Brave New Work

Radical changes in demographics, technology and employee expectations are driving a whole new world of employment.

Welcome to the brave new world of employment – where flexibility, creativity, diversity and intrepreneurship rule. As Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, says: “In the next economy workers will have much more flexibility in how, when and where they work, and they will have, over the course of their careers, many professional engagements and maybe even several different careers.”

Sound frightening? It doesn’t have to be. A recent Workplace 2020 report from HR software outfit Beeline talks about “the confluence of elements creating a powerful breeding group for innovation, creativity, and productivity”. It suggests an organisation’s success depends in part on its ability to understand and embrace the challenges of this mobile future workforce. With that in mind, here are five working-world trends you need to know about:

Portfolio working

OK, so it’s not new – Charles Handy coined the phrase "portfolio working" more than 20 years ago, and people have been “contracting” and “freelancing” for a lot longer than that. But it is on the increase. A Canterbury University study suggests increasing numbers of people are rejecting the notion of a single, permanent job, instead choosing (and that’s an important word here) a number of often temporary roles with a range of different organisations.

Figures are hard to come by in New Zealand, but US research company Staffing Industry Analysts has predicted that by 2020 over half the workforce will be portfolio workers. It’s a trend employers would do well to pay attention to, in terms of where their future staff are going to come from. Columnists like Jennifer Dziura have been on the freelancing bandwagon for years – extolling the benefits of decreasing reliance on jobs, increasing income streams, and building a path out of employment.

“Since I started my ‘career,’ I’ve been a newspaper columnist, a web designer, an internet marketer/entrepreneur, a director of marketing, a comedian, a teacher, a tutor/entrepreneur, a curriculum designer, an educational author, and, obviously, a business columnist.

“Does it even make sense to talk about ‘a career’ anymore when our work and personal lives are so blended, and when we are likely to take up a panoply of occupations and gigs over our decades of work?” Good question. But while gracefully juggling a job and side businesses sounds great, how easy it is to actually do?

Fallon Ashworth has been experimenting for the last six years – working as marketing manager for grocery importer Enso International, and running her wedding planning company, Oh Buttercup Events, in her ‘spare’ time.

The truth is, it’s hard work, she says. “I have to start early or finish late often so I can take time off to organise events. Balancing everything can be tough, but I’ve just chipped away slowly …

"I think my boss only just realised recently how big my ‘side project’ has become!” Without flexible working hours, getting it to this stage would have been impossible, she says. But isn’t this is a terrible idea from an employer’s perspective? Why support your employees to follow their own interests, when if it works out they will just end up leaving? A better question, according to HR experts, is whether the best staffers will even work for you in the first place if they don’t see any flexibility from your side.

In fact some companies are changing the game by being the initiators of employees having side projects. Point-of-sale software company Vend loves its entrepreneurs: business development manager Karl Stirnemann runs eco-sunglasses company Sticks; product manager Adrian Wills builds apps like Randomiz it; and community manager Sim Ahmed has his own photography and clothing business.

Content manager Simon Pound says his side project led him to Vend. “I was using Vend for our online store, ingridstarnes.com. I loved the product so much that some interesting conversations resulted in me joining the business.

"I work 30 hours a week, so I can continue growing Ingrid Starnes the rest of the week.” Vend’s recruitment spiel says “employees shouldn’t have to leave their personalities at the door” – and Pound agrees. “Having these other things going on stimulates our creativity, and Vend benefits from that.”

Hot teams

No, this isn’t all the good-looking people in the office going off and forming their own department. Businesses are starting to bring hand-picked employees together for small, entrepreneurial projects within the organisation. These are “hot teams” charged with a specific mission – perhaps developing a new product, rethinking their brand, or growing team engagement.

The theory is hot teaming allows staff to put their inner entrepreneurial spirit to use without traditional corporate culture bogging them down. It also gets the best staff in an organisation sweating the hard stuff together. Brett O’Riley, CEO of Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), put the concept into action when he found himself leading a 260-person team of people who “hadn’t actually chosen to be there”. (Rather, they had been merged into the organization from the pre-SuperCity councils.) “We had no values. No sense of who we were. I asked for volunteers to be our kaiārahi (guides). Twenty people came forward, and they self-selected into a hot team of eight visionary, motivated people to work on developing our brand, values, and mission.

“This was done outside of their usual roles, with extra compensation for the additional hours they were putting in. The result they achieved was phenomenal – employee engagement is high, and we have a unified team who owns their own vision. The need to ‘sign off’ on any of it never even crossed my mind.” Members of the first team have now gone back to their previous roles, but O’Riley has replicated the model with a second hot team, working out how to champion the new brand and vision.

Business academics Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg say sometimes hot teams form under the radar in bigger corporates, getting together to work on a new project they think the bosses might not be keen on. But the outcome - motivating employees and encouraging innovation – is often the same. In an article “The case for stealth innovation” in the Harvard Business Review, Miller and Wedell-Wedellsborg describe how a team at pharmaceutical company Pfizer had the idea of a productivity initiative involving outsourcing routine parts of people’s jobs.

For a year they developed the project, accumulating evidence and gaining allies before they introduced it to top executives.

PfizerWorks became one of the company’s most popular innovations.

Miller says allowing hot teams (whether by stealth or otherwise) avoids the situation where “great people take their passion and ideas elsewhere because their organizations cannot embrace innovation”.

