Back to the Future of Work

By Caroline Chumakov | October 12, 2021 | 2 Comments

Power of the ProfessionSupply Chain Strategy, Leadership and Governance

Marty navigates yet another day as a warehouse sorter, managing the constant flow of inventory and preparing it for delivery. He mindlessly rubs at the dull ache he feels in his lower back, when suddenly he hears three metallic pops and the screeching of rubber tires outside one of the open loading doors. Marty runs to the loading dock and what he sees stops him in his tracks: Himself. He watches as his more wrinkled, white-haired self, climbs out of a beat-up DeLorean and sprints in his direction.

Panting, older Marty grabs younger Marty’s shoulders and exclaims, “Marty! We have to fix it! If we don’t fix the way work is designed today, our future is… doomed.”

Perhaps we need our own internal Marty to grab our shoulders and shake us awake amid our current talent crisis. Time travel might not be possible (yet), but you don’t need a time machine to know that talent attraction and retention of supply chain workers will only continue to get harder, particularly if we continue with our current approaches.

Our question shouldn’t be, “What tactics can I use to attract and retain talent?” This is fundamentally a downstream question. The upstream questions we should be asking are:

  • Is this work people should or even want to be doing?
  • Is this how employees want to work?

Answering these questions will allow us to prepare for the future of work and save ourselves from thinking too narrowly about talent opportunities.

The Future is Robots

According to a recent Gartner survey, for supply chain employees who are looking for work outside of their company, only 35% strongly agree that the work they do is personally important to them and only 19% strongly agree that the organization has a clear sense of purpose for the work it does. Supply chain employees are leaving because they don’t like the work that they do or they don’t feel purposeful in executing it.

We should see these types of talent retention and attraction issues as symptoms of potential work design issues. It should trigger us to step back and reflect on the structure of the workflow, technologies and role design that sit adjacent to specific talent gaps. It should push us to ask the question: could we alleviate employee work friction by shifting the responsibility of certain types of work to technology?

We can build greater resilience in our talent strategy by shifting to a more blended workforce structure, which includes contingent labor (contractors and gig workers) as well as automation and AI-enabled resources:

Work design conversations should center around application of technologies such as robotic process automation, embedded AI and digital twins to alleviate people-centric work tensions. All technology implementations should serve to either augment, enable or replace workforce skills and tasks.

However, alongside these implementations should be equally rigorous reskilling or upskilling programs for current employees. For example, Amazon is in the process of retraining one-third of its U.S. workforce to help them transition into more high-tech roles as technology upends or displaces their current jobs. The initiative, which is voluntary and mostly free for employees, will let hourly warehouse workers retrain for IT support roles and help corporate employees become software engineers through a combination of existing and new training programs.

This is a critical exercise in enhancing the supply chain’s employment value proposition while also allowing for massive overhauls in work design that will shift what our people do day-to-day.

Back to Humanity

While this shift to delegating decision-making authority to technology might inspire visions of highly technical (and very expensive) supply chain teams, the very opposite is likely to be true. Hyperautomation will greatly increase the demand for our most fundamentally human skills: empathy, creativity, aesthetics, ingenuity, collaboration, coaching and adaptability.

In a post-pandemic world, work redesign will also force us to question how much work employees should be doing. With greater automation and digitalization of entire workflows, we will see a substantial shift to project or contingent work. Unilever, for example, is already exploring what it calls “U-Work,” which gives employees the freedom and flexibility associated with contract roles with the security and benefits typically linked to permanent roles. People in U-Work don’t have a fixed role and work on varying assignments. They get a monthly retainer and specially designed suite of benefits whether they’re working on an assignment or not.

Other forms of flexibility will be necessary to support a more human-centric work model. According to Gartner’s Hybrid Work Employee Survey, 83% of all employees want to work in either a remote or hybrid arrangement. Lack of flexible work options will leave supply chain organizations vulnerable to talent attrition and poaching by employers offering more flexibility.

Flexibility needs to be both a top-down and a bottom-up process:

  • Leaders listen, define flexibility guidelines, provide equipment, and revise performance-management systems
  • Employees choose flexible working patterns that suit their needs while communicating with their managers to ensure that personal, team and customer needs are met:

We don’t need a time machine built in a DeLorean to know that Marty, and all of our other supply chain employees, deserve to do work that they find interesting and fulfilling. We will need to use talent retention and attraction issues as a catalyst for automation and digitalization investments. And we’ll need to apply a human lens to where, when, how, how much and with whom work is done. This is a moment to reset work expectations — let’s get back to the future of work!

Caroline Chumakov
Senior Principal Analyst
Gartner Supply Chain

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

Leave a Comment


  • Tracy Willow says:

    Great insights – thank you.

  • Beth Kennedy says:

    Caroline – this is a great article. Informative and entertaining at the same time. Beth