As I traveled home from this year’s SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition, I thought about one theme that arose consistently throughout: the casualization of the workplace and its effect on workplace culture. While casualization and flexible work arrangements (FWAs) have shown impressive results in recruitment and retention, they also pose challenges for HR professionals and organizations that lack the necessary infrastructure to support them.

SHRM’s 2015 Employee Benefits report indicated more than one-half of employers offer several types of flexible work arrangements, including casual dress day once a week (62 percent) and telecommuting (60 percent). Moreover, improvements in technology will continue to make casual workplaces and FWAs more attainable for larger and larger segments of the workforce.

A more casual workplace can manifest itself in many ways, and most of these ways – if not all of them – are matters of concern to HR professionals. Employees now have the ability to work in nontraditional or mobile workplace settings. Communication between workers is changing as an increasing amount of information is exchanged through text messaging and short, impulsive comments. Even workplace attire is changing: A trend toward more casual dress was seen at the conference, and this same trend has certainly made its way into many organizations.

As some professionals mentioned to me at the conference, HR often leads workplace change, and this department is often the one piloting casualization efforts. As these trends are integrated into workplace culture, we cannot forget about the potential ramifications they may have on the employee experience. It’s important for recruiters and HR professionals to take an active role in preparing employees and employers for these rapidly changing dynamics.

A big part of this preparation has to do with understanding how casualization affects and is influenced by different generations in the workplace. The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the number of millennials in the country. (75.4 million) surpassed the number of baby boomers (74.9 million) last year. Understanding the strategies needed to manage evolving workplace demographics and their expectations will be essential as we progress into the next decade.

FieldIn fact, many of the themes that emerged from SHRM 2016 relate directly to millennial workers’ needs, including:

- the demand for workplace flexibility and virtual office spaces;
- the emphasis on real-time coaching and just-in-time feedback, which has led some organizations away from annual performance evaluations;
- the communication patterns of workers, which trend toward texting and short, impulsive messaging;
- and the five components of employee engagement: careers, relationships, health, finances, and spirituality.

One of the key takeaways from the keynote for me was the need for HR professionals and universities to open up dialogues with one another if we are to meet the needs of the 21st century economy. This dialogue can help universities better understand employers’ needs before it’s too late. This approach also helps ensure the next generation of the workforce is prepared to take on the challenges that our evolving cultural expectations present.

The idea of aligning HR and employer needs with university curricula is particularly important for solving one of HR’s most difficult problems: finding employees with soft skills. At the University of Phoenix, we’ve already integrated soft skills competencies into our coursework to help ensure that future workers are prepared for tomorrow’s economy.

Soft skills – or the capacities needed to effectively communicate, collaborate, and organize to solve problems – are becoming even more critical as we transition to more technologically advanced, casualized, and flexible workplaces. It’s easy to overlook the importance of soft skills at a time when companies aim to become more efficient and derive value from unprecedented amounts of data, but the truth is they are crucial.

Companies must be innovative in order to cultivate environments and cultures that make talented workers want to join up and stay for a while. That may involve educating students and current employees on the integration of evolving technology into workplace cultures or learning to cope with the changing expectations of the workforce. Professional development and continuing education in particular are great ways for HR professionals to help employees gain the soft skills they need to succeed – and the soft skills their employers need them to have.

Kevin Wilhelmsen is the program dean and faculty member for University of Phoenix School of Business.

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