Uberizing the workforce: could the future of your company be (almost) no company? Laurence Van Elegem - June 6, 2019

Future of Work Felix Mooneeram 222805 Unsplash Min 16F94F2Efac7Ad4Fae67Fa0339F262E1

Let's perform a little thought-experiment about what the organization of the future will look like, shall we? Let’s say that automation will (for now) not eradicate every known job in the world and make us humans obsolete. Let’s say that computers will not be able to emulate everything that humans can, at least not for quite some time. In that case, what will companies look like about 10 to 15 years from now?

I’m inclined to believe that they might be pretty “empty”; that their structures and attendance would be a lot slimmer than they are now. Here’s why.

Companies, nor individuals are endlessly fluid

Today’s large companies tend to struggle with 2 major challenges: one has to do with speed and flexibility, and the other with scarcity. Let’s zoom in on speed, first. Corporates just aren’t as fast and flexible like start-ups. It's not exactly rocket science: a group of 10 people (re)acts faster than a group of 600,000. There are exceptions, of course, like Walmart which is both the largest private sector employer in the world – give or take 2.3 million staff in the US and other countries - as well as one of the most agile and innovative companies out there. But, no offense, most large companies pretty much suck at it. The bigger the volume, the slower the vehicle and in times where technologies, trends and customer are driving a very fluid market, thats definitely a huge disadvantage.

But the problem simply isn't agility on a macro-company-level, the flexibility at the level of the individual employee is just as trying. We sometimes forget that people are the fabric of organizations and that the elasticity of individuals is limited. We are all born with a certain cognitive level, a set of skills and talents and a personality: all of these can be trained and adapted - and the defintely should - but that's only realistic up to a certain amount. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fantastic to see how much certain companies like AT&T invest in re-training and reskilling their workforce, to keep them relevant. But there is also a reason that burnout levels are going through the roof, and that companies are filled with frustrated, scared and unhappy employees. Permanent change and a too high expectancy of individual fluidity is very stressful.

So there’s a huge tension these days between the speed of the market, the agility of companies, and the agility of individual employees. And yet, we keep organizing and structuring our companies the same way. Even start-ups often copy the framework of corporates: they have a board, CEO, a CMO, an HR manager and when they grow, they install a mid-management. Why is that? In nature, small organisms have a completely different architecture than large ones. The anatomy of a spider is nothing like that of a horse, and yet the anatomy of start-ups and corporates is quite similar (apart from the scale, of course). True, start-ups are more agile and move faster. But I sometimes believe that’s more because the (communications) ‘distances’ are shorter – which results in more informal cultures, more empowerment and more experiments - not because they are better structured.

Find the talent, remove the friction

But corporates are not only struggling with flexibility, a lot of them are dealing with the scarcity of certain profiles, skills and talents on the market too. The war for talent has been raging quite some time now, especially when it comes to those ‘hot’ profiles of digital wizards, divergent-thinking innovators and leaders who know how to deal with uncertainty and empowerment. Especially as they are more drawn towards empowered start-up cultures than 'boring' corporate ones. On top of that, it’s just as difficult to keep them, as it is to find them. Not just because the competition is always trying to lure away your best talent, but because there is often a disconnect between these innovator profiles and the company DNA. To put it in Peter Hinssen’s words: they are Elon Musks (ex-Paypal, Tesla, Space-X) in a Jack Welch (GE) company. And that tends to give a lot of friction. In a world so obsessed with a frictionless customer experience, how do we make the (innovator) employee experience friction-free so that top talent will not feel the need to leave. And how do we persuade them to join us?

The answer could be as strange as it is obvious: we sever the ties. We don’t contract them into fixed structures. The less someone is embedded in a structure, the more freedom of movement there is and the less friction.

The uberization of the workforce

What if we just change the system? What if the workforce would become “uberized” (I’m sorry, I don’t like that word either, but it’s very clear)? What if we could cherry-pick individuals from a platform-based workforce ecosystem for short or longer periods of time?

