Work looks less like a physical office full of full-time employees and more like a diverse and dispersed cloud of labor.
By Diane Mulcahy*
Work was ripe for disruption long before 2020. The fundamental structure of work, and the ways we work, haven't kept pace with technology, with corporate needs to access the right talent at the right time, or with workers' preferences for greater flexibility and control.
Now that it's been disrupted – now that how and where and when we work has all fundamentally changed – we aren't likely to revert to the way we used to work. There is no return to normal.
Abandoning the idea that we're going back, and backwards, to our old working lives opens up a whole new set of possibilities and opportunities about ways to move forward. It offers us the chance to rethink what work will look like, not return to what it was.
Companies have traditionally organized the work they need to get done into full-time jobs, which they then fill with full-time employees. Full-time jobs aren't going away, but they are being supplemented by a more flexible, dynamic approach to structuring work into projects, assignments, and tasks.
Breaking jobs into more precise and specific units of work gives companies the ability to more easily add and subtract the units they need at any given time. It also allows them to better match workers to the work that needs to be done. Workers can focus on finding projects that play to their strengths, or that they enjoy the most.
As an example, let's look at a director of marketing job that traditionally would be filled by a full-time employee responsible for marketing content, public relations, social media, and branding. We can imagine breaking down that role into projects and assignments executed by independent workers with relevant expertise. For instance, a social media contractor writes the content for each channel, and independent brand ambassadors handle shifts at various outlets.
Once companies move away from the idea that work equals a full-time job, they can more efficiently and accurately match the work they need done to the talent best qualified to do it.
The traditional way of work mandates that work is a place. Working means being at the office, at your desk and in your chair.
Now that we've physically separated work from the office for several months, we can step back and view office-based work from the perspective of a remote worker. If we've all been working at home — under the most unfavorable circumstances, it should be noted — and the work is getting done, and getting done well and meeting quality standards, what is the case for returning to work? It turns out it's a difficult one to make.
There are a few office-based occasions that immediately come to mind, and they include gathering for in-person discussions and meetings, for specific collaborations, and for relationship and rapport-building among co-workers and teams. But those are discrete, not daily, events that would benefit from access to an office sometimes, not necessarily the presence in an office all the time.
Companies have additional concerns about office-based work. How will they ensure the office ventilation system doesn't contribute to spreading infections? That the bathrooms are sanitary and safe? That commuting isn't a daily risk? Companies can do a better job protecting their workers' health and safety by moving past the idea of an office-based workplace.
"The notion that employees need to be in the office to get their job done, has been proven otherwise during this global health event," said Jens Audenaert, general manager and DVP at WorkMarket, an ADP company. "Businesses now realize they can expand their talent pool into other geographies to find that skilled workers they may have struggled to find previously."
The new workplace will be more flexible, more variable, and more dispersed. Offices will emerge at home, in co-working spaces, in small commercial buildings, and at beach houses. Workplaces will become wherever work gets done, not a place where workers go.
While we're breaking jobs into projects and tasks, and moving workplaces to wherever work gets done, what if we re-imagine traditional full-time employees as a blended, agile, dynamic "workforce as a service" (WaaS)?
Instead of focusing solely on recruiting and retaining full-time employees, companies would seek to attract a "labor cloud" of both retained and on-demand workers with the skills, experience, and expertise that match the needs of the business. The cloud would include both local and remote workers, so the company could efficiently access a broad pool of talent to find the right skills at the right time. Workers could choose to look for full-time, retained, or on-demand positions, and would have access to companies and opportunities beyond their local geography.
The new workforce will be blended and include a mix of both employees and independent workers. Teamwork will be much more dynamic as workers with different perspectives, skills, and backgrounds cycle on and off projects, contributing to a richer and more diverse collaborative environment.
"Workplace flexibility or 'work from anywhere' (WFA) gives a new meaning to the talent ecosystem in that you can source the best talent and not be limited to location or geography," said Dr. Susan Hanold of ADP Strategic Advisory Services.
The creative destruction necessary for disruption is both painful and full of possibility. This disruption of work has been abrupt, urgent, and unexpected. It's brought about a profound shift in how, when, and where people work. We are on the cusp of creating a way of working that is blended, agile, flexible, remote, and geographically dispersed. Work looks less like a physical office full of full-time employees and more like a diverse and dispersed cloud of labor — one that could offer efficiency and flexibility to companies and put autonomy and control in the hands of workers. Imagine that.
Launch this webcast: The New Normal of Work featuring Diane Mulcahy
*About the Author
Diane Mulcahy wrote the book on The Gig Economy (Harper Collins) and writes for Forbes and Harvard Business Review about how work is changing. She also created and teaches the first MBA course in the United States on the Gig Economy, which includes independent contractors, consultants, freelancers, and on-demand workers.
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