Jobs are Melting into Fluid Work

September 29, 2020

The COVID crisis has revealed how remarkably workers apply “hidden” capabilities their organizations never used before, shifting quickly to their most pivotal contributions.*  What may be less obvious is how this has accelerated melting traditional jobs into fluid work.  The phrase “fluid work” captures how work has melted, released from the confines of a regular full-time job, just like water released from melted ice.  This reveals important patterns behind today’s celebrations: The crisis has shown that work and workers are more “fluid” and work won’t just refreeze into the old shape when the crisis abates.

Today’s Novelty:  Agile Workers Respond to the Crisis

There are justifiable celebrations about how quickly workers have adjusted to the realities of the crisis. The most prominent examples involve knowledge workers adjusting to remote work, but an even more interesting pattern can be seen among workers in manufacturing, retail and other on-site venues.

Ravin Jesuthasan, Tracy Malcolm and Susan Cantrell noted in Harvard Business Review that “Employees in apparel companies like Brooks Brothers and New Balance are now producing surgical masks and gowns, while Tesla, Ford, and General Motors have retooled their factories to produce ventilators from car parts after idling their automotive plants. … Bank of America is temporarily converting more than 3,000 employees from across their bank into positions intended to field an onslaught of calls.”

Deere & Co., the farm and construction equipment maker in Iowa, pivoted to making at least 225,000 face shields.  Maine-based company Flowfold, which ordinarily makes outdoor gear pivoted to producing face shields, which required new workflows, materials, and training, as well as getting product design ideas directly from frontline health care workers. A custom outdoor furniture cushion maker in North Texas transformed in less than a month to make over 1,000 gowns and 700 face shields per day, as a way to retain employees, who pivoted their sewing abilities to the new products.

General Motors (GM), JR Automation (A Hitachi Group Company) and Esys Automation created immediate capacity to manufacture face masks. The GM/Hitachi team designed an end-to-end production line, sourced and repurposed supplies, and transformed a GM cleanroom into a mask factory in only six days. Employees volunteered to transition from making automobiles to making masks, with GM filling 13 shifts (315 people) in less than two hours. “I sent out one email to the entire Southeast Michigan group of GM employees and everybody responded,” says Sean O’Sullivan, employee volunteer engagement officer, GM Corporate Giving. “A lot of our employees were looking to respond to COVID-19 in a positive way.”

Some organizations gained agility by tapping new sources of workers.  Stan Jewell, president and CEO of Renfro, Corp. a sock making company, pivoted to making one million face masks per week. “The hard part” was finding 550 temporary workers to assemble and package the masks in seven locations.  He solved it by attracting 16-20 year-olds not yet even in the labor market.  “What we really learned is that we’re much more agile than we thought …  How do we use those skill sets that we just figured out that we’re really good at and apply them in new ways?”

This newfound work agility also melts organization boundaries, as work and workers flow between organizations.  The Kroger supermarket company is temporarily borrowing furloughed employees for 30 days from Sysco corporation, a wholesale food distributor.  Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) program enabled two companies located 200 miles apart (Dimensional Group in Mason City, and Angstrom Precision Molding Inc. in Ottumwa) to collaborate in making 100,000 face shields per week.  Winnebago joined a coalition of manufacturers coordinated by a 3-D printer company to print visor parts for clear acrylic face masks.

Just as jobs are melting into more fluid tasks, job-holding workers are melting into more fluid skills and capabilities.

As a recent Harvard Business Review article  describes: “The Covid-19 crisis has forced businesses in industries previously impervious to remote working to reengineer their work processes and bolster their technology support systems, which have been the traditional barriers to alternative work arrangements.”  Job-sharing, better called work sharing, “with a dose of Federal aid” is touted by economists and both US Republican and Democratic policy makers as a way to avoid layoffs.  It uses State unemployment insurance to subsidize workers’ wages, so that they are kept on the payroll with reduced hours, instead of laid off.  All of the former full-time job holders share fewer jobs by working part-time.  That gives the workers flexibility to take time off if they are ill or to care for family members.  Yet it preserves their relationship with their company, so they are available when conditions improve.  The company has lower payroll costs. Detroit enrolled 1,700 of the city’s 9,000-member work force in such a work sharing program.

