Work is no longer a place

Three SCNetwork members discuss Linda Nazareth’s talk on the future of work

Work is no longer a place

Note: This commentary is in response to the following article: Redefining work in a post-jobs world


Paul Pittman: Whether I go to work in a downtown office or my basement, I still go to it. I think the point Linda Nazareth was trying to make is that wherever we ply our trade, now or in the future, it won’t be with lots of other people — the days of the big employer are done.

Light, nimble and agile is the future. The economic logic for being “employed” — the need for large numbers to deliver large manual processes is fast disappearing — and in the gig economy, we will all be sole proprietors as robots and AI replace hands. Maybe.  

That process has been underway since the aqueduct replaced lines of folks with buckets. The transportation of large amounts of water enabled scalability to happen more quickly which in turn created new tasks (jobs) that previously did not exist.

The replacement of manual intervention with robotics will cause human endeavour to create new services and products, just as bottled water replaced the bucket. 

A micro example: When the desk was first mechanized with Symphony (remember that) and later Microsoft Office, large numbers of people were not displaced from desk work — they now needed to do other things that directly resulted from the improved ability to consider data and make better informed decisions.

When enterprise resource planning (ERP) came to the workplace, each was justified by a corresponding reduction in headcount — sure, the numbers doing manual accounting reduced but these folks were all redeployed to other analytical and valuable work caused by available new information.

The delivery of digital entertainment (movies and music) enabled scale consumption creating more jobs in music, TV and movie production — not fewer jobs. As a result, new(er) technologies (and jobs) are being introduced into these industries every day — they won’t reduce.

Linda is right that new jobs will be invented but we will still need large employers to provide ready access to those pools of skills, particularly where some type of assembling, analysis or manufacture is required.

Those employers will have to become more agile and nimble at modifying services, for example, because people will tire of supporting automated feedback systems will not deliver the insights required (creating more room for even more nimble competitors).

Personalized (rather than mass) selling is now only a byte away and at least initially will require more human intervention.

Housing markets are unlikely to be affected by this projected massive shift in employment. The nature of urbanization has changed but it has increased since the advent of home working, not despite it.

The trend now is for younger and older people to move to cities for lifestyle, and for families to move out for the same reason. I suspect — but have no facts to back this up — that employers chasing labour have started to move back into cities as a consequence.  

I didn’t buy any of the doomsday prognostications. Good people have always been hard to find — employers will figure it out and people will better equip themselves to meet skills shortages — it’s basic economics.

Jan van der Hoop: I found Linda’s historical perspective on the evolution of work itself as a concept over the ages was helpful context.

A person’s frame of reference is naturally limited to her life experience — so for someone like me, in my late ’50s, who has lived through the death of the patriarchy and the unravelling of our parents’ dream for us — go to a good school, get an education, then join a big company and ride out a job for life (even if you don’t like that job, company or yourself for staying) — the icy winds of change often bring unpleasant memories.

A reminder that the nature, purpose and structure of work has always been fluid is strangely reassuring.

A few things stand out for me in the stew Linda served up.

One, we all need to think and act like free agents. We (not our employer or the government) are each responsible for our own competitiveness. We are the ones ultimately responsible for our own growth, learning and suitability for the jobs of the future.

As we have just witnessed in Oshawa, Ont., at the GM plant, companies will always do what they have to do, in the best interests of shareholders first, then other stakeholders. It’s up to each of us to be change-hardy and resilient.

Two, the organizations that will best survive (“win” seems too decisive and final) the war for talent are those that are able to develop a long-lost art: Growing, developing and nurturing their own talent.

“Grow your own” is an imperative because the marketplace is empty and we no longer have the ability to go out and find the perfect, “ready” candidate.

Three, we collectively need to rethink the education model, and blur the lines between where learning ends and work begins. The old apprenticeship model needs the dust blown off it, beyond the trades.

Siemens is one example of a company doing a great job, reaching into high schools and building relationships with students who have an interest and aptitude in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and growing them into engineers. It’s smart to build a talent pipeline that extends into schools.

Four, companies need to rethink the old model of mass layoffs in departments that are being shuttered, and hiring anew to fill new jobs.

Linda’s comments about reskilling versus hiring (holding up the AT&T model as an example) were right on the money.

Sandi Channing: The only thing constant is change.

For years, we’ve been dealing with changes that affect the workplace — globalization, technology, demographics — and the business world has survived and thrived. According to Linda, these factors continue to be the forces that will change the workplace and I believe employers will continue to rise to the challenge.

The impact of AI, the gig economy, demographics, and low unemployment rates will continue to force employers to re-examine current practices and policies. I agree with Linda that employers will no longer have the luxury of hiring employees on either a permanent or contract basis as needed.

Labour shortages will make reskilling existing workforces essential for organizations to succeed. While there will be poaching of employees, that’s a practice that exists today. What will also remain constant is employees will remain more loyal to those employers that invest in them. 

Reskilling is also a great opportunity for colleges and universities to expand their offer. That means working with employers to determine future needs and how to meet them.

And moving away from the theoretical, long-term courses and offering shorter-term courses that focus on practical, hands-on knowledge and experience. 

Linda’s suggestion of treating contract employees the same as permanent employees, as well as keeping in touch with them when their “gig” is over, makes sense. There will be a talent war for these people, especially the top performers. These in-demand, “just-in-time” talent will want to go where they feel valued and part of the team.

It will be interesting to see how the government responds to the changing workplace. There is already a disconnect between government regulations — the Human Rights Act, Employment Standards Act and the Pay Equity Act. Parts of each conflict with another and are not reflective of the current workforce and the needs of business.   

Government’s need to protect the workforce through legislation continues to be a necessity but it needs to do so in a way that allows organizations to be nimble in an ever-changing world.  

It’s the challenges that make work interesting. Being in the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is challenging and exciting. What a great opportunity for employers, “employees,” government and academia to work together.

Pittman: Agreed, Sandi — what an opportunity, if they would only grasp it. My bet is that the economy will continue to muddle through and companies will, notwithstanding the clear advantages of an engaged workforce, continue to fail miserably at that and continue on the path of shedding any semblance of social responsibility.

Take note, GM. Employee benefits will be the next to detach from an employer — mobile millennials want their benefit plans to travel with them. As Jan says, make way for the free agent.

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