I know a guy who works at Starbucks. He isn’t a barista, he just goes there to work. Doesn’t everyone know someone who works at Starbucks, at least some of the time? In the past ten years, the number of people who work from home offices (or coffee houses) and “telecommute” has dramatically increased. Technology has given us the ability to connect with each other anytime, anywhere. Simultaneously, the social contract between organization and employee has made a dramatic shift. The notion of lifetime employment seems quaint and distant. This loss of job security has also led to the shucking off of a paternalistic dynamic. While employees may feel dispensable, they also feel empowered to be their own advocate. Younger generations especially will “vote with their feet” and change jobs quickly if they aren’t having their needs met. And increasingly, these needs aren’t just a salary and decent health benefits (which are also shrinking), but include flexibility, autonomy, and development opportunities. Organizations are getting wise to the fact that retention of talented people will mean rethinking what it means to offer a “good job.” While more and more people are interested in building a “good life,” mainstream business is also learning that happy, healthy employees are both less expensive and better performing.
All of this has enormous implications for the way work is conducted and how it will continue to evolve in the coming years. The historical boundaries separating “work” and “life” are dissolving – both in time and physical space. If you want to work 9-5 (try 8-6), it is up to you to create psychological boundaries, because in today’s world your boss and your teammates can email, call, or text you day or night, weekday or weekend. There are considerable benefits to this flexibility. If you are a parent with young kids at home, it might mean not having to choose between a crucial conference call and a sick day. Or perhaps you are also caring for an elderly parent and working from home Fridays means you can give your spouse a break from being caregiver. Studies have shown that flexible policies increase diversity by allowing underrepresented employees access to the workplace (e.g., women, older workers). But even employees without these additional at-home responsibilities can benefit from the self-direction that such flexibility affords. Flexible work can promote engagement because it gives people control and autonomy, which also supports organization’s recruiting and retention efforts.
Of course there is a dark side. We haven’t quite gotten a handle on how to moderate it. There is the danger of stress and burnout. If you can work any time, any where – should you? Must you, to stay competitive, to stay employed? Are managers equipped to handle setting expectations around this topic? And of course organizations are often concerned about the flip-side – what about slackers? People who say they are working from home but really just people-watching at Starbucks? How do we handle the fact that some jobs just don’t lend themselves to this flexibility and address issues of fairness? Organizations need to get ready to embrace these changes by first striving to create a results-centered culture imbued with trust. These are the building blocks of any successful organization, but these elements will become increasingly important to leveraging emerging employment trends.
In many ways, work already looks very different for people today than it did even a decade or two ago, and these changes will only continue. Continued shifts may look like increased job sharing, freelancing and project-based work, and use of temp workers. This will put more power and responsibility in the individual’s hands for crafting their work and career; think less “climbing the ladder” and more “traversing the obstacle course.” Organizations who adapt to these workforce changes will be more agile and adaptable to changes in the business environment, which, as we have discussed before, are coming on fast and furious. What are you doing now to prepare for these changes – as an organizational leader and as an individual?