Can we have ‘work without jobs’?

Agility has never been more important to the world of work. But, organizations cannot be truly agile until they revisit their underlying operating system—one that likely is based on antiquated notions of what work truly is.

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That’s the hypothesis of Ravin Jesuthasan, global leader of Mercer’s Workforce Transformation Practice, and Dr. John Boudreau, a frequent author and researcher on the future of work. The pair recently wrote “Work Without Jobs” in the MIT Sloan Management Review and discussed the concept on a webinar this week hosted by Gloat, an internal talent marketplace provider.

So, what’s wrong with the current operating system most organizations rely on? Historically, companies have taken a “bundled” approach to work: Tasks are grouped into a thing called a job, workers are called job holders, the workforce are the people who have employee contracts and who exist within a box called the organization, Boudreau says. HR systems, management systems, leadership systems all operate from that foundation of the definition of work.

But, to truly reap the benefits of automation and embrace the possibility of an agile framework, all of that needs to be deconstructed, he says. Jobs should be looked at not as finite but rather as the moving pieces and projects that comprise them. Workers should be considered not according to their titles but rather to their skills and their potential capabilities.

John Boudreau

Deconstructing in that way—and continually reconstructing—allows leaders to have an “open mind.”

“If everything doesn’t fit into this job, how might I get this work done in a different way?” Boudreau questions. “Who might I bring in? What other employees might contribute to a project I have? What capabilities do people in the organization have that are not necessarily listed on their job description but that could turn out to be useful?”

The idea can extend outward, as organizations look to contractors, gig workers and borrowed talent from other organizations to complete projects.

See also: What Workday’s new $700M deal means for HR technology

Currently, Jesuthasan says, work is typically defined by three buckets: the traditional, job-focused approach; a more hybrid setup in which employees are defined by their jobs but are flowing toward some new work as automation enters the picture; and lastly, a 100% model of “swarming to work,” in which people are matched to the work to be done in a fluid and agile way.

“It’s not that jobs are going away or are passé,” Jesuthasan says. “What we’re saying is that we’re going to be steadily and significantly pivoting from 100% of work being done in jobs to this new plurality of meaning.”

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Many times, organizations looking to start toward the path of “swarming to work” begin with an internal talent marketplace like Gloat, Boudreau notes. When employees see the opportunity to flex their skills and take on new challenges, they often become more tied to and motivated by the organizational purpose.

He references a Walt Disney Co. initiative to “look at the whole person” by opening up projects to workers across divisions. When a voiceover for the trailer of a new Disney movie cropped up, one worker in an accounting-like job threw his hat in the ring—and got the role, allowing him to explore a new skill while engaging in a new way with the company.

Ravin Jesuthasan

This strategy has been gaining steam throughout the pandemic as well. Hospital workers are volunteering as temperature takers, which in turn allows nurses more space to provide patient care, while in other settings, administrators are helping on the floor to fill gaps. In some instances, companies are coming together to share talent and collaborate on joint projects, such as producing PPE.

Boudreau predicts that these internal talent marketplaces are going to “eat away” at job descriptions. He envisions leaders breaking traditional descriptions down into projects and skills, allowing them to experiment with the market.

And the lines of work and jobs will continue to blur, Boudreau predicts, as automation ramps us—creating new and complex questions for HR leaders.

“Automation is requiring us to think about the different parts of people: If you end up with 70% of the work for the human and 30% for the automation—and the human is two to three times more productive because of that—how do you pay them? These are interesting dilemmas.”

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