The Future is Flexible
Experts predict that more independent-minded workers and the proliferation of technology will be the biggest factors in shaping the workplace of tomorrow.
By Mark McGraw
Two years ago, Anne Piessens was exhausted and in need of some kind of career change.
Having spent five years in management consulting and 13 more as a consultant at marketing agencies, she had "reached a point where I was drained of energy, creativity and enthusiasm."
Piessens had seen a drastic shift take place in the field to which she had dedicated the bulk of her professional life, and she didn't like the direction she saw recent developments taking the traditional marketing firms where she had cut her teeth.
"The marketing profession has radically changed in the past decade, due to a proliferation of marketing technologies and the advent of big data," she says. "Agencies that were once organized into departments titled 'strategy,' 'account management,' 'creative' and 'production' are now scrambling to hire staff with, say, Hubspot campaign expertise or virtual-reality development skills or the ability to field multivariate surveys."
Clients "know that no one agency can possibly have all of that niche expertise under one roof," says Piessens. "Yet, when they ask their agencies which skills they have in-house, and which skills they outsource, agency executives hem and haw and dissemble. It's dishonest and silly."
The feeling that she was spending less and less time interacting with customers only compounded her disillusionment.
"What happens in a traditional agency is that experienced team members get pulled into business development," she says. "They spend more time trying to win new accounts than doing the existing client work."
As a result, she says, "clients are stuck with junior teams, or with account executives who are spread much too thin. . . . I realized that I was spending more time in internal meetings talking about agency processes than on solving clients' branding problems. I was no longer doing what I loved at work, and had very little time for anything outside of work, either."
This realization, she says, was the breaking point. Armed with an M.B.A., nearly two decades of experience and a desire for more professional independence, she decided the time was right to strike out on her own as an independent brand strategist.
Within a few months, Piessens connected with the Stem, a New York-based "network consultancy" that relies on a group of nearly 120 independent, freelance and project consultants -- with an average of 15 years' experience -- who work with clients on customer engagement and digital transformation in the healthcare industry.
Looking ahead at the next 10 years, experts say, the continuing rise of independent workers like Piessens, along with the continuing rise of automation and artificial intelligence, will play large parts in shaping the workforce.
Some recent research suggests that an overwhelming majority of employees in the "traditional" workplace would appreciate more of the freedom Piessen and other independent workers enjoy.
Randstad USA's Workplace 2025 1.5 Survey, for example, polled 3,168 employees, finding that 92 percent of respondents feel employers should be more open to flexible or alternative employment arrangements. The survey was conducted as a follow-up to a late 2015 Randstad USA study, in which the Atlanta-based firm predicted that 70 percent of the workforce will be "agile" by 2025.
Jim Link, chief human resources officer at Randstad North America, thinks most companies will get the message, and will start to reconsider the way they build their talent base. If they haven't already, that is.
"I think that even the idea of a company as we think of it today is going to shift pretty quickly," he says. "You won't need a specific group of people to collaborate anymore," says Link. "You only need a consortium of people. You don't have to pay them full-time wages. You actually contract with them to do a specific task, and that's it."
Today, an organization is generally viewed as "a group of people aligned to produce a product or an outcome," says Link.
He predicts that in 10 years "the digitalization of our world, and in particular the workforce, will be complete.
"Everything we consume will be personalized -- products, marketing, media -- and data-driven, as accelerated by the pressures of globalization and technological innovations."
This shift, says Link, will only further affect how and when workers want to work, "as they choose agile arrangements or alternative career paths."
The challenge for employers and talent-management professionals will be to "adapt new methods for attracting, retaining and managing their workforce," he adds.
"Emerging technologies and developments such as virtual collaboration will be the norm," and won't require specific effort to accommodate workers seeking work as freelancers or other "nontraditional" work arrangements, he says.
Attracting this type of contributor was what Stem founder and managing partner Gregg Fisher had in mind when he launched the company in 2013.
