The future of our work life

Articles going around on Amazon’s work culture talk about companies (including many start-ups) envisioning a new workplace which is fluid but tough, with employees staying for only a short time (meaning temporary) and employers demanding the maximum. Many are places where blue collar workers work in difficult physical conditions, while white collar workers feel driven hard, but get no empathy from their employer. A request for leave to care for a loved one who has fallen ill or a need to celebrate a joyful occasion with family is often met with rebuttal by the employer. But there has also been lot of talk about other companies being Great places to work (GPTW), where there is empathy, encouragement for employees to follow their interests and deliver their creative best. But these are perhaps rare, and when we talk about top 100 great places to work, there perhaps isn’t a 101st.

With everyone grappling on what should be the best model for work, there are economic realities businesses have to cope with, and not all are endowed to create a GPTW. Very few companies can even afford to employ world-class talent every day of the year – let alone attract this high level of talent in the first place. Quarterly pressures and the harsh economy do not help either. Huge amounts of money are being pumped into unsustainable businesses. So, these businesses really need their employees to perform or perish. They need talent to scale really fast. But they don’t need them permanently. There is always the harsh need at the other end of the spectrum to cut costs. Businesses want to hire lower cost junior talent and get them to scale up using technology effectively. So, is it the world is changing so fast and so out of control, that no one needs thinkers and planners, but only doers who can execute at a frenetic pace, until that magic critical size is reached from when on they can plan to become a well managed corporation? Or perhaps they don’t want senior execs sitting around and debating long range planning while the carpet has shifted from under their feet. The CEO of a tech start up who got funding and is in the process of scaling, told me that he expects people in their 30s to do what senior execs in their 50s used to do. He wanted consultants to come in and help him scale up and enable his people to manage complexity by putting in place robust systems. This means that companies do really need that high end talent, and cannot do away with it. So does it mean senior executives have priced themselves out of the market? or are they perceived to be in the old world and not quick on their feet? So, in a way expectation from senior executives has changed. What seems to be required is highly skilled talent or specialists and not just experience. Because experience can be one year repeated 30 times. In fact there has been lot of talk since quite some time in advanced economies about re skilling and moving up the value chain. With trends in the software industry – one of the largest employers of educated white collar workers showing signs of a move towards automation and reduced employment, and other industries laying emphasis on capital and productivity, it’s time for all to give it more thought.

Since the nature of jobs has surely changed, and will never be the same again, this group of highly skilled talent needs to figure out how best to fit into the changing workplace, there are expectations on work life balance, a family friendly schedule and preference for work that is liked. Online platforms are also allowing certain categories of skilled talent to move on to become independent contractors, and this trend is on the rise especially in more sophisticated economies, since certain skill sets are valued and paid for. The model of freelancing and independent contractors is not new though, and has been in vogue in the film industry for a long while. But it is not prevalent among white collar workers who have mostly got used to the comfort zone provided by large corporations in the short span of a few decades. Even in agriculture, large masses work only during certain seasons and find other odd jobs at other times. As specialists and high end talent become more like entrepreneurs providing specialist services, the lower marginal costs of delivery will enable them to offer their specialization to smaller and medium sized companies. Their ability to specialize will help them deliver quality services quickly. They will be able to take more than one assignment thus giving them flexibility in earnings upside.

But then how do we all become entrepreneurs ? transform ourselves ? How do we take control of our life ? and succeed in the most important thing which is to lead a , successful and happy life – not success as defined by material living standard, but rather the quality of life. Reminds me of the S-curve in management. Growth stalls as we plateau on the S curve. One has a choice of stagnating, suffering and falling off the curve, or transforming oneself, experiencing some disruption, but then making the jump to the next S curve for perhaps the next few years if we are lucky.

This really needs constant learning…lifelong, if not it seems to be game over for specialists. Actually we are all work in progress – a permanent beta. The 18 to 20 years of initial learning we go through in early life is just not enough to sustain us for four decades in the ever changing business world. My own work span has seen me through from making reports in triplicates using carbon paper to wordstar and dot matrix printers, foxpro, telex and then finally email – common shared terminals at first before we all got our own laptops. Now we seem to have apps & SMAC and reminders for everything to such an extent that top management seems to believe the dashboard more than the individual. The outcome is important. It does not matter where we are. Companies are taking employee attendance through twitter. Large institutions are having hordes of people working for them using whats app as an effective medium of sharing. In a sense, we have learnt a lot in the past two decades about coping with the change, we have adapted technology in work. While this technology enables corporations to automate, be more productive, and work with remote staff etc., it also allows talented specialists to leverage technology and deliver their services through alternate mediums. It allows specialists to collaborate, learn and stretch the envelope as never before. It can give them space to think and create – something they would never enjoy as 9 to 5 employees of a corporation.  It allows them to think creatively and strategically rather than being transactional. Becoming entrepreneurial does not necessarily starting a business, but it is a way of life, a way of doing what we like the most and allowing everyone to benefit from it.

Companies like Uber are scaling very fast hiring independent contractors for fulfilling the service. Their costs are significantly lower since they offer no significant benefits to the hoards of independent contractors who serve with their time and own assets. But still, it is a move away from the employer-employee model, and is a trend towards removing many barriers of hiring talent, building scale, governance etc. It is a move away from high cost inflexible employment towards usage of specialist skills. It is allowing many people to make a living as taxi drivers according to their preference and personal schedules. Airbnb also uses a model where entrepreneurs come with their asset and make some extra income whenever convenient to them.  There are platforms for freelancing content writers, artists, accountants and lawyers to offer their services and get rated by users of their service. While there are no formal platforms for everyone, the market for intellect does seem to be evolving and perhaps in the near future we could see an efficient platform akin to a stock market for buying and selling of skills. The day is not too far when firms can find the talent they require and specialists can find the work they love.