This article was originally published in the THE JOURNAL OF BUSINESS AGILITY emergence: Rethinking WORK AND WORKPLACE
Over the last decade, dialogues around the future of work have mainly been associated with job automation. In the context of a global pandemic, ongoing geopolitical crises, and growth concerns, rapid change has become the present-day reality for a broad base of international organizations. At the same time, organizations are dealing with inflation, recessionary pressures, and continued supply chain disruptions. This has brought about a major acceleration of digitalization, a rise of new ways of working, a major labor crunch, and sustainability concerns. It is exactly at this time that organizations are realizing that they can’t retain the talent necessary to be successful, leading to crippling talent shortages. Organizations simply can’t find enough people to replace the ones they are losing or to fill new roles being created. There seems to be no short-term solution and traditional ways of addressing these challenges aren’t providing the answers. We must look to Work Design to address these challenges if we wish to stay adaptive and resilient for the future.
Digitalization and AI advanced dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic. This, combined with the democratization of work—the growing ability to decouple work from traditional confines of space, time, and structure-has exponentially accelerated the future of work. Leaders need a new operating system that better supports the high degree of organizational agility required to thrive amid rapid change and disruption, and that better reflects the fluidity of modern work arrangements. It is in this context that, within the last two months alone, leading works in this field have been released. These include Redesigning Work by Lynda Gratton (MIT Press, March 2022) and Work Without Jobs by Ravin Jesuthasan and John Boudreau (MIT Press, March 2022). These core works provide a helpful set of answers and a new approach to addressing these challenges in a human-centric way, as opposed to a purely financial and productivity perspective. They argue that, for work to remain “future-fit”, a new “operating system” is needed to ensure the perpetual reinvention and agility of work.
What’s in a title like Work Without Jobs? Is it about job elimination and increased work? Is it about not having jobs or job security? On the contrary, it’s about increasingly more flexible work and expansively less rigid jobs. Reimagining work design and challenging previously held assumptions around how work is constructed is a logical expansion upon the exponential changes we have seen over the past 20 years regarding how and where work has evolved. The overarching idea is that people will be engaged in work in far more fluid ways than the term job, with its implication of a finite set of specific responsibilities. This contrasts sharply with the traditional work operating system that is characterised by work as intact and mostly stable jobs, full-time employees inside a fixed organization boundary, and workers as jobholders with capabilities to fulfil job requirements.
We are seeing people functions acting as work architects by collaborating with business functions to inspire a new way of constructing work. They do so by asking questions such as:
How will we re-envision the talent experience to meet talent where they are and on their own terms?
How do we prepare leaders, workers, and HR systems for this new world of perpetually upgraded work, while continuing to build sustainable employment practices?
This is where the new operating system for work comes into play. The four principles of the new work operating system are:
This transcends the legacy of jobs and allows us to see what we do today and what is to come, unencumbered by the notion of a person in a position. For example, in one media company, an internal talent marketplace allowed an accountant to land a role providing voice-over narration for an upcoming film trailer. In the traditional job-based system, the accountant’s hidden capability would have remained invisible. In the new system, where both the deconstructed task and workers’ deconstructed capabilities can be seen and matched, the accountant landed the role and thus brought more of their whole person to the organization.
Much of the automation we’ve been promised for the last decade either didn’t happen or happened in places we didn’t notice (like global supply chains). Soon, all of that may very well come home. Covid-19 was the nudge, inflation was the shove, and if the war in Ukraine continues, it will really force a reshoring of supply chains. If we are going to make more things at home, we will have to grapple with the reality of relatively expensive labour. How do we deal with that? Huge amounts of automation.
Does automation always kill jobs? Not necessarily. Automating a process generally boosts profit margins and lowers costs, which creates capacity for expanding output and creating more work, not less. It will vary sector by sector but the final destination of reshoring is what will determine the degree of automation; for example, if you reshore to economies such as the US or Europe—where labor is less available, possessing the largest expense in the manufacturing chain—then greater automation will be necessary to make the enterprise viable. The future of work there fore needs more deliberate attention to the design of work itself and not just where and when work in its current form is performed.
For example, equipment like hoists reduce the manual and physical labor in healthcare. With rapid digitalization, organizations must ensure that they are responsibly and sustainably automating. When you start with the job, you very often end up in a binary relationship with automation where it becomes a substitution for human labor. However, when we start with the component tasks and activities, you see a complete picture of where certain tasks are substituted, where they are augmented with automation, and where new human work is being created.
