T hese arechallenging times for talent management experts, with new labour models that depend on gig workers and contingent workers kicking in, data protection Acts being mulled in some countries, and the need for completely new skill sets. How do organisations manage these challenges? Anna Kahn, workforce advisory leader, EMEIA at consultancy firm EY, who helps companies with their people agenda, shares some thoughts.

As the new labour model — gig workers, robotic workforce et al — evolves, how are companies preparing for it? What are the changes needed at the organisational level to embrace this labour model?

A lot of our clients are very concerned about this new model and how to actually optimise their workforce. While some businesses are preparing, others are just at the initial preparatory stages.

I see three key trends in terms of managing this extended workforce supply chain, including robotic workforce, that is emerging.

The first thing that companies are doing is to really understand what target strategic workforce plan they need to have in place. Many businesses historically that I used to work with on this topic were looking at only a year ahead, may be, linked to their budgeting plans. If companies are looking at 3-5 years and thinking about what should be the blend of the workforce they need in the future, that’s the first stage of the preparation.

The second stage I am seeing is that companies are actually selecting software or technologies that help them source and manage this extended workforce so that they have visibility of who are their gig workers versus their full-time workers; how much do they cost versus their full-time workers and how can they optimise that type of blended resourcing component.

I would say the robotic component isn’t yet thought through. So that’s a big question to tackle. And lastly, people are beginning to think about not only the components of what is required, but how do you equip these people to feel for, to form part of their extended culture.

For instance, if I’m a big brand marketing company, how do I know that the marketing personnel who are temporary employees will uphold the brand values and my corporate values? So thinking about that extended workforce as part of your family of brand or family of culture is very important.

And lastly, what responsibility can the organisation take to actually support their employees to help them develop right skill sets that they might need and not just source good workers. When you have scarce capacity, all these questions are very important in terms of the labour dynamics of the environment that we’re creating for ourselves today, for the businesses and indeed for the future of society.

Applying data-driven insights is cited as the new way of workforce management. However, new rules being framed by governments now raise questions about privacy and employee rights (right to digital disconnection, for instance). Going forward, how is this going to pan out?

Yes, I think this is a really critical area and companies are reaching out to EY for the answers and we are providing support to our clients to implement the rules that regulators have put in place. Clearly, with technology comes a lot of opportunity but, as we know, it comes at a risk. Privacy concerns and other areas which we never thought we would need to worry about are emerging. So we need to have a balance where data is embedded in everything we do and as businesses. We need to leverage that data set but within the context of privacy rules.

If individuals do not allow you to have those data sets, then it should be well protected. However, still in case they are not protected, then businesses should be forced to understand what fines they would have to face from regulators. So it’s a complicated area but data privacy is something that businesses are taking very seriously. They are implementing the right processes, procedures and controls around that. I think this area will evolve as technologies evolve further.

Currently, over 90 per cent of the data collected is unusable. How do companies collect the right data to drive performance in an organisation?

Today, we have the power of the smartphone, the power of technologies that we can deploy at the workplace. Data collection isn’t something that is done in an old-fashioned manner any longer. Earlier, one had to actually run surveys or enter the data manually in a specific format as a one-off exercise, but today, we are almost swimming in data.

So the trick is to understand what critical types of business objectives and KPIs (key performance indicators) drive your business and then extract that specific data set to draw insights, to have an impact on the business and its operations.

With the power of algorithms and machine intelligence, there are many things that data now enables us to uncover without having to necessarily extract data in a formulaic way. Hence, there is an entirely new way of extracting value from what you might think is unusable data but is actually very valuable data.

We see a lot of companies looking at networks and patterns of communication from within their company to gather new data sets that help them take decisions on how to organise their employees more effectively. This type of data wasn't available to companies previously.

Another way that companies are using data is linked to employee sentiment, to drive internal communications in a much more personalised and targeted manner, and here EY is helping clients. We have just launched a new algorithm-based change management tool that supports targeted interventions to help employees change.

What key trends will define workforce management and planning in 2019?

A key aspect that is obsessing my clients is, what does the fourth industrial revolution mean for our future workforce? How many of those workers do I need in the future to be fully employed by me versus to be part of my broader ecosystem of either temporary labour or partners that I am working with? Also, in terms of future planning, what do I need and what do I don’t need any longer and how do I actually equip the people with new skill sets that are important for my business to be future-ready. For example, we are seeing scarcity in certain skills across the globe, like data scientists. How do I actually make sure I am not increasing my labour bill by creating further tension, either inside my organisation for those skills, or outside in the market? How do I invest in upskilling the people that I have to support? Therefore, the fourth industrial revolution is a big trend.

The other big trend that I see in certain markets globally is mental health issues. How do I, as a business, understand the imperatives of the well-being of my workforce and the key drivers for the same?

Another trend I think about is employee experience, which is further linked to employee brand recognition.

Finally, what key labour challenges do you see in the Indian market — is there anything different from other markets?

Interestingly, India is the number one employer of contingent workforce in the world, and it includes diverse professionals, be it developers, lawyers, sales and marketing, media professionals, among others. We are expecting a lot of the next generation employees, especially when it comes to working with multiple organisations for different projects. At the same time, there is a need to support these contingent workers with some of the standard benefits, such as medical, insurance and retirement benefits. Over the next few years, these will become some of the burning questions to address.