Redefining work in a post-jobs world

‘We’re making the shift to different kinds of companies’
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/21/2018
Water Cooler
Future teams will see gig workers assembled for temporary projects and then disassembled after, said Nazareth. “You have to try hard to create the water-cooler effect when people are actually not hanging around the water cooler.” Credit: zhgee (Shutterstock)

The topic of changing workplaces has been all the rage amongst human resources professionals over recent years, according to Linda Nazareth, an Ontario economist and author.

And with 2019 upon us, one thing has become abundantly clear, she said at a recent SCNetwork event in Toronto.

“Honestly, the future of work is already here,” said Nazareth. “We’re there. What hasn’t changed is everything around it.”

Global economic conditions, shifting demographics and technological advances have converged to forever alter traditional jobs, with only more transformation coming over the next decade, she said.

For HR professionals, that means it is high time to make the transition and usher in new conventions to deal with employees’ changing work habits, said Nazareth, author of Work is Not a Place: Our Lives and Our Organizations in the Post-Jobs Economy.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead,” she said. “We have things we haven’t even talked about or thought about or imagined yet, but we’re getting to this point where everything has to be on the table.”

“We are going to be hiring and rethinking and perhaps reskilling… and making these assessments on an ongoing basis. It’s kind of an era of constant curation.”

The future is now

Holding a stable job has been relevant only for the past century; before that, most workers spent their days toiling in a farm capacity, according to Nazareth.

The notion of a job — gathering workers in one place because that’s where the machines were — stems from the Industrial Revolution, she said.

From this structure came the advent of HR procedures such as health benefits and standard wage increases, said Nazareth.

“Lots of things were positive for workers and for companies in terms of productivity, growth.”

But today’s technological advances now allow colleagues to communicate freely from remote offices.

“We’ve kind of moved away from the reasons to having workers together,” she said.

“We’re at an era where everything is changing up, as it has changed in the past... That work-for-life model has already dissipated a bit.”

Adhering to a singular set of rules, responses or recruiting practices no longer works, especially in an economy where most American positions being created are non-traditional, said Nazareth.

Governments haven’t paid enough attention to this, she said.

“All our policies are wrong... It’s going to take a long time before governments get there and figure this out.”

As a result, the lion’s share of the responsibility will fall on business and HR’s plate in the near-term, said Nazareth.

Lean, agile organizations

The current labour environment has resulted in two major storylines — there won’t be enough workers to fill jobs, and automation will eat up the majority of work positions to the point where governments will have to consider basic income, she said.

“Which is the right narrative? There isn’t one correct story,” said Nazareth.

“It depends on who you are, what you want to do… and it depends on any given day, the industry, the business cycle.”

“Overall, I do think we have a trend towards fewer workers going forward, or at least fewer employees,” she said. “We don’t need the organizations we had in the past — the large ones that employed a lot of people and that’s what it took to get the work done… We’re making the shift to different kinds of companies.”

In a competitive economy, lean and agile is the strategy of choice, with talent driving business success, said Nazareth.

Corporations are trending towards fewer employees with a focus on the short-term, she said.

Demographics will keep labour scarce, and aging populations in Quebec and Atlantic Canada will make those jurisdictions a leading indicator in Canada, according to Nazareth.

Less productivity and low economic growth will affect profits and force employers to consider automation, she said.

“It makes more sense to bring in a lot more of this. As we look for things to make us more efficient, then of course we’re looking at an era where we have a lot more technology.”

“The jobs have already evolved and they’re going to evolve more,” said Nazareth. “It’s the speed that’s different this time around and why people are actually scared of this and say, ‘This is going to change everything.’”

Advice for HR

Ushering in the future means senior leaders will be looking to HR for labour guidance, she said.

Strategic plans will be “built around human resources and human capital, because that’s a big cost to companies, but it’s also a big strength to companies if you get the right pieces in,” said Nazareth.

“It’s not just about getting the right people in as employees. It’s about getting the work done. That’s really the next challenge.”

Different formats may need to be implemented to get work done, she said. Benefits packages, office surroundings and telecommuting options could be differentiators as recruitment becomes even more competitive and employers search for specific talent.

“People don’t just want money. People want lots of things besides salaries.”

Future teams will see gig workers assembled for temporary projects and then disassembled after, said Nazareth.

“You have to try hard to create the water-cooler effect when people are actually not hanging around the water cooler.”

Employee engagement and reskilling will remain major issues going forward, and as the gig economy becomes more prevalent, corporate culture will need to shift, she said.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how much we — as an economy — are willing to train (workers),” said Nazareth. “Perhaps a bit more as it becomes more difficult to find them, although I haven’t seen much evidence of it.”

Amazon’s decision to locate its highly touted HQ2 amongst a U.S. talent hotbed is “very telling,” she said.

“When they’re looking at their longer term, they wanted to be where they could get people easiest and have the best pick of them.”

Work is no longer a place

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

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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