Such a system would remove a lot of the current friction between (innovation) employees and management, as the nature of their relationship would become very different (a far cry from the 'Master and Servant' interaction that we still too often see). But above all, it would provide an answer to the 2 conundrums I discussed above. Individuals would never have to be re-programmed into something that’s counter-natural to them, just to keep them in the company. They would only be placed in environments that would match with their skills, talents and personality. And I think that HR-tech could play a very important role in that: using a data-driven analysis of the company's needs and those of the platform on-demand “workers” (for lack of a better word) to predict who would be happiest and most productive where.

Now, I’m not saying that the platform workers would never have to learn, of course. If anything, they might even learn more by “hopping” between companies than they would do staying in one place. And, again, I’m also absolutely not saying that reskilling employees is bad. It’s great. But there lies real danger in trying to re-mould people into a shape that’s completely counterintuitive to them. And this does happen. The platform approach would free employees of the stress that comes with the expectation of permanently having to reinvent themselves. And the fact that the “fixed” structure of companies would become a lot ‘lighter’ this way, would also allow them to accelerate their own decisions and processes.

Worker platforms could also solve the challenge of finding and keeping (innovation) talent, as the data-driven matching and the temporariness of the employment would allow the platform workers to move around a lot more swiftly, and be placed in the most fitting environments.

So how could this work, while avoiding the pitfalls of many platform companies like Uber, such as exploitation and underpayment of cheap labour? It think it would go beyond offering an online platform of temps and freelancers like Upwork. I could see this more as a part of the subscription economy: companies would pay a fixed yearly or monthly fee per capita, and they could switch profiles as much as needed, without continuously needing to reskill fixed employees to match their changing needs. And, in turn, these subscription fees would allow the platform companies to pay their nomad “workforce” a fixed fee, thereby more or less (nothing is certain, of course, you don’t have this in the current form of companies either) guaranteeing them a safe work environment. This approach might even be combined with a ‘light’ version of a universal basic income (UBI). Who knows? Another possibility would be a blockchain-based platform, cutting out the middle man platform type described above between company and employee, though this would then merely be an ecosystem of freelancers, without the “work safety” offered by the first model.

Not a walk in the park, but traditional companies aren't either

Now, I’m not naïve. There would certainly be some pretty steep challenges with such a “light company cherry-picking from a subscription worker platform” approach.

First of all, platforms are like magnets. They tend to devour pretty much everything, and that comes with a lot of power. Too much power, often. Just think of Facebook. Or the monopoly of Amazon. So it could be a challenge to make sure that they don’t “devour” the workers in their platform. Then we’d just be switching from a suboptimal system to an even worse.

And then there’s the “common brain” problem. If only a small group of people have the history and culture of companies in their memory, and all the other parts are nomadic, who will remember and guard the mistakes, the successes, the challenges and even the vision of the company? Now, information and knowledge management in our current companies is already quite a challenge, especially in big ones. So this will become even more difficult when people switch companies all the time.

And what about intellectual property, and safety of information? Jane Doe could for instance work for Bank A the first half of the year, and then move to its competitor Bank B. How would we avoid then, that she would spill some secrets (by accident). And will switching around employees make every company a grey, drab copy of the others, because they will all move in the same direction? I’m guessing not, as - even though the fixed core of the company would be light - there would still be a common culture and vision which would mean that some people might fit there and others not.

So no, this subscription on-demand platform approach would not be free of challenges. But then again, what is? Today’s companies have a lot of problems, too. I sometimes even wonder if we humans are “built” for this kind of scale. Just compare how a school of fish moves versus traffic in a large city. Or how bees and ants function as opposed to people in large corporations. Are we too self-aware and too individualistic to make large structures work properly, and to be happy in them? Is that why less individualistic cultures like China thrive better in this environment of scale and speed?

So why not sever the ties, and, scale down the fixed structures of companies? Why not work with mobile, temporary and loosely tied nodes? This is not a prediction, really just an open question. As I wrote at the beginning: this is just a thought experiment. And I’d love for you to consider this concept and see what it could mean for your future. Nothing more.

Laurence Van Elegem

Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and...

Find out more about our Bootcamps, Tours & Innovation platform!

Want more inspiration about innovation?