The Variable Worker – Revisiting the Employee/Employer Value Exchange

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The stubborn 7% unemployment rate here in the United States tends to masks a larger issue of underemployment, which today might be in the neighborhood of 18%. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, with unemployment rates at near historic lows, there was a demand for work life balance with a popular cry of “work to live don’t live to work”. Weirdly this sentiment applies today as well when perhaps 1/4 of the US working population either unemployed or underemployed. These people really do need to work to live. But with so many Americans struggling, the US traditional growth engine of consumerism can’t fix the problem. With limited disposable income American can’t spend their way out of this employment problem. So what will happen? How can companies and how can workers revision themselves to prosper under these “new normal” conditions? 

Let’s give this some consideration. Companies are truly doing more with fewer employees at lower payroll cost. This trend has had very successful results, best demonstrated by the recent stock market returns. Now that is a good thing for key stakeholders – certainly shareholders are pleased, and these shareholders are more than just the direct owners, they are also mutual fund investors and retirees living off 401(k) savings. Employees, on the other hand, another important stakeholder group, may not feel such pleasure. Doing more with less means that jobs have been outsourced or moved to cheaper labor markets overseas, and for many of those who remain employed in the US, the scope of their jobs has grown, but compensation has not.

The US labor force needs to quickly revision itself. We think that for Americans the new landscape will demand variable workers which Michael Graham defines as, “A worker that sets his or her own work schedule. He or she can work as little as 10 hours per week and as many as 80. These individuals work when the work is there and don’t when it isn’t.”

The concepts of full time, part time, contract workers, etc. all need to be rethought. It is no longer certain that getting a job means you will keep it, or that one job will provide adequate means to support you and your family. Specialized skills will be in high demand, but may not result in “full employment” even for highly skilled worker. And the workers a company needs may live far from its workplace. Unskilled jobs will remain low paid, but even those that can’t be off shored, like restaurant workers and garbage collection, for example, may change to become more structured and demanding requiring everything from customer service to new technology skills.

The variable worker approach will require that companies make some broad organizational changes as well. Companies will need to rethink policies, procedures, recruitment, and the like. Workplace culture will require new thinking, if not a new definition. Regardless of the reversals to telecommuting policies at places like Yahoo and BofA, we believe that this is not just the best but may become the only way to for companies and workers alike to get the most out of the employee/employer value exchange. The companies and workers who don’t get this right will be missing out on huge potential. This situation in particular requires brand new ways of recruiting, onboarding, managing, and developing workers. Old policies do not apply to this new way of working. Mangers’ jobs must change too. No longer will they manage information, they will really need to manager remote workers who may have a number of jobs they are juggling. And this means less about the managing the work product and more about managing the relationship of the worker to the company. This is a new set of responsibilities for managers and probably why some telecommuting arrangements don’t work. Successful telecommuting is not about the corporate culture, it’s about the policies and new responsibilities that managers must assume.

Although we fully support the concepts of reuse, reduce, and recycle to protect our environment, these approaches will not support the value exchange between companies and workers in the 21st century. We challenge HR departments to start fresh with policies and procedures, to look anew at job descriptions and job postings, to not be limited by what is written in their handbooks today, but take a moment to visualize a future unencumbered by outdated approaches.

We would enjoy discussing this with you, contact us anytime!


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