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Thoughts about the great workforce transformation

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First, some set-up:

In a free society, three forces offset each other to maintain a balance: Government, business, and community.*

Government and business are self-defining. Community encompasses everything from religious and charitable organizations, to organizations promoting social justice such as the NAACP and National LQBTQ Task Force, to those trying to prevent social justice – the Proud Boys and their ilk qualify – to, at the opposite extreme of size and organization, bowling leagues and backyard barbecues.

Depending on how you count, the modern labor movement began during the industrial age with the formation of the American Federation of Labor in 1886, adding labor as a fourth balancer by provided protections and influence, both contractual and political, to workers whose roles up until then had made them, from management’s perspective, fungible, and therefor powerless.

To wrap up this stage-setting: Not all that long ago, during the early stages of the information age (also depending how you count) the workforce could be subdivided into people who wanted jobs and those who wanted careers.

The plan for those who wanted jobs was to exchange time and effort for money. As an incidental benefit it provided a community for employees who wanted to socialize.

The plan for those who wanted careers, whether as professionals or as managers, was to gain a sense of identity: from their affiliation with their employer; from the role they played as part of that affiliation; and on top of that from pride of accomplishment in exchange for their time and effort. Providing a community – the teams career-minded employees worked in – was arguably more of a benefit for these employees than for those who only wanted jobs.

When the business was doing well, leaders and managers generally preferred career-minded individuals, because their career-mindedness gave their manager more tools to motivate them with. During downturns, though, the fungibility of job-oriented workers made them easier to lay off, and to be re-hired if and when profitability returned.

And here we are, in the nascent digital age, where these workplace trends will, and in some places already are shifting the balance from leadership to management as vital skills for running an organization:

  • Remote employees: An increasing proportion of employee (or contractor) responsibilities can be fulfilled from anywhere.
  • One-dimensional management/employee relationships: Remoteness results in an increase in management by metrics, where employee effectiveness is gauged mostly or solely by how many work products the employee creates in a period of time, and their quality.
  • One-dimensional employee/employee relationships: Trust and alignment, the hallmarks of effective teams, is becoming optional, as work is reduced to a series of narrowly defined assignments.
  • Sense of identity from sources beyond employment: Self-definition means how people think of themselves. “I’m a lawyer,” “I’m a physician,” “I’m a programmer,” are all examples of people defining who and what they are based on what they do to make a living. My sense, and I have only anecdotal data to support it, is that other factors, driven, I think, by remoteness and its consequences, are starting to edge out job titles as sources of self-definition.
  • The diminution of “career” as a motivator: To the extent self-definition is no longer built around what someone does to make a living, management no longer has helping employees grow in their careers as a source of motivation and loyalty.

Bob’s last word: Quite a lot has been published about the importance of employee engagement in recent years (for example, here). I wonder, though, given the social forces that appear to be in play, if pursuing employee engagement might not be an example of “fighting the last war” – of engaging in strategies and tactics that made sense in the past but won’t fit the situation that’s emerging.

So if you’re in graduate school and in search of a thesis topic that’s more than just the same-old same old, I’d encourage you to try designing the optimal employer/employee relationship of the future.

Bob’s sales pitch: I’m often asked how a reader can support KJR. The answer isn’t complicated: If you need consulting assistance in line with what I write here, please don’t be shy.

And on a smaller scale there are the Three Rs: Read, recommend, and review my books.

For your convenience, here’s where you can find them.


* Not original, but I couldn’t track down a source.

Comments (10)

  • Given the remote worker situation we see the near impossibility of career people being at all satisfied. The interactions via Zoom are minimal reducing the chances for growth. Some jobs can be performed and perhaps metrics developed but creativity becomes stilted. Worse training within the organization also gets more difficult. Trust in the organization between management and employees must suffer to a degree. I’m not sure this way of work can be sustained. Innovation already seems to be declining which speaks to demise of organizations building on success.

  • Bob,

    from your limited tunnel vision view in some box somewhere I can see how you think those 3 factors are what matters.

    Like some Shakespeare actor said: There are more things in Heaven and earth, Bob than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    I merely note that your view is why there is no balance, and senile Joe ‘the big man’ Biden was given the opportunity to finish destroying the USA.

    Fortunately for us the wicked witch of the west AKA bride of Chuckie is ensuring that congress will not make things even worse.

    Clearly the GrumpyOldPervert party will sweep the next several rounds of elections. But will they ever have anybody that is any better? Their track record says no.

    No matter how much you hold your nose one of those two parties will do stupid bad things. The chance of a patriot that put America first happening again is fat slim and none.

    Like Joseph Cannon, speaker of the house long ago said: There is not a dimes worth of difference between the two parties; they are two sides of one coin.

