The demands of the 21st century workplace are a world apart from those faced by our grandparents a few decades ago. And the challenges that a supervisor or manager faces in today’s industries are equally demanding.
The increasing reliance on cutting-edge technology in the workplace, changing employment trends and expectations, and the dynamics of a society that is more accepting of diversity in the workplace create both opportunities and difficulties for the new millennium manager.
Contract vs. employee in the ‘at-will’ workplace
In most states, employment is “at will,” meaning that the employer is not guaranteeing that the job, or the conditions of the job, will continue for a set period, unless that duration has been stated in a signed contract. All states, except Montana, have at-will laws in place. These laws often afford employers more latitude in how they manage employees. But over the years, they have also helped to create fertile ground for other anomalies of the U.S. labor scene: contract and temporary workers.
As little as 30 or 40 years ago, the concept of a contract or temporary worker, who fulfilled job duties without any or all of the promises of benefits afforded to his fellow employees, would have been rare. In 1983, temporary workers made up less than 1 percent of the labor force. Today, notes Danielle Kurtzleben, workers hired to fulfill temporary slots amount to more than 2 percent of the U.S. workforce.
Contractors also fill a significant portion of employment roles, as either skilled professionals who can fill a time-limited niche at the onsite office or as self-employed freelancers with a specific expertise. These independent contractors frequently work from home and for multiple employers.
This changing workforce means managers must have a clear understanding of federal and state employment laws that govern the use of contract workers. While work-at-will legislation does give the employer (in most cases) the right to say when the job is over, there are still stringent limitations on who an employer can define as a contract worker and what the manager can demand as part of the contract. From the IRS’ point of view, whether the worker is classified as a contractor or employee often determines what taxes should be paid on behalf of the worker and what exemptions can be claimed by the employer. In many small businesses, this Rubik’s cube of laws and procedures are a critical element to how the manager runs the office.
Low cost or labor intensive?
The trade-off to not having to pay for health care, sick time or holiday pay may seem appealing to many, but today’s managers often find their job duties comprise a much broader role of mentoring, tracking and organizing in their day-to-day supervisory skills than might be expected for offsite workers who are hired for their expertise.
Some small businesses have found setting up an agreed-upon communication plan is the ticket; others find that their preparatory written work, such as operations manuals, are the key to ensuring good performance. But most will agree that running an office, whether it is in a building or in the cloud, requires just as much supervisory prowess as it did in our parents’ day.
Technology’s higher learning curves
Technology is often seen as a boon for the employer who wants an easier means for tracking employees, finances and hiring. But as beneficial as the digital age has become, it presents huge educational and functional expectations for team leaders who may manage the bulk of their team’s assignments by phone, email or social media. It means staying on top of cutting-edge technology that lends a supportive role to their business, such as mobile assessment tools that allow offsite applications and testing, but requires staff training and management at the head office.
Diversity in the ‘new economy’
Social and cultural diversity continues to change U.S. societies in dramatic ways. For the average business, it means a broader range of ideas, innovations and perspectives to which to turn. “Pulling from a diverse demographic in terms of gender, ethnicity, age and disability gives companies a wider pool of talent to work with,” says journalist Beth Winston. “Supervisors must be prepared to meet the needs and challenges of this newly diverse workforce.”
More than a third of workers in the U.S. are people of color, according to a 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. Women represent an even greater percentage overall. More than half of the country’s office, professional and managerial workforce were women in 2012 — a huge shift from the 1950s, when less than a third of all women worked outside of the home.
And for the contemporary American business, learning how to manage such a diverse workforce is the key to marketplace success, says Glenn Llopis. “Diversity can no longer just be about making the numbers, but rather how an organization treats its people authentically down to the roots of its business model.” So, how a company’s management team leads its workforce can reflect on the values it wants to share as a business.
Multicultural often means multilingual
In some industries, cultural diversity places an increased demand on managers to be multilingual. While we commonly assume in the U.S. that everyone in the labor force speaks English, some businesses realize that there is an advantage to employing managers who speak a second or third language. One business I surveyed years ago when I was teaching Spanish at community colleges had come to the decision that if the majority of the applicants at that particular grocery store were Spanish-speaking immigrants, it made sense to have a training manager who could conduct orientation sessions and training for new hires in Spanish. Other companies have realized that there is a benefit to having a multicultural, multilingual workforce — and a manager who can elicit and appreciate the skills of each member.
And the increasing role of individuals with disabilities in the workplace hasn’t just made offices more physically accessible, but it has also required managers to learn how to adapt job settings and requirements to meet the needs of a new, but growing, sector of workers.
X, Y and Z: The new millennium workforce
But the greatest shift for today’s team-leader may be reflected in the generations she manages. Generation X, Generation Y and the upcoming Generation Z all share a place in today’s office — and all bring their own educational, technological and seasoned insights to the table.
Today’s manager recognizes that the new millennium workforce is more than a team of individuals. It is a microcosm of the global marketplace, where ideas and values are enriched by the diversity of backgrounds, identities and views they represent.
Image courtesy of MGM Resorts Foundation