These justifiably celebrated and exciting examples reveal an important pattern where work that was previously held in stable jobs is now “melting” to something more fluid.  Workers, previously conceived as job holders are melting into more fluid talent ready to shift skills, apply non-job skills or move across boundaries between organizations.

Beyond the Novelty:  Fluid Work and Workers Will Not Refreeze As Before

Have we seen this before?  Some describe this as work becoming “gigs.”  There is much debate about the size of the “gig economy,” whether it grows with recessions only to recede when they end, and even whether it is all just hype.  Yet, perhaps something new is afoot.  NPR news noted that the pandemic has “suddenly transformed millions into virtual workers,” and that the Upwork freelance platform reports that two million Americans started freelancing between August 2019 and August 2020. A McKinsey Global Institute survey of 800 executives found that 70% expect to use more temporary and freelance workers for on-site work, post-crisis.

Yet, the term “gig work” is misleading, as it typically conjures up images of Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, when in fact the COVID-accelerated work changes are much broader.  The more fundamental reality is fluid work, supported by a growing array of alternative work options both inside and beyond a single employer.  Those alternative work options are increasingly supported by new work systems, like the arrangements that enable organizations to borrow talent from each other, or the calls to action that find and deploy workers who volunteer for new tasks, or the systems that allow managers to retrain manufacturing workers to pivot to PPE.

These benefits will not be forgotten post-crisis, now that workers, managers, and leaders have now experienced fluid work.  How can leaders, workers, HR professionals and policy makers tap the lessons of today, to prepare for the post-crisis reality of more fluid work?

Question #1:  What are the new and important lessons being learned and experienced now, due to the crisis?

Lesson #1:  Fluid work resides on “platforms,” both inside and outside the organization

The gig economy often rests on “platforms” that serve to find and match those who want to work with work assignments. That conjures up images of Uber, Lyft and TaskRabbit.  However, many other types of work now have such platforms.  G2, a software marketing website, provides a searchable listing and rating of freelance platforms including UpWork, offering a wide variety of capabilities, including engineers, software developers, marketing designers, consultants, project managers, writers, and college student interns. A 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that online talent platforms could increase global employment by 2.4 percent by 2025, and could help more than 230 million workers globally reduce their job search time, decreasing unemployment and introducing new opportunities.

Even before the pandemic, many organizations were experimenting with “internal talent marketplaces,” with work projects sometimes called “inside gigs.”  These are platforms available only to an organization’s regular employees, but that match melted jobs (tasks or projects) with melted job holders (skills and capabilities).

Unilever calls their platform FLEX Experiences: “By accessing the platform, Unilever employees can work on projects for a small or large proportion of time, increase the depth of their expertise of a current skill or build new skills and experiences. Through the power of AI, people are suggested opportunities that match their profile and aspirations, and at the same time, giving full visibility to all opportunities available globally across all areas of the business, ultimately democratising and giving transparency to the way the company develops talent.”

Cisco created a “gig economy for employees,” to open up more fluid careers, work arrangements and development:  “A Talent Marketplace, which allows individuals to find short term ‘stretch assignments,’ or longer term rotation assignments aligned to their interests. In essence, we’re creating an on-demand database within Cisco’s four walls.”

Lesson #2:  Fluid work rests on deconstruction and reinvention

COVID-19 revealed that optimizing remote and on-location work was seldom as simple as moving entire jobs on-site or off-site. Instead, some parts of a job were best done remotely (such as independent analysis or customer contact that was easily supported by in-home infrastructure), while other parts of a job were best done on-site (such as spontaneous collaboration or sensitive and nuanced customer relations).

My co-authors and I have argued in Beyond HR, Lead the Work and Reinventing Jobs, that solving the future of work requires “deconstructing” jobs and job-holders.  Jobs are seen as a sets of tasks, as a recent HBR article reinforces: “all knowledge-based work can be unpacked into a set of different tasks … To figure out the future of the gig economy for knowledge workers, therefore, we need to analyze things at the task rather than at the work level.”

Similarly, workers can be “deconstructed,” seen not simply as job holders, as repositories of existing and potential capabilities.  One example is skill-based work systems.  COVID revealed this when workers making auto parts or vodka can be provided with just the right few additional skills, and become makers of PPE and hand sanitizer.

The COVID crisis has accelerated this melting or “deconstruction” of work and workers, requiring a concept of work that moves beyond the traditional job.  Workers, managers and leaders will want to keep the agility that came with deconstruction and reinvention, but they will need new systems that go beyond traditional jobs.

