ISSN 1175-5407

The challenges and opportunities of a changing world

By Debbie Grenfell, Managing Director, Kelly Services


In any industry, there can be little doubt that getting the right mix of people can be the greatest challenge. The right people now, can make the difference – not just in profit, but also in the success of a business.

In the current environment, business owners may still be cautious about recruiting. But now is the time to think long-term. With every significant change, there is very real opportunity. Although the recession has been difficult – perhaps the most challenging we will see in our careers – our responses in the year ahead will likely shape the course of our businesses, our industries and our economy for decades to come.

It will take talented people, working well together to ensure businesses are ready to succeed in the new future that the economic recovery will bring. The difference – both now and in that future we create – will be how we apply our best and our brightest to work through the challenges; the difference, will come down to talent.

Our changing world – the challenges and opportunities of global change

To understand how we can shape our workforce to manage the impacts of global change, we first have to consider what resources we have. We are only now beginning to understand how far reaching, and how fundamental some of these changes may be. Where we believe they will be felt most strongly – and where the effects will likely be most profound – is in how we, and future generations, work. Our ability to recognise these changes, and seek opportunities within them, will create significant advantages in coming years. We now have an opportunity to focus our workforce in many new and unique ways. By considering now what the future may bring, we can start our teams working towards the best possible outcomes for our companies and attract the best talent to begin transforming our businesses.

The employment environment is about to experience fundamental change

In the last two decades, technologies, changing lifestyles and the demands of successive new generations have created a new workplace environment. The ‘workplace’ – and the employee’s relationship to it – has changed dramatically. Due to enormous leaps in communications technology, the virtual workplace is almost always with us and there are very few places in the world you can now go, where the office can’t follow. The rise of near instantaneous communication has revolutionised the pace at which we do business, blurring the lines between work and other parts of our lives, and creating an environment where work is no longer a nine-to-five activity.

While many of us may occasionally feel the workplace is perhaps a little too intrusive, a recent global Kelly workforce survey highlighted that 76 per cent of Kiwis say the ability to work outside the office, yet remain in constant contact, has been a positive development. This is despite the fact that more than a third are now working longer hours. More than 80 per cent of New Zealanders surveyed say mobile communications technology such as smartphones and laptops have boosted personal productivity and, for many, have transformed their work-life balance.

Flexible working schedules are becoming the norm in many workplaces and are likely to play an even greater role in the future. This new workplace has also been shaped by successive generations. Recently, a Kelly Generations@Work survey was conducted of generational work attitudes in 34 countries around the world, including New Zealand. The research examined the impacts of the values and attitudes of each generation at work today, and what we found was that today’s workplace is quite unique.

Four generations are now employed side-by-side – from the Silent Generation, which entered the workforce just after the War, to the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Y. What this means is we now have a group of employees whose attitudes and approaches to work are as varied as the times they grew up in.

Managing the different expectations of each has created some serious issues for employers, especially as they seek to find the best way to motivate employees from successive generations. This has, at times, created a fragmented workforce, where employers have struggled to pull together the best of each age group.

In particular, Generation Y – those born between 1978 and 1995 – has been the most testing group for employers across industries. While employers loved their energy, drive and skills when they first entered the workforce, they have also been described as the most high maintenance group to ever go to work. In particular, motivating and retaining them – especially in a highly mobile, tight labour market – has been a real struggle.

However, Generation Y recently faced its first experience of a recession, where the pressures of a much more competitive and volatile employment market have undoubtedly changed the attitudes of many, particularly when it comes to the more traditional methods of career building. But to see this generation as needing to be brought into line with more traditional working expectations is to risk missing their potential. Generation Y employees are our future leaders and their particular skills – like creativity, adaptability and a complete mastery of technology – are going to be greatly needed in coming years.

At the other end of the spectrum, our workforce is aging and we are about to experience what social scientists now term an ‘age-quake’. In New Zealand, we have one of the oldest working populations in the world, with many people nearing retirement age. Without proper management, this represents an enormous loss of skills and experience in the workforce, and a huge shift in the balance of our population, with significant economic impacts.

Up until now, these and many other changes have represented an evolving response to a range of influences that were fairly clear to see, with broad effects that could largely be predicted. But with the global financial meltdown and the recession that followed, everything changed – and it changed at a pace that is unprecedented, certainly in over half a century. Like many elements of the economy, the influence of this change on the modern workforce is still unclear, and what that will mean for us as employers is yet to be fully determined.

