Is the Job Dead?
For as long as any of us can probably remember, people have strived for full-time work. For centuries, jobs have provided people with status and stability and a way of life. The universal wisdom was the notion that if you’re not in a job, you’re out of one. But times are changing.
Freelancing is now a global phenomenon and in many ways, the new normal for businesses looking to increase agility and for workers looking for more flexibility. According to EY, 40-50 per cent of the workforce could be in non-permanent employment by 2020. Data from the annual Freelancing in America report shows that by 2027 the majority of workers in the US will be engaged as freelancers. However, the most surprising part of this data is the fact that the fastest growing segment of the on-demand freelance workforce is actually professional, knowledge workers, rather than low-skilled, low-paid workers.
The future of work is such a topical issue and there is so much talk about how we are supposed to prepare for it. But as someone who has been engaged in this conversation for some time, let me tell you, the future of work isn’t five years from now, the future of work is happening now.
So with that in mind, rather than exclusively focusing on creating more jobs and worrying about the automated workforce, we need to move our mindset to how we can leverage the shift that is happening in the workforce already. The reality is we either pretend that the freelance economy isn't going to take off despite overwhelming data that it is, or we wake up from treating these individuals like they aren’t an integral part of our workforce and start putting structures in place to support them.
If I were to hedge my bets, I would recommend we go with the latter. If we want businesses to stay ahead of the curve, then we need to start treating our non-permanent workforce—professional freelancers, contractors, alumni and independent consultants—with more respect.
The vast majority of freelancers are freelance by choice. They value flexibility, diversity and autonomy over a “stable income”. It’s also common for our freelancers to say there’s no amount of money that would entice them to replace their freelance lifestyle with a traditional job.
What does this mean for employers and employees? It presents both a challenge and opportunity in equal measure. The definition of the traditional job inevitably excludes a large number of talented people from the workforce who simply do not wish to work in a traditional way. As a consequence, companies are now facing enormous skills gaps with roles very hard to fill. However, this can change. The solution is already here and some companies are already solving this problem by changing our collective thinking about the way we work. It is these forward-thinking companies who are driving the transition into the real future of work.
A journey back through time shows the traditional definition of the job emerging during the industrial revolution, where people went to the one workplace for the one job. With many of these workplaces proving dangerous, the standardization of work practices was required and introduced. From there, the conventional model of work was further reinforced in the 1900s when society adopted the structure and units of job titles, workweeks, and entitlements. This made organisations more efficient, scalable and safer, and this framework helped our economies thrive. At the time, this model of work did not need to consider multiple breadwinners, post 50-year-old workers, mothers returning to work, father’s wanting greater flexibility, and mobile millennials eager to learn. However, as trends in the workplace have shifted and hiring practices have changed accordingly, companies are moving away from traditional recruitment strategies and towards platforms that are designed to leverage the benefits of the freelance workforce and the gig economy.
Whether companies are aware of it or not, conventional models of work are costing them talent and are slowing them down. Today, companies are watching extraordinary talent with valuable IP walk straight out the door for another opportunity because of the lack of flexibility provided by the traditional job. What’s clear is that the traditional job structure is no longer the right model or only model of engagement for companies wanting to retain top talent. Instead, we are seeing a rise in mobile, professional freelancers. In reality, the future of work means people moving on from the assurance of stability to seek the benefits of flexibility. It’s essential that companies adapt to this emerging trend and consider different models of employee engagement.
Some forward-thinking companies are already changing the way they think about their workforce by being able to retain and utilise talent indefinitely. One of the most efficient ways of doing this is creating an active employee alumni community where if an employee resigns they can still choose to become part of the company, which the company can then draw upon for special projects when and as needed. This means once a person is out of the company, their value doesn’t disappear forever. Implementing a model like this means that that person’s skills and knowledge are not lost altogether, but instead, they become a valuable resource that can be drawn upon when needed on a project basis. Having an external group of talent, which is already familiar with the company and its operations, is an incredible advantage over busy periods. Companies can, therefore, move away from placing their values on a traditional job structure and benefit from implementing a blended workforce—an engagement model where a mix of internal and external people are deployed on project-based work.
Change is Here
A few large businesses are already thinking outside the box. For example, Woolworths recently introduced a new business that combines it's digital, e-commerce, data, and customer divisions under the name, WooliesX. WooliesX have reorganised around the customer and natively built-in lean, agile work practices. This agile transformation provides the cultural guidelines for managers to move quickly with the right people on the right projects. The lesson other businesses can learn from such large organisations changing the way they work is that while having the digital tools in place is important, having executive leadership promoting robust cultural transformation, alongside disciplined execution is equally as essential.
So how does this inform the next evolution of work? Dom Price, Atlassian’s Work Futurist, has it right. He has said that “instead of treating an org chart as a map, companies are now using them as guidelines and moving towards a team-centric organizational model, where work gets done by smaller teams.” What we are seeing is that the workforce is moving from role-based work to project-based work, and companies should move their focus from filling jobs to finding the right skills for the right project. In doing so, companies can free themselves from the constraints of conventional titles and roles and open themselves up to engage all talent, flexibly. This includes the huge pool of professional talent which has turned to freelance because of its flexibility, freedom to choose clients, variety of work, and money earning potential. The future of work is a blended engagement model where companies will embrace agility by harnessing a powerful combination of internal and external talent on-demand. In this workforce, freelancers won’t be considered a last resort but will provide the highest expertise for some of the most critical projects. They become the first hire, not the last hire.
To help shape this future workforce, the stigma around the freelancer needs to be removed and instead considered to be a viable alternative to the traditional job. The future of work requires a standardization of freelance work that protects flexibility but offers the benefits of full-time stability such as providing more support and security to the freelance community as well as entitlements like indemnity insurance.
The rise of the freelancer and agile workforce does not mean the traditional job is dead - it just means that the traditional job is changing. There needs to be a shift towards flexibility and a shift away from the “you’re either in or you’re out” mentality.
Without tension, there cannot be progress. Our tension will be about balancing stability and flexibility, for both individuals and companies.
The future of work will be driven by talented people choosing when and what types of projects they want to work on, and companies hiring talent with the right skills, at the right time - regardless of whether they are in the building or not. In doing so, companies will benefit greatly from the blended model of engagement, where they can draw on the skills from freelance experts or internal experts as it suits, giving them greater agility and flexibility. The traditional job is here to stay, but the mentality around the workforce is changing as companies think beyond conventional frameworks.
As the freelance economy matures, existing traditional structures which define work will need to develop. For organisations to stay ahead of the curve, it will mean rising up to meet the needs of a new modern, flexible, and agile workforce now. The future of work isn’t coming. It is already here.