A key feature of the future of work is the concept of the “democratisation” of work: Work that was traditionally the domain of intact jobs of skilled, full-time employees, is being separated into parts and being done by alternate means. Moreover, those parts are increasingly being undertaken anytime and anywhere, increasingly by workers outside the traditional boundaries of the company, often in different and lower-cost locations.
In theory, this sounds great to some (albeit scary to others) and offers opportunity. But what does it mean in practice?
Company leaders will find themselves confronted by an array of questions, from the strategic to the tactical, such as:
- If jobs are increasingly disaggregated into different tasks, how should jobs be redesigned to accommodate this?
- If most jobs will be redrawn, which functions should be retained as part of your key competencies, and which can be done in non-traditional ways, such as talent platforms, alliances, free agents, business process automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) or robotics?
- How should these decisions be made, who should manage the process, and what are the risks?
The road map for change not always clear
In some industries, and in some job roles, the road map to implementing this change will be clearer than others, especially where there are shortages or surpluses of certain types of talent and skills.
For instance, in the high-tech sector where digital skills are required, organisations have often gone through a lengthy process of hiring and onboarding a programmer (with the risk that they continue to look for the next interesting project). Now, leaders often turn to external talent platforms to source the same skills, such as TopCoder or Upwork. This can work out well for both the company — which can more quickly add skilled resources to its ranks — as well as the talent, who can freelance on a variety of interesting and short-term projects, sometimes while still maintaining more regular employment in parallel. For many talented workers, this level of flexibility is now preferred to having long tenure at a single company, a deep shift from decades past.
But the democratization of work is not just for the technology sectors. Many jobs can be disaggregated in this way: think of accounting, for instance. If routine calculations can be automated, it frees up accountants to be more strategic advisors to the business. Automation has changed the travel industry, with new technology across many tasks, and will continue to do so, from self-service check-ins to the potential of driverless vehicles. And in financial services, where compliance work can be done effectively by machines, or where the branch of the future is focussed on person-to-person service, enabled by technology. And in medicine and other sciences, where AI can scan large volumes of data for patterns far more effectively than humans.
Managing change: on the front lines
The reality is: the democratisation of work is already taking place. It’s probably happening at your company, whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s likely that individual managers are making decisions to fill an immediate need within their business line or unit; but oftentimes, with no more planning and oversight than that. And therein lies the risk. Although there are advantages to these decisions — from speed to capability, flexibility, cost, and so on, there are also potential pitfalls. These mostly stem from an organisation’s lack of oversight in two areas: how it responds to these changes and how proactively it manages the opportunities and risks these changes present.
As the war for talent continues to rage, it is crucial that companies get in front of the trend rather than respond in an ad-hoc way.
The role of HR
There is no right answer for which functions should be outsourced, and which kept within company walls. Each organisation will answer this question differently based on its business model, culture, leadership preferences, talent and business context. But HR can guide, govern and manage this crucial process.
The starting point is often to pinpoint the “democratised” work (as well as high value/hard to fill roles), defining the elements of each job, how work is performed and alternatives to consider. Considerations include the organisation’s level of risk tolerance for non-traditional ways of getting work done; its corporate culture; its leadership-readiness to manage the work in a different way; and how the new approach to work can be scaled to meet future business needs or stand-up to new capability.
While in Asia, we may think of ourselves as protected from many of these disruptions, cushioned with a seemingly high supply of labour, this perception is actually deceptive. Skilled labour and top talent will always be in short supply and how it is employed is changing too. Technology, changing business modes and demographic shifts are creating novel opportunities for where, when, how and by whom work gets done. And business leaders, people managers and HR need to plan how to respond — before the change happens to them.