    Maybe if you and they had a better model that did not omit the important entity we would be able to do better.

    Armageddon is coming soon thanks to baby bush who put the usa into the death spiral.
    So does it really matter what business folks do now with respect to employees and their ‘engagement’ ?

  • “…if pursuing employee engagement might not be an example of ‘fighting the last war'”

    Not “fighting the last war” so much. More of demarcation of “this is the type of organization we are going to be.”

    Example: The fast food drive-thru.

    Most fast food companies use tools and technology to create as much distance between the customer and employee as possible. To the point that some companies experimented with offshoring the interaction at the ordering intercom. Usually one, or two people run the drive-thru.

    Chick Fil-A took a different approach. They use technology to have the most personal, human, face-to-face interaction possible. Oh, and fast. Typically, there are between five and eight people outside. And four or five at the window [door].

    My point with this is the process takes commitment. Lots of people. Few people. I am not sure there is a lot of room for in-between.

    Companies that believe employee engagement is a strategic advantage will have to commit. People will have to show up in the office. Compensation has to be sufficient to live near, or travel to the site (senior executives have been doing this before “remote workforce” was a buzzword). “Employee Engagement” will be a critical action verb.

    Companies that do not consider employee engagement a strategic item will move to a “deliverables” model. Fairly straightforward. If it is work that can be done anywhere, then their people can live anywhere (an aside: this will drive down wages…be careful what you wish for).

    The companies that will struggle are the ones that demand employee engagement from a performance-only workforce. This leads to all kinds of creepy tools and techniques. “Always-on” cameras. Keystroke counters. Keystroke loggers. Proximity sensors. Not “company computers have the capacity to do this.” It will be “managers are deliberately doing this. These companies will only get the people who are unable to fit in with “engagement” or “production” companies.

    • “The companies that will struggle are the ones that demand employee engagement from a performance-only workforce.” This is particularly well said. I might end up plagiarizing it as the mists of time slowly obscure the source of the insight!

      • Steal away!

        Twenty years from now, in a dingy rundown bar, MBA students will come over to my table and buy me a drink, so I can tell them [once again] how Bob Lewis made millions off my quote…

      • What will really happen: Twenty years from now, in a dingy rundown bar, MBA students will join both of us as we grouse about how Gartner “borrowed” the idea from both of us.

  • Living one’s life is a management/optimization problem, right? Not too different from managing a business.

    Because thought is a scarce resource, we try to focus what power we have on important problems. That starts with getting enough to eat and goes on from there. Wisdom often involves the discipline to focus on long-term problems that are less obvious but more important than immediate problems carrying more flash.

    History is cultural change followed by response to that change, such as:
    1. Info tech gives a lot of power to those that can exploit it to grab peoples’ attention.
    2. Boring Things like pandemic preparedness, disease risk management, and democracy lose attention relatively, eventually leading to a disaster.
    3. At least some people re-assess their life-optimization in response to the disaster.

    It seems that many people are in the process now of re-assessing their objectives, a first step in re-optimization. Historically this is a typical response to a pandemic or other disaster with no ready scapegoat. Do I really want this job? Does life offer nothing more than this?

    May I insert a plug which supports this thesis? A book my sister wrote: Irma’s Passport https://IrmasPassport.com.

  • Bob:

    I love your articles and look forward to them every week. You are so good at putting into clear, concise words what I feel and believe, but am often unable to articulate.

    I have a question about this week’s article. In what way does remoteness result in an increase in management by metrics? How was employee effectiveness gauged differently prior to the shift to remote work?

    Thanks for sharing your invaluable insights!

    Becky Torrisi
    School of Medicine and Public Health
    Shared Services IT

    • Becky … thanks for the compliments. Always in good taste. As for your very good question:

      In a traditional organization, employees engage in a lot of informal conversations that help them understand who knows what, who is motivated by what, what different people care about and find convincing, and so on. Employees are, to choose an adjective, connected.

      That connectedness helps them solve real-world problems more quickly, to develop innovative solutions to problems that haven’t yet even been recognized, and … most important … to be real people to each other, building the trust needed for effective teamwork before the teamwork is needed.

      Managers are in a position to recognize which employees are doing all of this, and in fact acknowledging the importance of “social competence” (I refuse to call it “emotional intelligence!) is often an explicit aspect of performance evaluation.

      Remote employees, in contrast, are mostly responsible solely for completing tasks assigned to them. Only what is tangibly measurable ends up mattering. Hence, management by metrics.

      Short version: Evaluating the performance of on-premises employees includes a lot of intangibles. Evaluating remote employee performance, at least as currently practiced, generally doesn’t, and in fact I haven’t yet seen much in the way of management advice that provides guidelines for doing so.

      Hope this helps.

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