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The Future of Career Mobility

August 02, 2021 Employee Experience
Dani Johnson cofounder and principal analyst RedThread Research
By Dani Johnson

Not to blame everything on the events of the past year and a half, but one thing they did was to shed light on the organizational shortfalls associated with some of HR’s biggest people challenges.

Take the example of careers. As organizations reconfigure their strategies, they’re also re-evaluating the structures that support those strategies as well as how employees move through those structures. And with that, leaders have begun to understand the power of mobility.

As part of our effort to better understand careers and mobility, we engaged in a five-month qualitative research project, complete with literature review, interviews and roundtable discussions. The resulting Career Mobility Study outlined a model that includes five approaches organizations are taking to career management, and factors organizations should consider when choosing an approach.

What Does Career Mobility Look Like Today?

Career mobility has morphed over the years. It used to be a well understood idea with fairly straightforward practices, but the events of the past year-plus have acted as a catalyst, pushing organizations to think of newer and better ways to implement career mobility strategies. How exactly has it changed?

Not just upward anymore

In the past, mobility was only associated with moving employees from one role to another within an organization. Originally, it was almost exclusively tied to moving up through a hierarchical structure, thus the term upwardly mobile.

In recent years, career mobility has come to mean, in its simplest definition: Enabling employees to participate in work and opportunities in ways that benefit both the organization and the employee.

Leaders and employees alike have embraced the idea that this movement isn’t just upward. It’s also across and down, from full time to part time or gig work. Our research showed us examples of organizations enabling mobility across firms within the supply chain, or to provide employees with additional skills. For example, law firms “lend” lawyers to the offices of district attorneys so they can get trial experience quickly.

Mobility takes on new meaning

One thing we uncovered through the research: Some organizations are implementing mobility initiatives that have very little to do with actual movement at all.

In these instances, mobility doesn’t mean changing roles, or even considering long term "roles." Instead, it can mean exploring new roles or assignments on a part-time basis alongside a current role, or full time for a short period of time.

Mobility as a mindset

Career mobility has also taken on a more psychological aspect by enabling employees to feel that their career choices are fluid. This aspect now encourages exploration and movement, regardless of what form it takes.

The bottom line is the traditional purpose of mobility — to move people upward through a series of roles with increasing responsibility — has given way to mobility as a mindset, rather than an activity. Organizations that embrace mobility as a mindset tend to be more transparent about opportunities for employees and where they can take their careers. It’s made clear that not everyone will be CEO and employees may not stay with the organization forever, and so the relationship between employer and employee will change.

Instead of promising upward movement, these organizations are offering freedom and opportunity for learning and growth. This simply means that organizations and employees are becoming more realistic about what can be offered and what should be expected.

Related Article: Build Organizational Purpose Into Your Talent Systems

High-Level Trends in Career Mobility

Along with these changes in how mobility is perceived, several new trends have emerged since we last studied the topic five years ago. As the definition of mobility continues to morph and expand, some of the more traditional aspects of careers and mobility seem to be less important. For example, while some organizations mention workforce planning and succession as priorities, the majority are more interested in using mobility for engagement and retention.

Some of the trends uncovered in the research include:

More experimentation

Organizations have come a long way from a default traditional approach, and are now embracing alternatives such as part-time assignments, gig work, talent marketplaces, and endeavoring to better understand skills. Many more organizations are dipping their toes in some of these new practices and learning as they go.

Leveling the playing field

Organizations have traditionally reserved career mobility for high-potential employees or those recognized as future leaders. Many leaders now speak of using career mobility to address concerns about diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging, and making opportunities transparent and open to more people.

More opportunities for employees

As organizations step away from rigid career paths that serve only the company, opportunities for employees have opened up. Increased transparency on opportunities and encouraging employees to own their careers through regular conversation with managers and mentors allows employees to create the career they want, even if it looks completely different than anyone else’s.

More data, better decisions

It’s difficult to have meaningful discussions about career mobility without also addressing skills. Organizations are thinking through how to better understand the capabilities of employees based on their experience and skills, and how to use that information to make better talent and mobility decisions. This means that organizations are no longer reliant solely on manager perceptions and performance review data that are often biased. It also means that hidden skills that don’t show up in role descriptions or internal employee profiles are more likely to be visible.

Tech enablement

While in the past mobility was largely manual and relied on manager impressions and the employee being proactive, technology is making it easier. There's been an uptick in the number and sophistication of technologies that:

  • Make opportunities more transparent.
  • Help employees plan their careers.
  • Combine data and information to help leaders make better decisions.
  • Offer part-time or gig work to employees internally.

Technology offerings will continue to promote the idea of mobility. What was once an arduous and complicated process for internal talent teams is becoming simpler and streamlined. The amount of work needed to enable mobility is no longer an acceptable excuse.

These trends and the broader definition of mobility are an indication that organizations are thinking about the future of work differently. We’re hopeful that these moves will continue to open doors for both organizations and their employees.

About the Author

Dani Johnson is co-founder and principal analyst for RedThread Research, and has spent the majority of her career writing about, researching and consulting on human capital practices and technology.

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