"Instead of having exclusively full-time, W-2 employees who report to a specific physical office, we've built a much more fluid, dynamic team of consultants in the U.S. and Europe," says Fisher. "That gives us the ability to curate talent from a growing network and to assemble independent consultants into virtual teams to deliver whatever the client might need.
"And when we say 'independent,' there's a spectrum of independent consultants ranging from freelancers going from gig to gig to a true independent consultant who has [his or her] own brand and is marketing him or herself as an individual," he says, "to form what we think of here as a sort of micro-consultancy."
John Boudreau, professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, foresees more companies -- even those that will still rely primarily on full-time, office-based employees -- adopting a similar mind-set toward how work is assigned, and how it gets done.
Boudreau, who has also authored or co-authored several HR-related books, including Lead the Work, describes the future workforce as being "boundary-less," and looking more like an ecosystem than a talent pool. In this type of environment, business-unit leaders have workers from a wide range of disciplines at their disposal, and workers have frequent opportunities to broaden their professional scope.
To illustrate his point, Boudreau points to IBM Corp.'s internal marketplace, through which managers seek out more junior employees from throughout the organization to contribute to specific projects or complete particular tasks within the manager's function.
"It's a platform where workers can go and volunteer to help out another unit, which obviously helps get a job done," says Boudreau.
"And employees like it because it gives them a chance to grow and develop, and to hone skills in areas that they're interested in; skills that they don't necessarily get to use in their day-to-day jobs."
It would be tough to overstate the role that technology plays in connecting these managers and workers, and helping them collaborate throughout the course of a given project.
Some employers have begun to express concerns about how some technological advances -- automation and artificial intelligence, in particular -- will affect their organizations in the future.
Seyfarth Shaw's recent Future of Work Outlook Survey, for example, surveyed a pool of 717 business leaders that included vice presidents, directors and managers of HR. The Chicago-headquartered law firm found 72 percent of respondents saying that automation and artificial intelligence will force their organizations to reshape the size and makeup of their workforce in the next five years.
Laura Maechtlen, a San Francisco-based partner at Seyfarth Shaw, sees "a lot of 'Chicken Little'-type thinking" with respect to automation's impact on the future of work.
"There's just so much fear about people being replaced," says Maechtlen, who is also national vice chair of the firm's labor and employment department, and co-chair of Seyfarth Shaw's diversity and inclusion action team.
That fear, she says, isn't well-founded.
Automation should be seen as an opportunity to free up employees, not to replace them, says Maechtlen.
For HR leaders, the key will be to determine "the ways in which we can approach the work that we have to get done with a different toolkit to get that work done."
For instance, "you can have robots do some of the work on the assembly floor in order to get cars built, put on a sales floor and sold. Automation is really about making processes more efficient. But the decision-making -- how to market the car, what features to include -- remains in the hands of your talent."
Indeed, many processes can be successfully automated, and more companies will soon look to AI and automation to augment the organization's talent.
In HR, for example, "there's a huge opportunity to automate a lot of transactions and really redefine what HR does," says Bertrand Dussert, vice president of human capital management transformation at Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle Corp. (see sidebar).
Take HR service centers, for instance.
"This is an estimate, but figure that roughly one-third of questions to HR service centers are about pay," says Dussert. "It's a basic request. There's an opportunity for HR to look at the type of queries it's most commonly getting, and maybe look at automating responses to frequently asked questions. That's a simple thing, but it allows you to then retrain and redeploy the people answering those questions to handle actual HR work and provide actual HR service."
Artificial intelligence has already proven its value in assisting with certain "traditional" HR tasks, such as predicting attrition, notes Boudreau.
"As we look ahead," he says, "what we should be talking about is the application of AI to reconstruct and redistribute work throughout the organization, and determining how the technology will fit within the company."
CHROs, says Boudreau, can and should be instrumental in this effort.
"HR can create the space where we can have these discussions, and talk about how to integrate automation or artificial intelligence into your organization and with the talent you have," he says. "For that matter, HR can start discussions around finding alternatives for those workers who actually could be displaced by technology, and helping those people find new skills and opportunities.
"I think having those conversations," says Boudreau, "would pay off enormously for all involved."