,” says Deaner. “It has to drive tangible business outcomes. We’re talking about both ‘signature’ experiences and more everyday employee experiences. An example of some of those signature moments would be your day one experience as you onboard as a new employee. That’s something we really want to make a signature experience because it’s part of a larger journey, and that moment can have an out-sized impact on the experience of that employee. If we get that moment wrong, it has a way of dragging down their perception of the entire journey… We call those ‘moments that matter.’ Then you have your more everyday employee experiences…those are things like giving and receiving feedback or completing surveys or filing expenses, booking travel, those kinds of experiences. We want those to be as fast and simple and intuitive and friction-free as possible.”

For example, PayPal identified what employees needed most during COVID-19 and how they could greatly simplify the process of delivering those necessary resources. It built an enterprise-wide application that either sits on the company’s intranet or can be accessed via a mobile app where employees can get questions answered. PayPal employees can connect to people to learn more about specific topics, such as on-demand mentoring.

To assist companies, IBM leverages design thinking to align the business outcome with what we understand about the users involved in a certain space. This includes the employee segments that might be involved, their needs and pain points, and their journey. Agile delivery then implements the solutions and addresses the pain points. This delivery method can help to quickly prototype and test ideas with users.

Cultural leadership

Unquestionably, COVID-19 shifted talent trends and workplace culture. Prior to the pandemic, the focus was on a combination of external and internal factors related to being leaders, not followers, usually by way of a race to dynamic and emerging marketplaces. Focusing on culture helped align talent to make that happen.

Tony Coe, a consultant for IBM’s Talent and Transformation Group, has studied employee engagement, leadership, and organizational culture for nearly 14 years. He has put that knowledge to work to help companies attract and retain top talent.

“The first step is to create an employment brand that’s going to attract the right kind of employee, where they are going to fit in, stick around, and perform well. Then, it’s also important to engage and drive the performance of existing employees. We use the culture data that we gather as well as engagement data and other data to make sure that existing employees are performing at their peak, they’re happy in their work, and doing their best to stay loyal to the company.”

Beyond collecting and analyzing the applicable data, senior leadership plays an integral role in responding to significant changes that arise from the unexpected. For example, when situations arise that create uncertainty and stress for employees, a leader must step up and provide direction and reassurance, putting empathy and their emotional intelligence to work.

Coe explains, “They need help understanding, managing, leveraging, and—most importantly—changing their existing corporate culture. Leadership is focused on a strategic goal and [on the] places they want to take the company. However, not everybody may be on board. Therefore, culture means nothing if it’s not to get everybody headed in the same direction.”

Then the pandemic came. Coe notes, “There’s been a shift from a mostly external focus to how do we take care of our folks?” To do this, companies are focused on seeking help from consultancies like IBM that can guide them on ensuring greater connection between employees, their teams and the company. Culture is the “glue” that cements those bonds.

Coe adds, “It is absolutely crucial that leaders are open, honest, and transparent with their teams about what’s going on with the current situation. This includes sharing their genuine fears and vulnerabilities as well as discussing things they don’t know. Creating that connection is so incredibly important to making this happen.”

IBM takes a unique approach that considers its existing corporate culture. “Our model for culture is similar to a human analog. Just like a human, an organization consists of rational facts, emotional truths, and personality. Think of that as a Venn diagram. At the center of that, where all of those meet, is where you get the cultural values, the essence of the person, and the essence of the organization. If you’re building an employee value proposition, it starts with putting employees at the core.”

Coe further notes that in this model, the rational facts are analogous to those parts of an organization that are easily discoverable. They are found on the company website and in its annual report and recruiting materials. The emotional truths are the unspoken code, such as the organizational idiosyncrasies not found in any employee handbook yet still crucial to fitting in and succeeding within that organization. The personality is the ‘feel’ of the place, the sense of humor, the way it reacts to failure and other important factors that impact the culture and climate.

Using technology to measure company culture and its impact is key to success. By using these tools to create archetypes or personas, managers are better able to understand how to adapt cultural initiatives to better serve their employees. Coe explains that “we took the traits from these characters and used them to build an instrument so that we can say, ‘This is the story that you’re telling about yourself’ and, more importantly, ‘This is the story you’re shaping for yourself.’ It’s time for you to change. Maybe we need to move your achiever, which is more like a hero trait, up a little bit and maybe move your process or your ruler archetype down a little bit.” From there, the culture can be changed to reflect the new narrative that gives talent what they need and deserve to help themselves and the organization reach their goals.


As awareness and a willingness to achieve more diverse workplaces grow, there is a significant opportunity to create more inclusive and equitable work environments.

At IBM, we believe that truly understanding employees’ lived experiences is essential. Dr. Sheri Feinzig, Partner for Global Business Services, Talent and Transformation Practice at IBM, says, “What characterizes our approach is that we start with listening, understanding and internalizing what employees are actually experiencing in the workplace. We create an environment where employees can finally reveal the challenges and obstacles they routinely face but haven’t been able to talk about in the past.” IBM also leverages a range of technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, to identify areas of bias and evidence of adverse impact across the talent lifecycle. And in addition to identifying problem areas, we deploy technologies to help solve systemic issues.

Before embarking on a new or revamped approach, it’s helpful to start with a conversation that takes stock of past actions in relation to diversity. “We ask clients, ‘What do you aspire for your workplace in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion? What have you tried before? What’s worked, what hasn’t, and why? What are your expectations going forward?’ Once we have a sense of the overall landscape, we can embark on the deeper listening and a systematic assessment of the current state, across all levels of the organization.”

It’s important to look across all stages of the employee lifecycle, as bias and obstacles can occur throughout the career journey. Is the organization struggling to attract diverse talent? Is there a drop-off of diverse representation at certain levels of seniority? Is retention of diverse talent in certain job roles a problem? Pinpointing problematic areas allows for targeted inventions: widening the aperture for sourcing candidates, ensuring robust sponsorship and mentorship, providing opportunities to work on stretch projects, to name just a few.”

A solution for every company

Today’s uncertain world calls for new measures that put employees at the center of a company’s culture and work environment. That means acknowledging how employees feel and delivering experiences they want and deserve from their work, whether that’s in a physical office or part of a remote workspace.

Even though each organization will address these emerging talent trends differently, leadership will always be responsible for developing and disseminating a culture that crosses all work environments and is conducive to sustainable diversity and inclusion. Finding a partner with a deep understanding of this space can help frame how to create exceptional work experiences based on an inclusive culture by using its own unique experiences with prioritizing talent.

Learn more about how IBM can help shape the future of your workforce

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