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How The Workforce Is Evolving And What Leaders Can Do To Keep Up

Businesses need to embrace new modes of work and new types of workers. Here’s how you can compete.

How The Workforce Is Evolving And What Leaders Can Do To Keep Up
[Photo: Flickr user Terry Johnston]

Today, the notion that all employees must come in to the office to do their jobs blows my mind. In a technology-driven world, employee productivity has never been higher, processes have never been more efficient, and identifying and solving customer problems 24/7 from anywhere in the world has never been easier.

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But for all the benefits that technology’s blizzard of new capabilities is generating, managers everywhere face a perfect storm of workplace challenges:

  • Workers increasingly work remotely. Look at IBM: 40% of its employees don’t go into the office.
  • Workers increasingly are their own bosses. By 2020, about half of non-governmental workers in the U.S. will be contract workers–not permanent, full-time employees.
  • Workers increasingly generate enormous value in smaller numbers. For example, when Facebook signed a $19 billion deal to buy WhatsApp, the hugely popular texting service counted 55 employees.

Behind these workplace shifts is the fact that individuals are empowered in ways never seen before. The same technology that allows a customer to compare prices, consult friends, and transact business at the frictionless speed of a smartphone app also liberates employees.

For workers and business leaders alike, the impact of these freedoms is profound. Where workers once spent their careers logging 40-hour weeks at one, two, or perhaps a half-dozen companies, today they’re always on the move, always on the clock, and always thinking about their personal “brands.” Faced with an increasingly transient workforce, business leaders must rethink how they organize, motivate and compensate their workers. Starting now.

A Return To Hunting And Gathering

To a certain extent, these shifts parallel ancient history. Humans were all foragers once, before the rise of agriculture split us into two basic camps: owners and workers.

Today, technology is rapidly blurring this dividing line as many workers return to a hunting-and-gathering existence. This time, however, humans are not foraging for meat and berries; we’re searching for ideas, content, and services–in essence, anything that can be monetized. And instead of eating only what the landowner lets us keep or what the manufacturer pays by the hour, foragers today directly enjoy whatever value or wealth we create. Three distinct types of foragers will dominate the workforce of the future.

1. Contingent Workers

The first, and the largest, category comprises “contingent workers.” These are freelancers, contractors, part-timers, and temps who forage for work from task to task, employer to employer. They tend to set their own hours and can work for multiple employers at once. Contingent workers already account for 30% of the U.S. workforce. And they create their own wealth. I still marvel at the vast numbers of people who are building careers off of services like Instagram and Facebook.

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2. The No-Holds-Barred Entrepreneur

Another class of forager will coexist with contingent workers: the entrepreneur. Many people feel compelled to create, innovate, and explore, especially as the supply of full-time jobs diminishes in the age of automation. One recent global survey of 12,000 people found that more than two-thirds of young adults aspire to start their own businesses.

For businesses, the quantity of creative, innovative energy now at their disposal is intriguing and frightening. As technology continues to accelerate the rate of change, every business needs to think about harnessing this energy to reinvent itself again and again.

3. The Personal Brand Manager

A third category of forager poses serious challenges for today’s business leader. For all the entrepreneurial energy out there, the demand for skilled workers far outstrips the supply. Galloping automation has generated a big surplus of low-wage, low-skill workers, but many companies (even the most innovative ones) face a critical shortage of high-value, high-skill workers. I’m talking about workers whose jobs demand creativity, wisdom, judgment and empathy. To compete, businesses must teach their workers new skills. Continuously.

For today’s business leader, overcoming this talent shortage is complicated by the fact that full-time employees are foraging for their own opportunities in their spare time–and it’s never been easier to do. Senior and middle managers now promote their own “brands” as experts, movers and shakers whose added value transcends their current job. LinkedIn connects these workers to new opportunities at competitive firms, client companies, suppliers and other partners. Most workers consider themselves “in the market” for a new job virtually all the time.

Inevitably, competition for top talent will spike, but higher salaries alone won’t win out. Skilled workers increasingly want to buttress their capabilities in order to continue maximizing their foraging opportunities. In response, business leaders will have to rely more on intrinsic motivations such as autonomy, challenge, mastery, camaraderie and a unifying sense of purpose.

The Business Leader’s Challenge: Unifying Them All

The perennially successful companies share one key attribute: All have highly influential corporate cultures that infuse employees with a sense of purpose beyond profits. The cultures at these long-lasting companies can be described as almost cult-like–so strong that a new employee who doesn’t fit is rejected. But when the workforce is largely nomadic, the glue that culture provides can come apart. When a workforce becomes a revolving door, the sense of “us” that is so vital to success is at risk, and so is the company’s future.

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As work becomes increasingly dispersed in time and space, and as customers and employees become more connected and empowered by technology, it will become more vital–and, yet, more difficult–to engage employees with a socially developed, common sense of purpose.

The future workplace calls for an entirely new breed of business leader–one whose first task each morning is to think hard about the company’s mission, adapt it as needed and communicate it to a workforce whose face changes daily. The most important task for any business leader going forward is to cultivate and strengthen company culture.

This article is a part of The Technology of Us, an eBook hosted by TeleTech that explores the intersection of technology and humanity.