Work flexibility: How soon is fast enough?

How work will evolve in the disruptive digital era defies accurate prediction. What is clear, however, is that companies will need to be smarter in anticipating changes

Updated: Aug 12, 2019 10:54:16 AM UTC
Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Let us go back in time to a momentous date: August 6, 1991.

As eventful as it was when the World Wide Web became publicly accessible, I doubt if anyone could have foreseen the game-changing impact it would have on how work would be perceived and executed in the future.

Yet, in just 25 years, we find ourselves in a completely transformed workplace. Technology, business models, demographics and workplace attitudes, all have undergone exponential, concurrent and multi-directional changes. What's more, change promises to chase business at an even more scorching pace in the next five years. Demand for digital productivity is soaring. The pursuit for niche skill combinations is relentless. Work sites and workforces shout for continuous global access and uptime.

It is not just agility that has become non-negotiable—speed and acceleration have become equally so. Work flexibility is already the new normal—it therefore is redundant to ask how organisations can build a flexible work culture. The more relevant and urgent question is, how fast can they institutionalise it? And how well will they design it to sustain adaptability?

In a business landscape where complexity and pace of change is accelerating at unprecedented levels, speed of designing efficient work models is vital.

The demands of an ‘always on’ work culture
Work today is an ‘anywhere, anytime’ phenomenon. Digital transformation has encompassed the business scene for quite some time now. It is thus futile to view workplace flexibility as something to be considered in the future.

The first demand relates to how occupations have dramatically changed in the past few years. Automation has imaginatively re-bundled work into newer and more critical capabilities that are scarce to hire. Work has therefore transformed from well-defined skills and positions to on-demand and project-based assignments. Workplace flexibility is a ‘make-or-break’ pivot to address this change. 3M seems to have cracked the code with their integrated technology workforce-planning platform and internal mobility programme.

The second demand arises from the speed at which skill supply has changed, from traditional salaried roles to independent gigs, and from hierarchical structures to higher autonomy. Digitisation has facilitated the switch to skill-based self-employment with amazing ease. Crowdsourcing of work has become an acceptable option with employers and a preferred option for workers. TopCoder, for example, is today a community of more than 7,50,000 independently working engineers on tasks for multiple organisations.

In short, talent supply has snapped the shackles of employment inelasticity, to become increasingly self-determining.

These transformative forces in the demand and supply of work have created a staggering challenge in the acquisition and retention of top talent.

Workplace flexibility is the answer—and speed is its defining advantage.

Beyond the talent bank, to a thriving community
One of the biggest benefits of workplace flexibility is the versatile ecosystem it creates. Communities of independent freelancers and self-employed professionals offer members tremendous avenues to network with events and decision-makers. In a world of opportunities that demands speed of reaction, this is a win-all situation. Professionals can quickly reach out in online forums to enhance capabilities and seek opportunities. Organisations can quickly explore a broader landscape to get the right people.

This is how Apple’s iTunes store platform created a huge mobile-app industry with a million plus jobs across the globe. So have the distribution and hosting platforms of Alibaba, Amazon, and eBay. They may not be direct employers, but they demonstrate the effectiveness of models that are engines of employment at scale and speed.

Interestingly, work flexibility can correct some of the fallacies of talent building. Take the traditional talent markers—educational credentials, years of experience in proven companies, etc. Research shows that there is little correlation between formal education and professional achievements. Online work platforms enable the right fit of people to project requirements in flexible employment arrangements. Innovative possibilities such as short ‘sprint’ cycle projects, project rotation, internal incubation programs, etc. can be designed across functions and practices. They also improve performance measurement criteria.

The result is a cascading effect of quicker talent acquisition and positive employee engagement. The winner? Top and bottom lines of the organisation, of course.

Flexibility in the workplace is not merely an employee perk. It is a critical part of business strategy. It adds scale to a broader talent pool, and enables enhanced employer branding—with significant cost saving. High performing professionals are empowered to direct their careers with better personal-professional balance, leading to inspired performances. Major global enterprises have achieved significantly higher productivity with flexible work practices.

How work will evolve in the disruptive digital era defies accurate prediction. What is clear, however, is that companies will need to be smarter in anticipating changes. They will need to embrace newer forms of work flexibility that are compliant, enable stakeholders to stay connected and are fair to all concerned.

The author is MD and CEO of Randstad India. 

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