The world is changing now

What is very clear is that we are in the midst of a significant shift and it’s obvious that we are not just looking at a minor cyclic event. While most of us would have welcomed the easing of skills shortages – however short-lived our ability was to take advantage of them – we are not just experiencing a swing of the pendulum back to favour the employer.

It is generally agreed that the last time we saw such a significant global change in the world economy was during and after the Great Depression. Kelly Services was established just after that period, and introduced a new model of working that still has a major influence today, so we understand how global changes of this magnitude can wholly change the workplace.

What we are seeing now are some significant shifts in attitude. Last year, we conducted a Kelly Global Workforce Index survey of nearly 100,000 people in 34 countries – including 3,000 in New Zealand – to measure a range of attitudes to work, and predict trends emerging in workforce development. For New Zealand, the survey painted a complex picture of how our employees think and feel about their employment. For example, Kiwis take a great deal of pride in their work. Out of the 34 countries, New Zealander’s ranked ninth in the survey, with over 90 per cent stating their work gave them a sense of pride – that put us ahead of the US, who were ranked tenth, and Australia, ranked twelfth. Furthermore, the survey also highlighted that workplace satisfaction can rank higher than additional salary for a majority of New Zealanders. Over half of respondents – higher than the global average – were willing to take on a lesser role, or a lower wage, if they felt their work could make a meaningful contribution.

However, we also reported a growing sense of frustration in our workforce. According to the survey, New Zealanders lead the world with the highest level of dissatisfaction with their career development. There could be many factors at play here, including people’s belief that their progress was being constrained by the impact of the recession, and that training and career development budgets had been restricted. But what was most evident from the survey is that people still expected to continue to have mobility in their jobs. According to our survey, almost two-thirds of New Zealanders still intended to look for a new job, with another organisation, compared to only 40 per cent of respondents based in the US.

Again, the reasons for this are likely to be quite complex. In an unsettled environment, it’s likely that employees may be looking to move to a safe haven role, or feel that they need to move as their current position is under threat. But also evident in this is the underlying demand that still exists for talent. Regardless of the economy, there are many people whose skills are highly desirable and businesses will still work hard to attract them.

With employees, we are also starting to see some emerging trends from the different generations – most notably at either end of the age spectrum. For the Baby Boomers, the prospect of a comfortable retirement has been made more uncertain by the devaluation of stock markets, savings funds and real estate, both here and overseas. Realising the value of exiting a business is also no longer as attractive – or even likely – for this group. So we are beginning to see Baby Boomers delaying retirement, and staying on in the workforce, possibly for up to a decade longer.

For our newest group of employees, the reality of a tougher employment market has seen a change of game plan. As competition increases, so does their recognition of it – and we’re seeing a marked change in attitude, presentation, and application.

For employers, the new economic reality has seen many challenge old work models, and innovate rapidly. Many industries have already introduced their own flexible working schedules, with some surprising results. Last year, smelter company Rio Tinto received an overwhelming response to its offer of a shortened working week, with almost double the staff expected applying to reduce their working hours.

Other concepts that were once more convenient than necessary have gained real currency, such as job sharing and remote working to reduce additional costs associated with transport and administration. What has been extremely evident in many industries has been a shared approach to change. Employers and employees have created joint responses to their own markets and requirements, with remarkable cooperation emerging as people focus on what’s best for the whole business.

Very few of these changes are totally new – many are just a more rapid introduction of concepts that have been evolving in the workplace for a number of years. But what is different is the scale and scope of the changes we are now seeing in New Zealand and around the world.

The global crisis has been a powerful force for change and it is unlikely that the world of work will ever go back to being exactly the same as it was, so we must be prepared to take advantage of a new era of work – and all the opportunities that might bring.


As we enter the first part of what will hopefully be a sustained period of growth – now is the time to plan to take the lead the market as we start on the road to recovery.

So how can you ensure your business is not only built to survive, but ready to take advantage of the opportunities? The best place is to start with your people. Review your organisation’s talent-base, culture and human resource processes to ensure that your systems are built to succeed:

  • What is the main thing you have learnt about your business during the last 12-24 months?
  • If you could change one thing about your business to make it operate more efficiently, what would it be?
  • What does your staff think about your business and where it is currently positioned? Have you involved them in future planning?
  • If you could do it all again, what would you have changed about your business six to ten months ago that would have made a difference now?
  • If you could have a ‘dream team’ to take on this challenge, what attributes would they have? Do you know anyone (inside or outside your team) that has these attributes?
  • How can you identify, attract, select, nurture, reward and retain talent, so your business is best positioned to take on the future?
  • What would your key stakeholders have you do? What is your staff asking for? What are your customers/suppliers asking for?
  • With answers to the above questions in mind, what can you do to take advantage of – or be flexible enough to adapt your business to – these demands?

