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the changing currency of work

A while ago I got an essay that a friend wrote in his business school course. In his fifites, it was a very autobiographical piece, dealing with his role in a large company with frentic changes. He was wondering: what am I doing? is it worth it?

I heard those questions quiet a bit recently. People seem a bit disillusioned at handling Excel and PowerPoint all day in order to excel in the company and powerup their career. It seems like the currency of what people look for is changing a bit. Big companies used to offer stability, variety, safety and options. With that comes a hefty dose of politics, reporting, inefficiencys, nonsense. Companies themselves seem to cancel some of the very reasons people work there: safety doesn’t hold anymore (jobs going east, struggling for survival) and stability is a joke (who has the same manager for more than a year these days?). Along with long hourse and a frustrating limited scope of what you actually can do, it is fair to ask: is it worth it? The new currency seems to be time and flexibilty. There are a number of books and articles taking up this thought.

Tim Ferriss – to live like a millionaire, you don’t need a lot of money

Tim‘s book The Four-Hour Workweek beats the drum to escape 9-5 and fulfill your dreams. His assumption is that a lot of work is unnecessary, that it could be managed much better and that you can do a lot with little money. (Actually, the hard part is knowing what to do if you are not caught up in seemingly important work projects.) He calls for a liberation from the constraints of the office. If you are not at your desk, you can be more effective, or outsource your job altogether. That boots your options in time and location.

Daniel Pink – free agent nation

Free Agent Nation was published 10 years ago – at the dawn of the bubble. Some statements sound very pre-bubblish, but the trend has being going for a while: why invest in a stale corporate environment when you have the smarts to be more flexible and work on what you want? “In free agency,” the beat of the free agents goes “people assume their own shape rather than fit the shape of some corporate box.”

Holm Friebe – digital bohemia

A German book (“wir nennen es Arbeit“) that shoots against fixed employement in favor of a digital lifestyle of small collaborative teams on the move. Sounds a bit Jack Kerouck-ish. Young people need their ideals and rebellion. But it does indicate a bigger point: why not be with the work I like at the time I like at the place I like?

The answer might be the paycheck. As any free agent finds that is not in demand – it kind of sucks to be out of money and options. Probably a lot of people who ventured off into the dreamland of doing their own thing came back to the comfort of a big corporation with company car, health insurance and days off for vacation.

I still think the trend is the quest for something more. Especially talented people are aware that the company needs them more than they need the company. With the limited budgets in the Western countries, you can’t forever raise the income of your stars (and btw: the middle 80% is what make the business tick). So what can companies do? What can HR offer? I think it would be worth a try to offer the benefits of a free-agent-lifestyle (like free location, free times) with the benefits of a corporation (paycheck, insurance, vacation). Focus on outputs and leave it up to the semi-free people to figure out how they get the work done. Sure, communication might be an issue, but is it not anyways? Which company does really have a no-waste meeting culture? Where can you really focus and get quality work done between 9 and 5?

Maybe it would be the brave new world of collaboration. In The Compensation Handbook by Berger & Berger they highligh a number of trends that affect compensation and fit within this vein: people are more open to risk and seek self-employment; people choose jobs to support personal development opportunities and to support their personal lifestyles; the invisible paycheck becomes more important than the visible; the global workforce move closer and collaborates. Maybe it’s time for HR to think through this.

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Filed under: career, HR

One Response

  1. […] and heard the target group of Google’s products. They call it the self-directed innovator – the new class of workers that transformed out of the Knowledge Worker of the 1980s and the Office Worker of the 1950s. Some […]

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