The new work operating system considers that work can be done by regular employees, but it also embraces the increasingly diverse array of alternative work arrangements—often called a talent ecosystem. For example, employment, gig, freelance, alliances, projects, crowdsourcing, and internal talent marketplaces are all part of the ecosystem that connects talent to work through flexible engagement mechanisms. A vital part of this is the “new currency” in the form of deconstructed “skills” rather than intact jobs. For example, the distribution facilities of a consumer goods company needed packers and pickers while an airline was furloughing baggage handlers during the pandemic. Though job titles differed, the skills-based approach revealed that the work of the two jobs matched, and the two companies could share talent across their organizational boundaries.
How do we allow talent to flow to work in ever more agile constructs versus being limited to fixed, traditional jobs, in turn increasing the agility of the enterprise? The new work operating system is predicated on the “many-to-many” relationships between deconstructed skills and work tasks, in which skills are matched to a variety of work arrangements that range from gigs to tasks to assignments to traditional jobs.
For example, in a retailer, the role of a packer can be fixed with regular full-time employees performing the work. Gig talent from a variety of sources can flow to the work of picking and assembling totes, while a senior packer can operate in a hybrid role dedicated to the regular senior packer job. This senior packer would be expected to flow to the additional task of training new gig workers as they arrive.
Unilever’s framework for the future of work involved every one of their employees having a future-fit conversation about how they would ensure their personal well-being as well as their professional relevance. They are constantly developing new forms of employment whereby employees have the option to move between fixed and flex employment. The company has already had great success with its Flex Experiences platform that uses AI to quickly match people with project opportunities. During the global pandemic, around thirty thousand different people took on new work via this platform, as they were given the space to flow to work more seamlessly. By redefining the work system, Unilever enhanced business agility to move beyond the limitations of employees in jobs to a boundaryless ecosystem of work arrangements, thus accelerating their agility and flexibility.
The HR Team at Genentech, a leading biotechnology company, recently applied the four above principles to great effect. Genentech had long sought to increase the flexibility with which its talent engaged with work, so as to increase both engagement and retention while also making the company attractive to new hires. They embarked on an agile transformation journey to develop a future working strategy. First, they assembled an agile cross-functional sprint team and began by developing a set of principles that would guide their work and the strategy’s development. Next, they deconstructed a representative sample of jobs to identify the optimal location, times, and means of the component tasks for each job, with the goal of providing more flexible work options to more of the workforce. A core component of this activity was to categorize component tasks along three continuums. The “when” continuum analyzed the time sensitivity of the task, the “where” continuum looked at whether the task was location dependent, and the “how” continuum looked at the degree of human interaction required to perform the task. For example, the job of a lab assistant might appear to have limited options for flexibility given the more visible aspects of the job, like conducting experiments using specialist equipment. However, that role also includes tasks like reviewing research reports and analyzing experimental data. These tasks do not have time constraints, and can be performed independently, anywhere. Deconstruction was essential to enabling Genentech to create a more inclusive and equitable flexible work strategy.
Work design builds for workforce employability and sustainability as well as organizational agility and resilience. The significant supply and demand gap in both skills and workers has highlighted the role that organizations play, not just in ensuring their sustainability but also in safeguarding the future employability of their people. The pandemic underscored the importance of a skills-based talent model and agile work design in building the workforce of the future. This was evident when a global insurer took all of their data scientist roles out of the functions and created a global, virtual cloud-based and skill-based shared data science organization where everyone was paid based on their skills. The insurer reorganized work into projects that were posted on an internal marketplace, which matched the work to the skills of the workforce. This includes direct skills, but also other markers such as experience, level of interest, and people with adjacent skills who could address legacy issues of bias, capacity issues, and DEI considerations. An added bonus is that, as organizations move to skill-based architecture and have the technology in place to enable a talent marketplace, they also gain data volume, velocity, and variability. This data can indicate what skills are trending up or down, as well as recommend learning courses to employees along with the wage premium that would result.
More than ever, organizations are instilling a mindset of lifelong learning, democratizing work opportunities, and helping workers of all backgrounds and generations pave a pathway to create sustainable outcomes for both employers and employees.