The changing workscape: Clawing your way to a “career”

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It’s never permanent – and would you want it to be? Recently I had a conversation with someone who had been a die-hard loyalist to a company, going so far as to say that he “would have died” for the company, and he was devastated when he got laid off. My response was that my own feeling about companies is that it’s a “two-way street of disposability”.

Much like the trend of offering “every man for himself” “hot desks” in workplaces (a step beyond the open landscape office we all hate so much), jobs themselves are becoming a bit like hot desks. We are doing one thing (sitting somewhere) and the next thing we know we are on an entirely different career path (or desk). No rhyme or reason behind it – but the changing organization or – some factor (who knows what?) – means that a lot of people get in line for one career and end up with something else without having had much say in it. All this just to point out that sometimes we find ourselves cobbling together or clawing our way to a career. And the bottom line – nothing is ever permanent.

In fact, at least in American workplaces, the prospect of a “career job” has never been less likely. At the core of this article, the CEO of online recruiting site, Jobvite, Dan Finnigan, explains that today’s workforce will be made up of people whose careers comprise up to 20 jobs, and will require a lot of shifting and changing jobs. In an environment of economic uncertainty in particular, “…employment—even for well-educated and -trained professionals—is never a sure thing.” The essence of the article – and of career building in general – is that we, in some ways, end up being our own architects. Sometimes driving the process, sometimes clawing our way in or up. Either way, as the article states, employed people never feel secure, and even if they are happy with their current situations, they actively search for the next job or next connection that might lead to a job.

A side note: Of course cultivating all these connections can also lead to the ultimate in cobbled-together careers: freelancing/running your own business. It can be satisfying to pick and choose what work you do and want companies and industries to work for (if you have that luxury), but not everyone wants to or can do this.

But along the same lines, the job market being what it is – with everyone on the hunt all the time – are perceptions changing about what constitutes a career and how to get there? Are our frames about “working” changing at all? A recent article I stumbled across on LinkedIn covered how most people synthesize information, which then creates certain “frames” that frame or govern the way things are or how we think they are supposed to be. The article takes the frames theme a step further by questioning the frames we commonly have for how we perceive work and the search for meaningful careers.

“We have frames that we’ve been building since we were children, and those frames dictate how life is supposed to go.

The collection of frames itself becomes our religion. We don’t question our frames. We’re very comfortable with them, because we grew up with them. We don’t even see them. It’s the examination of those frames, questioning them and pulling them apart, that makes up much of our activity and our worldview at Human Workplace.

One of the biggest job-search frames most of carry around is the frame “You’re lucky to get a job at all. Who are you to be choosy?”

Another one is the frame “The employer is always in the driver’s seat.”

This is a good and relevant question given the landscape of free-market, gun-for-hire workers: Who are you to be choosy? But shouldn’t one be choosy? We are choosy about everything else – so how is it our frame when it comes to work has been built using limitation-inducing barriers?

The Changing Workscape: Working the Flexible Way

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Study after study, survey after survey, all the research shows that professional workers are willing to forgo a lot, particularly in terms of pay/compensation, in exchange for a flexible work situation.

Many companies offer flexible work arrangements – however slowly (and it is slow, almost imperceptible, according to the Families and Work Institute’s (FWI) 2012 National Study of Employers Report, which states that less than three percent of salaried employees work mainly from home while 90 percent of job seekers state that “flexibility” is one of the most important factors in their search), the trend is moving in that direction. This is not true across the board, of course, and probably depends quite a lot on the company, the particular job and all kinds of internal factors. Many companies allow employees to negotiate flexible hours or work-at-home days, particularly once they have worked in a company for long enough to prove their worth and responsibility. I have seen this work in my favour in most of my professional situations, especially working in Scandinavia. FWI data may support the idea that the job market and its employers are not bending over backwards to offer flexible options to employees, but I’d argue that – so far – it is simply not something that has been accepted en masse or as de rigueur. Flexible arrangements are often negotiated today on an individual level – but eventually we will hopefully see companies begin to embrace the demand for flexibility – the talent out there is hungry for it.

A Today.com article cites a 2012 Mom Corps survey that explains that almost half of working adults would choose a lower salary/pay cut in order to gain more flexibility. Just over 50 percent went so far as to state that they would consider starting their own businesses to facilitate the kind of freedom and flexibility they value.

Over on the Officevibe website, there’s an article discussing the top ten reasons why a company’s employee engagement program will fail – high atop the list is the “lack of focus on intrinsic motivation”. This aligns with the idea that employees are motivated from within by factors that are often much more complex – and possibly easier to work with – than money. Virtually every study or article will highlight that monetary compensation is important – but it is not what gets most professional and creative people out of bed in the morning. (Needless to say this article has a lot of good points about what hinders employee engagement.)

The findings are further echoed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and its study in 2012, as reported, for example, in the Financial Times and The American Interest blog: flexible work arrangements were the number one employee priority.

And while it’s clear that employees are asking for flexwork and would benefit from it, there is also a very clear business case for it – employee happiness and satisfaction leading to employee retention, higher productivity and being able to choose and keep the cream of the crop in terms of employee talent. A 2012 Forbes article champions these same employee morale-building-and-boosting principles but points out that allowing for flexibility is not technically a benefit the company offers to employees because it actually costs no money and can end up saving the company money – directly and indirectly.

With surveys, data and studies that go back for years showing both the tangible benefits and the demand for flexwork, I struggle still to understand why adoption has been so slow in the real world.