Workplace design

With employees having the choice to work from home on their favourite swivel chair and the fridge close by, your office had better look pretty damn good to attract great people. Employers are starting to think smart about space. Tim Hooson from architectural firm Jasmax says the way the office is laid out should support team collaboration. He likens the office of the future to a kindergarten.

“You don’t ask kids to do finger painting in a sandbox. There are specific areas and spaces set up for each activity they might want to do.” Of course, this trend comes with an acronym: ABW or activity based working, which Jasmax has helped companies like ASB, Vodafone, and Fonterra implement.

As one ASB employee put it: “At first I thought I’d miss having my ‘own’ space – but it’s fabulous. We have areas for computer work, quieter places for phone calls, meeting spaces – and wherever you log in, the computer brings up your last session. No down time.”

Workplace wellness is also on the rise – employees want their company to support their healthy lifestyle. A recent Buck Consultants study of New Zealand and Australian workplaces reports 37% have a wellness programme, and Brad Norris of Synergy Health in Christchurch believes that this will just continue to increase.

He’s helped guide wellness programmes for Kiwi companies like BNZ, IAG, Genesis Energy and Orion, and says the benefits include attracting and retaining talent, reducing sickness absences, improving productivity and morale, and reducing workplace injuries.

Intrepreneurship

Don’t like your job? Follow the lead of Generation Y and create your own. Start-ups from Silicon Valley to Wellington are sitting down with their teams and saying, “So, what role do you think you’d be great at?” Now this philosophy is spreading to corporates, spurred along by recruitment agencies like Frog, whose CEO Jane Kennelly highlights the importance of using the “intrepreneurs who walk among us.”

“It makes sense to work with who you have – they could be anywhere, in your marketing department, in HR … people who are itching to make a difference and create something.” Intrepreneurs are the perfect hire, she says; people who are inherently entrepreneurial with big ideas, but don’t want the risk of going out and starting their own business.

When Telecom (now Spark) was looking for a way to expand capabilities in the digital space, for example, the company singled out 11 of the best and brightest intrepreneurs, with entrepreneurially-minded Rod Snodgrass and Ed Hyde at the helm.

They then watched Digital Ventures snowball. Now it’s a department others within Spark wish they were part of, Hyde says. “What we’re trying to do is difficult. Our success is dependent on human talent – what we’re looking for is different to the usual MO [modus operandi].”

The rise of diversity

The rise of diversity Workplace dynamics are ch-ch-changing. The long-talked about tsunami wave of retiring baby boomers is breaking at a rapid rate – Statistics New Zealand estimates that between now and 2021, the number of people over 65 will grow by at least 200,000.

This has several ramifications. For a start, there is a good chance that any workplace will be made up of people from four different generations – from the war-time traditionalists, with their focus on service and loyalty, to theteam-oriented baby boomer, to the tech-savvy, individualistic Gen Y-ers.

That's one hell of a potential culture clash and one that can be handled “really well, or badly,” according to Frog's Jane Kennelly. “Smart workplaces are putting reverse mentoring programs in place – enabling the transfer of skills and knowledge to flow both ways. The younger team members coming through benefit from the experience of senior staff, and senior staff are quickly realising that if they want to stay part of the new work environment, they’ll have to adapt.”

Meanwhile mums are returning to the workforce in droves. The 2014 New Zealand Household Labour Force Survey found women’s participation in the workforce was 63.4% – the highest level since the survey began in 1986. But it isn’t always easy to slot back in where you left off, Kennelly says.

“It’s tough coming back to the workforce when you might, for example, have trained as a graphic designer 10 years ago. Software has changed, project types have changed – it can seem completely overwhelming. We’ve talked with plenty of very capable women who want to work, but think they can’t.”

American businesses like JP Morgan Chase are overcoming these issues with ‘Mum-ternships’; paid re-integration programmes specifically for mothers. New Zealand employers have yet to catch on, but Kennelly believes it would give an edge to a company wanting to attract well-educated, skilled women.

Cultural diversity is also steadily rising. Last year Auckland hit a new high - there are over 200 different ethnic communities represented in the workforce, and 40% of the population was born overseas.

Organisations like Fairtrade NZ are a great example of this melting pot; their Auckland office is populated with staff from Argentina, Columbia, Costa Rica, the US, Ireland, England – and New Zealand. CEO Molly Harris says diversity brings benefits – although it was best to avoid talking about football during the World Cup, “As part of a global movement, having staff with first-hand knowledge of some of the countries we work within enhances our operations, as well as our understanding of the opportunities and challenges within particular geographic areas. “While language can at times be a bit of a challenge, it is also an advantage as we work within an international system and liaise with colleagues around the world.”

Tait Grindley, New Zealand Institute of Management general manager and working group member of DiverseNZ, thinks many New Zealand businesses have started to take cultural diversity seriously in the last 12 months. “They all liked talking about it and throwing around buzzwords, but it’s taken a while for employers to start putting their money where their mouth is.”

DiverseNZ helps companies develop inclusion strategies, adapting the business environment, policies and recruitment processes to embrace diversity. “It’s a culture versus culture thing,” Grindley says. “Your company culture has to make people from all cultures feel comfortable and empowered. That’s when you start getting the best out of people.” ×