Question #2:  Which of those lessons should sustain after the crisis?

Both lessons will be key to the future of work.  It will be important to get beyond a debate about whether the “gig economy” is growing slowly or quickly, what to call it and how to measure it.

These two lessons are vital, because the pandemic has made the agility from more fluid and platform-based work impossible to ignore.   Don’t let the crisis-accelerated work flexibility, unprecedented adaptation to remote work, heroic cross-company cooperation and job sharing hide the fundamental lesson that work and workers are far more fluid. Work is unlikely to refreeze into the old “jobs and “job holder” system.

Question #3:  Which sustainable lessons will be challenging, due to inertia, ignorance, or other factors that push to snap back to before … or worse?

Both lessons will also be challenging to sustain, due to the inertia of the typical system of jobs and job-holders.

Lesson #1:  Fluid work resides on “platforms,” inside and outside the organization.  This lesson is likely the easiest to sustain, but still with challenges.  It is increasingly easy for organizations to construct internal gigs, and as more platforms emerge to supply talent as freelancers, contractors, crowd sourcers, and gig workers.  Even pre-pandemic, there were many such providers, and more are being added. The challenge is to realize the extent of the COVID-accelerated evolution toward platform-compatible work.

Lesson #2:  Fluid work rests on deconstruction and reinvention.  Sustaining this lesson will take effort.  Virtually all HR systems operate by constructing jobs to hold work requirements and worker capabilities. The crisis presents a very real risk that as workers experience and desire more fluid work, traditional job-based systems will be unable to accommodate it.  It’s not that workers will demand platforms, but rather that the traditional system will chafe under the new demands for flexibility.

That means that organizations will need a need for frameworks to better understand, design predict and optimize fluid work.  Ravin Jesuthasan, David Creelman and I described one such three-element framework:  Assignment (task, project, job, etc.), the Organization (rigid or permeable boundary) and the Reward (traditional pay/benefits or more directly tied to task completion).  It is usually some sort of platform that organizes these elements.

Question #4: For the challenging lessons, what are the pivotal and essential actions to take now, while the crisis provides motivation, attention and awareness, to avoid missing the window for change?

HR and other leaders should not waste this moment to build on crisis-accelerated successes, and embed them into more fluid work systems.

More fluid work reframes HR and talent management toward “Work and Organization Engineering.”

Traditionally, the talent lifecycle is called an “employment” lifecycle, and seen as “job holders” entering, moving within, and moving out of a set of “jobs” within a single organization.  With more fluid work, the lifecycle still occurs, but not necessarily within a single organization, not necessarily through a series of jobs, and not necessarily only for job holders.  For example:

“Employment” planning is transformed to work and worker optimization, as COVID reveals work reinvention.

Attracting and selecting for fluid work requires seamlessly integrating multiple systems (procurement, contracting, recruiting, etc.) to attract workers for projects and tasks, as when organizations borrow or hire workers directly from other organizations, to meet the COVID challenges.

Development through fluid work means tracking learning from projects and gigs, non-traditional remote learning from both inside or outside of traditional learning management systems, and stackable credentials rather than formal degrees.  The crisis has revealed just how adaptable workers can be, and how varied are their sources of learning and development, and often how they are unequally available.

Rewards for fluid work means rethinking rewards arrayed against “jobs” arranged by hierarchy and market position, and instead rewarding for completed projects.  COVID accelerated the trend of remote workers choosing to move away from expensive regions.  Should their employers reduce their pay to adjust for lower costs of living, even when there are not typically such location adjustments for contractors engaged through freelance platforms?

From “Job Holder” to “Fluid Platform Worker”

The crisis has accelerated fluid work, which means thinking beyond jobs and job holders.  It’s increasingly true for regular full-time employees inside organizations, through internal “talent marketplaces” of projects and “inside gigs.” It’s true as more workers join freelance platforms, even those who have a regular job.  It’s true as companies build cross-organization arrangements to borrow and trade workers.  It’s true as policy-makers enhance incentives for work sharing to avoid layoffs.

The crisis has also revealed the need for nuanced solutions that build “good platforms” not just good “jobs.” In my next blog, I’ll describe some of the global efforts to define what it will take to create “good platforms.”


*   Deep thanks to Nora O. Hilton for her invaluable help with this article