Our ability to “liberate” work from the organization and distribute it to its most optimal provider — anywhere in the world — is creating a new set of requirements for leaders. To succeed in this new world of work, leaders need to focus on two things: one, they need to have a better understanding of the eight different sources of labor; and two, they need to better align the interests of these different sources of work to create a unifying culture. In other words, leaders need to “use culture as the new structure.” This was a phrase coined by Leena Nair, Chief Human Resources Officer at Unilever, and it captures the essence of the glue that binds together these various work options.
For much of the last 30 years, organizations have agonized about whether they should centralize or decentralize their operations. But today that debate is increasingly moot. Every organization is essentially a distributed one, with many different options for getting work done. Our ability to “liberate” work from the organization and distribute it to its most optimal provider — anywhere in the world — is creating a new set of requirements for leaders.
To succeed in this new world of work, leaders need to focus on two things. They need to have a better understanding of the eight different sources of labor, and they need to better align the interests of these sources of work to create a unifying culture. In other words, leaders need to “use culture as the new structure.” This is a phrase coined by my friend and colleague Leena Nair, chief human resources officer at Unilever, and it captures the essence of the glue that binds together these various work options.
The Eight Sources of Labor
There are eight sources of work that leaders need to orchestrate and navigate:
- Employees. Still the primary source of work for most organizations, employment is usually either part-time or full-time.
- Independent contractors. A common work option since the third industrial revolution, independent contractors play a vital role in augmenting the employee population.
- Gig workers. A rapidly growing source of labor, gig workers typically take on short-term assignments and projects.
- Outsourcers. Another hallmark of the third industrial revolution, the outsourcing of entire processes is typically done for efficiency and/or labor arbitrage reasons.
- Alliances with startups and other companies. These are an increasingly important means for sharing risk and accessing new capabilities.
- Volunteers. Typically they are used for crowdsourcing innovation or promoting brands on social media.
- Robotics. Affects work in much the same way as artificial intelligence, but in the physical sphere.
When does it make sense to continue using an employee versus tapping into gig workers? How do we optimally deploy robotic process automation for repetitive, rules-based mental work that is performed independently? Critical to success will be understanding the speed to capability, cost, productivity, and risk implications of each option while orchestrating this ecosystem of work options so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Creating a Unifying Purpose
As organizations engage with this diverse set of work options, creating alignment of purpose and mission becomes increasingly challenging.
How do you transcend the typical arm’s-length relationship with your outsourcer so that when their employee answers a call from your customer, they reflect your mission and purpose? How do you go beyond a one-off transactional relationship with a world-class software developer so that she is willing to go beyond the agreed-upon job specs for the project she is performing for you, and chooses to work with you the next time your company has a project?
The answer lies in curating the optimal set of experiences for each type of talent. This means understanding the greater purpose of each work provider and creating alignment to the mission and purpose of your organization. For employees, companies have often relied on tools like pay, benefits, or development opportunities to align behaviors. For alliance partners, AI vendors, or gig workers, more creative solutions are required. Here are a few examples to consider:
- Build a relationship with gig workers and independent contractors that goes beyond a paycheck. A large technology company that uses several hundred gig workers every day redefined its talent experience to transcend the typically transactional relationship with this talent pool. In the words of the CHRO, “These individuals choose us every day. How do we ensure that they choose us when we need them next?” The company did this by providing access to learning and development opportunities and access to “employee” experiences like the company picnic. This enabled the organization to create more of a relationship and allowed the gig workers to experience what they were a part of.
- Think about how your broader ecosystem of work options affects all your stakeholders. A global consumer goods company that makes extensive use of third-party outsourcers realized that most of its customer and employee interactions were being handled by the outsourcers’ employees or chatbots. Its HR and corporate communications teams actively worked with these third parties so that every interaction emphasized specific words and phrases that conveyed the essence of the company’s mission and purpose. The employees of the outsourcer now feel a deeper connection to the customers and employees they interact with.
- Redesign the work to create the optimal combinations of humans and machines, while upskilling the talent whose work is being transformed. To create a more compelling purpose, a large oil and gas company reframed its mission to being one of ensuring the sustainable development of the remote communities in which it operated and focused its culture and talent experience on ensuring “the safety, well-being, and continued relevance of all its talent” (employees and contractors alike). This led to efforts to use robotics to substitute the “dirty, dull, and dangerous” work of its human talent and to reskill employees from primarily performing manual labor to operating, calibrating, and maintaining the new equipment.
In the past, culture extended to the walls of the organization and was a function of the shared experiences of a relatively homogenous group of employees. Today it is defined by a compelling narrative that aligns the diverse interest of a distributed and highly heterogeneous group of work providers. The talent experience is at the heart of the organizational culture that is required to orchestrate this distributed enterprise.