Founder of EmployAgility (link), Philippa Dengler is passionate about workplace psychology and in particular, how we need to rethink our workplace norms and what employability means. She is seeking to enable people to have more flexibility and satisfaction at their work. Our interview lasted over an hour and walking out I felt like my brain had just feasted on a delicious buffet of information.
As Philippa explains in her TEDx talk, her interest in employability was generated when she saw many of her colleagues in financial services being made redundant in their early 50s. She wondered how this was a sustainable model given our ageing population. We know that current pension schemes are not working for our ageing society and that in many industries skills shortages are predicted. We should be looking at ways to extend our working years rather than exiting people from the workforce.
“Time for a paradigm shift”
There is so much evidence about disengaged employees, burnout rates, stress rates, caused by the way we do things now, which is unsustainable. If we do not look after our physical health, we won’t be able to work longer, we will be exhausted and ill. The setting we work in today is based on white heterosexual males working 100% in a stable business environment and their partners being at home taking care of everything else. As this has changed, we need to provide people with the possibility to be resilient with more part time and flexi options. In Switzerland these practices are often still frowned upon today. In her research in the eastern part of Switzerland, she discovered that, as a man, you are not considered to be a “real man” if you do not work full time.
To typical arguments of: “if we give do X, everyone is going to want to do it, or people will ask for more”, Philippa answers : “If everybody wants to do it, it’s probably the right thing to do”. If we accept higher targets for companies every year, shouldn’t we be doing the same with improving working conditions every year?
While younger generations have grasped this, many people over 40 haven’t yet reached this awareness. They are still looking at their parents and grandparents, who are comfortably retired, as a successful career example. We need to radically change the way we work and learn throughout our whole lives to adapt to the faster pace of development and the demands of the future workplace.
Philippa decided to research the problem and looked at five different areas of our working life that are essential for sustainable employability: Learning Agility, Network, Collaboration, Career Agility and Well Being. Employability has traditionally been in the realm of outplacement; all about getting a job if you are unemployed.
Philippa’s emphasis is on what people mid-career can do, while they are still employed, to remain relevant and valuable and how their employers can support them. That’s why she talks about “EmployAGILITY” – the ability and willingness to flexibly adapt to changing circumstances and thrive in them.
Always curious to learn new things, I tried the online assessment for myself on www.employagility.ch. Full of interesting insights and perspectives, this should definitely be on your list of self-development exercises.
We are not all the same:
In her research she found that people’s ability to manage their employability differs – but not with age as so many people assume. Based on her data she developed a model that groups people based on their education and their openness to experience. People who are open-minded and have high self-efficacy (belief in their own abilities) are the ones who are “able” manage their employability and need little support.
Source: Philippa Dengler (2019), Lifelong Employability: Thriving in Aging Society. Gabler Verlag, Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature.
The challenge of many employers is in supporting people who feel “stuck” in jobs that they don’t know how to leave or are so comfortable that they don’t see the need to change anything (they are “unprepared” or “unable” to manage their employability).
For example, people with vocational education, with no means or mindset to increase their employability, as their jobs will probably not exist by the time they retire (cashier, factory workers etc.) or highly educated but close-minded people, stuck in their golden cage, who are over 50, not imagining that their jobs might be made redundant. Lastly, practical or financial support is needed for the people who are open with more vocational education.
The role of leaders is changing
We have this mindset where, in order to make a career, you have to be a leader, although not everybody wants to lead. Nowadays, even though one can also have a specialist career, which is equally well regarded, team leaders still have more political weight and a privileged position.
Agile structures also contribute to this change. For example, specialists are responsible for their projects, while team leaders concentrate on people management and coaching, guiding people on how to develop one’s career and competencies. As a manager it’s not possible to know everything anymore. Your team of specialists are the ones who need to be keeping up to date with what’s going on in that specific field. It’s like being the conductor of the orchestra: you don’t need to play all the instruments yourself.
What’s in it for us employers?
Why would employers make the effort to support these people? For Philippa it’s very clear, if for you it’s not, you should definitely let the next paragraphs sink in. If your workforce has up to date skills and the confidence that they can learn and adapt to change, your company will have more flexibility – and that is going to be critical in future. Mid-career change is often still stigmatized, while it should be seen as a positive thing. When you go from one profession to another you can transfer skills and experiences to a new environment and learn additional ones.
One of Philippa’s mottos is: “Able to go, happy to stay” – if your employees would be able to get employment elsewhere but CHOOSE to stay working with you, you know you’ve got motivated, productive employees.
Co-creation and collaboration
Philippa loves working with open-minded people, who see that something needs to change in their team or company. She is helping transform companies to become employers that people want to work for. A place where in addition to getting salary to pay the bills, people can continue to learn, have flexibility and maintain the agility to remain valuable and employable well into the future.
At the end of our interview Philippa shared a conversation she had with her mom:
“Mum was worried that I am sharing my knowledge and ideas too widely. She advised me to be careful in case people “steal” it. I told her they have to! I can’t do it for everyone on my own, companies need to pick this idea up with me. This fearful mindset of someone stealing our ideas is making us miss out on so much. If you throw your idea out there, you attract people who want to work with you to build and co-create. That is the TED spirit and the essence of modern collaboration.”
Illustration by Giulia Martinelli, @giulia_martinelli_x
Additional references, quotes and books:
If you liked this article, we have a blogpost interviewing Omid Aschari about leadership (link)
Richard Branson: “take care of your employees and they will take care of your business”
The 100 Year Life by Lynda Gratton, Andrew Scott (link)
Douglas McGregor’s XY theory (link)