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Commentary: It will take more than talk to improve the future of work

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A new global survey has found a significant gap between what companies are saying and what they’re actually doing about the future of work. 

Our survey intended to gauge whether and how much companies have revamped the way they work in the aftermath of the pandemic, involved executives from 347 companies in 45 countries that collectively employ roughly 6 million workers.

We asked respondents to consider 12 dimensions of how work has changed since the onset of the pandemic, rate the importance of each dimension to their organization, and tell us how far along they are in making progress on each item. 

What we found probably won’t surprise you: The gap between importance and progress was wide. Some of the biggest gaps are in leadership, flexible talent models, and learning. While some companies—including both large organizations, such as Siemens and American Express, and smaller organizations such as Dropbox—have enthusiastically embraced the flexible, team-oriented working models the pandemic spawned, the majority of companies have been dragging their feet. Some have even been moving backward and are now tracking “badge swipes.”

The determining factor

Consider the critical issue of “talent” (people, employees, whatever you prefer to call it). Talent is always listed among the top priorities of every organization. The large numbers of job openings and “quits” the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported throughout the summer will keep it so, even if the economy slides into a recession later this year, or early next year, as some anticipate.

Yet, many CEOs apparently are not taking a hands-on interest in their organization’s talent programs. They often leave talent issues–and the future of work–to their human resources team. While HR is an integral player in these areas, the initiatives cannot succeed without their CEOs.

Looking at our survey, 91% of the respondents indicated that “implementing new and diverse talent models”–such as project-based staffing, retiree and other alumni “gig cadres,” and crowdsourcing innovation—should be a company priority. Yet, just 7% said such changes were on their CEO’s agenda.

Unsurprisingly, in organizations where the CEO is hands-off on future of work priorities, only 6% of respondents self-reported that their companies are leading in their industry. In organizations where the CEO is actively involved in driving future-of-work efforts, more than five times that number (33% of respondents) rated their organizations as leading in their industry.

Other areas to which senior executives were largely paying lip service–though they identified them as priorities–included “always-on” learning and generative leadership. 

Ninety-two percent of the survey respondents identified “always-on learning” as an essential component of the future of work—and an essential component of their organization’s long-term success. Always-on learning is different than formal training, which often doesn’t seem quite relevant to the day-to-day realities of one’s job. The idea is to make the entire workday—every conversation, meeting, decision, and action—a learning opportunity. Executives understand why this is critical in today’s rapidly changing world. However, just 11% of CEOs have made this type of learning a priority, the survey indicated. 

Similarly, 93% said leadership was important, but only 19% said it was on their CEO’s agenda. To enable organizations to thrive in today’s world, leadership needs to become more “generative.” This type of leadership involves the conscious (and conscientious) effort by every leader at every level, from the front line to the C-suite, to improve everything they touch–from interactions with customers and relationships with coworkers to products and profits.

These and other such future-of-work initiatives should be on every CEO’s radar–and that of everyone on their leadership team, including, of course, their HR team.

Business leaders would never think of outsourcing their profit and loss responsibilities to their accounting departments, so why outsource their future of work and talent priorities to HR?

If organizations want to become great talent magnets—high-performance and high-engagement organizations—they need to dedicate the same level of attention and funding to efforts to reimagine the workplace as their highest-priority strategic and operational initiatives.

This means giving their most valuable talent the job of creating the future of work they want to oversee. After all, with their hands-on, day-to-day experience, who is more qualified for the job of building a better workplace?

Now is the time for organizations to create a better future of work. The bad news from our research is that most organizations are behind. The good news is that those CEOs who prioritize building a better future of work will likely do very well in both the workplace (creating value for their employees) and the marketplace (creating an advantage for their organizations and stakeholders).

Deborah Lovich, a Boston-based managing director and senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group, leads the firm’s global initiatives on the Future of Work. Sebastian Ullrich, a BCG Managing Director and Partner, based in Dusseldorf, Germany, is BCG’s European leader on Future of Work.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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