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How you manage employees through tech disruption can mean success or failure

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The series: We look at decision makers and strategies among Canada's companies to be successful in a competitive global digital economy.

Be more adaptable, creative, more employee-friendly. Hire senior managers who are tech-savvy, experienced and flexible. Ensure your technology surpasses that of your competitors, but don't lose the human element that matters to customers. Keep your staff happy and engaged – and prevent them from leaving. And don't forget about the bottom line.

That's the message targeting Canadian businesses – and it's a tall order, says Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions for the human resources company Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

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"Canadian businesses are facing a number of challenges. There are a whole bunch of disruptive threads," she says, adding that over the next 10 years, business will face massive technological change, as well as new competitors they formerly didn't have to contend with who will force them to develop radically different business models.

"They have to be agile," she says. "But it's a lot of strain on an organization."

The key, experts say, is to keep employees happy and healthy as the pace of technology continues to intensify.

1. Tech disruption isn't just about tech

The technological acceleration of everything – the robotization of manufacturing tasks, artificial intelligence advancements, lower tech costs – in sectors such as manufacturing, health, retail and financial services, "is enabling companies to change things much faster," says François Tellier, Ernst & Young Canada's growth markets leader in Montreal. "It's also enabling other types of companies to emerge and compete with more established companies."

But even though firms identify tech disruption as their most significant challenge, with 20 per cent citing it as their top concern in EY's global survey, Growth Barometer, "at the same time, it's a significant opportunity" in that it can drive productivity and growth, Mr. Tellier says.

"Technology is impacting every component of the company – how you're interacting with customers, how you're retaining customers, how you're developing new customers," he says.

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But this technological push can also affect employees – profoundly. "If some productivity comes from removing people, that's a huge issue," he says. That needs to be managed.

2. Make engagement more than a tech phrase

Ms. Allen says that ensuring that people "stay equipped and stay engaged" during this disruptive period is important. "You can lose that. There's a risk of disengagement," she says. "You want to keep people productive."

That means providing adequate training to keep up with new work demands, as well as support systems, such as well-trained management and ramped up employee-assistance programs.

And management style can also come into play, particularly with younger employees.

Deloitte's 2017 Millennial Survey finds that an inclusive managerial approach, rather than an authoritarian or rules-based approach, is less likely to cause employees to disengage or leave. Seventy-six per cent of staffers report more engagement in organizations taking a "liberal/relaxed" approach to management; while only 49 per cent report a high level of satisfaction in more controlling, rules-based organizations.

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3. Physical and mental health should be top of mind

As the workplace changes, companies have to top up their benefits plans if they want to keep their employees healthy and productive. One of the best ways is to provide increased access to social workers, psychologists and psychotherapists, according to Accompass, a Toronto-based benefits, investment and compensation company.

It finds that mental-health claims are on the rise – and threatening companies' best-laid plans.

"When we look at claims data, there is a direct correlation and rise across all ages of increased absence due to mental health," says Sarah Beech, president of Accompass. She adds: "It is one of the fastest growing reasons for people not actively being at work."

She says there is a dire need for managers to be trained on how to effectively handle their own stress and anxiety, as well as watch for symptoms in their own staff. Doing so can allow for rapid access to help, and fewer short-term and long-term disability leaves for the organization.

4. Connect with employees

Employees are coming to the table with demands. Randstad's Employer Brand Research report finds that employees – particularly millennials – are looking for more than just compensation, though that is their top concern when it comes to job satisfaction. Many want to work for socially responsible organizations, to feel like they have a purpose, Mr. Tellier says.

The combination of this digitally savvy work force and the rapid tech disruption occurring in business can mean success or failure for an employer. "Companies are looking for talent to transform their business and bring them into the digital age," he says. "If you're not technology oriented, you're going to have problems hiring people and retaining them."

But if a company can attract and effectively compensate these staffers, support them in the work force and provide them with the meaning they seek, they'll have the agile, digitally adept staff they need.

5. Manage effectively

Turbulent times call for leaders who can handle anything. Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends survey notes that "organizations are clamouring for more agile, diverse and younger leaders, as well as new leadership models that capture the digital way to run businesses."

Ms. Beech feels leaders definitely need to lead in a different manner than before this digital era – but they have to show that they value their people. "They have to understand what their staff is going through and support and help."

Roula Shimaly, a Toronto-based independent consultant, agrees. She says leaders need to adopt a more employee-centric perspective, and be ready for anything.

"The workplace is changing at a fast pace, and our work force composition is changing," she says. "This demands a different leadership profile that employees can identify with."

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