Over the past 24 months, what we’ve seen in the workplace is an immediate reaction to change. Having spent many years dealing with the constraining – and frustrating – effects of a skills shortage, employers have worked as hard as possible, for as long as possible, to keep their quality staff.

However, as we see the past two years compared to previous recessionary periods, it is worth considering the lessons of the last Century. For many successful businesses, including a number that are a global force today, the events set off by the these changes, and the responses of people in business to it, was the foundation for their success.

In times of great change, great change is possible. For our businesses – if well led, and supported by an engaged and motivated workforce, as well as the application of innovation and flexibility – the opportunities that can come out of this change may be very great indeed.

Talent is fundamental

Kelly has built its global business over 60 years – including two decades in New Zealand – on the application of a fundamental principle: whatever the environment, the driving force of business is talent.

We believe that in any market, quality people, led well and employed efficiently will ensure business sustainability. The real challenge is to attract – and retain – the right talent. As we highlighted in the Global Workforce Index, talent can still be highly mobile.

In attracting talent, businesses may have to review how they present themselves. In fact, many of the new and unusual practices we were seeing in the ‘great places to work’ trends pioneered by companies like Google, such as staff games rooms, chill-out spaces, and in-house masseuses, are already disappearing. Employees are now looking for signs of great stability, longevity and quality management, coupled with workforce security.

In general, people have a few basic wants, however these are not consistently supplied by many organisations:

  • A clear, accurate and honest account of the work they will do (job description)
  • A formalised introduction into their role, colleagues and company – not thrown in the deep end. Our experience shows that turnover of people in the first six months is three times more likely than if there is no formalised orientation program
  • A performance management process where employees are given specific objective feedback and support from their manager
  • To be lead by someone that has the ability to lead or is being trained to lead
  • To be rewarded fairly for the work they do and treated with respect
  • Clear and regular communication about the performance of their company

To be part of the solution, particularly when a company is underperforming, with the opportunity to express views and ideas to help improve performance.

As well, some of the trends that tended to act against Kiwi businesses are now reversing in our favour. It’s been much talked about, and the signs are now there, that many of the talented Kiwis who were working overseas, are now looking to return home. It’s worth remembering that New Zealand still offers one of the world’s best lifestyles and, for Kiwis returning from overseas, the property market and record low interest rates represent a great opportunity.

Never more important than now to get it right

  • If the right people can hold the key to your business success, it has never been more crucial to look after them. This isn’t rocket science; it’s going back to basics.
  • Ensure you maintain communication – people want to know what is happening, good or bad
  • Review the strength of your workforce – do you have the right people with the right tools? Develop your workforce where relevant to future-proof your business
  • Engage staff to review processes and identify areas for greater efficiencies. Share with them what is going on and if you do need to restructure, follow the correct process
  • Invite discussion with your workforce to gauge what the mood is
  • Manage performance
  • Find ways of continuing to train and up-skill
  • Meet potential new employees, so you have established contact for when you need it later
  • Create and share your business plan, and actively empower staff at every level to achieve it
  • Understand what’s happening in the market as this information is useful to ensure a well-informed decision making process.

People will lead the change

One of the things we can absolutely predict is that over the long term growth will be fully restored. We also believe that talent at work will be the catalyst for this improvement. People working well together will create the environment for a better economy. But in that improved international economy, we believe the global workplace will have fundamentally changed. As employers, this change should herald many opportunities for greater flexibility, improved efficiency, and a dynamic new working environment.< >< >

Those businesses best positioned to take advantage of the up swing will be the leaders in the next economic cycle, and the best people, with the greatest talent, will put you there.

Click here to download a pdf version.

Debbie Grenfell Bio: Debbie Grenfell, B.Comm. C.A. has an extensive background in business and finance and has enjoyed working with Kelly Services NZ for over ten years.
Please contact Victoria Bennett, Marketing Manager, Kelly Services (NZ) on 0800 4 KELLY or email: or visit should you have any questions concerning this article.

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