Technology is helping us collaborate like never before, but could it also be pushing us further and further away from our colleagues?
While scrolling through The Economist recently I stumbled on a piece in The World If section that explored the Gig Economy and what work might look like in the year 2030. In the piece, titled Run, TaskRabbit, Run, The Economist takes our current conception of the Gig Economy and pushes it to its limit; a world in which everyone, bar a handful of C-level executives, works as a contractor.
Everything is outsourced: doctors, chefs, sales assistants, social workers. In a world where the Gig Economy reigns supreme and networking platforms, such as LinkedIn, have mastered the art of corporate matchmaking, the idea of dedicating oneself to a single firm is considered antiquated and unproductive. Lean business models and efficiency are the only objectives, an agile and immediately scalable workforce the dominant human resources strategy.
While there are many benefits to the Gig Economy – it helps provide work to those that are unemployed or in between jobs, it provides opportunities for low skilled workers to make a living performing task-oriented work, it cuts operational costs and encourages new business and investment – there are also areas of concern that all of us need to start thinking about and discussing before it’s too late.
Work for work’s sake
The two key benefits The Economist’s article highlights in regards to the Gig Economy that stood out to me were: firms being able to get exactly the right person for the job, and employees – or more appropriately, contractors – being able to sell their skills to the highest bidder.
Two problems jump out immediately with these benefits. First, we humans don't simply work to work, we also work to belong and to socialise. Part of the joy of working is that you get to spend your working week with likeminded individuals that over time become trusted colleagues and friends. How many times have you needed to talk through a project with a colleague that you trusted so you could get your head around it? Or simply needed someone who knew and understood the same people and environment you were working in so you could let off a little steam? An office is a place where people go to do work – yes, of course, it is – but it’s also the place where most adults have an opportunity to interact with other adults that aren’t their family members.
Our colleagues are the people we celebrate victories with after bringing in a big client, the people we go to after work drinks and Christmas parties with; they're the people we go that extra mile for because we've invested in a working friendship and don't want to let them down, both personally and professionally.
Could you imagine what work would be like if every one of your colleagues was a contractor? Someone who knew they would only be there for a few days, weeks or months? Would you be as invested, motivated and determined? There would obviously be some motivation because you would only ever be as good as the last job you did, but would most of us feel fulfilled with this arrangement?
Consider too, the fact that collaborative technology is making offices less and less relevant. It's perfectly conceivable that there could be whole groups of workers (designers, content writers, lawyers, etc.) that never leave their home to go to work. Everything from taking briefings to delivering presentations could be done from the laptop in their study. Think of how small our physical world would become if working in isolation, from home, was how most professionals ‘went to work’. Sure, we could get access to shared workspaces, but again, we would be sitting in a room full of strangers. How sustainable is it to work out of a Starbucks?
As we grow older our social circle becomes smaller, a Gig Economy that eventually turns us all into temporary workers would surely diminish it even further.
The second problem is personal and professional development. Failure is the secret ingredient of success, without it we cannot learn, discover, recalibrate or move forward. In a world where everyone is replaceable and a firm's investment in you is contingent on you getting it right 100 per cent of the time, how are we supposed to improve ourselves personally and professionally? If your contract could be terminated at a moment’s notice and LinkedIn could find another you in 24-hours, would line-managers care to provide employees with feedback, or put them on a development path? I highly doubt it.
So much of our career development is done through observing those above us that we admire and reproducing those traits that we like. Similarly, those above us are able to recognise something in us which we ourselves didn’t know was there and guide us into new territory. Think how stagnant and repetitive our careers would be if we never had the opportunity to take on new challenges or work on projects that stretched our existing skills set or taught us new ones? Long-term investment in contractors would be a risk far too great for any firm to take. How could anyone ever improve their craft if they’re never allowed to give something new a go?
Our own ability to take risks in our careers would diminish too. In order to improve our chances of remaining employable, we would be forced to perfect a small set of very specific skills and forgo adding any new ones for fear we might not excel at them. The tasks we could perform efficiently would have to become narrower so that our level of expertise could become deeper. The pressure for those finishing high school and college to pick the right career from the get-go would be incredibly high. The prospects of reinventing yourself and undergoing a career change would be greatly diminished. Sick leave, parental leave and holidays would also be severely impacted; in a world where all of us are contractors, firms would need to commit more than they'd likely be willing to in order to offer paid leave to new parents or those that are ill.
Using technology to increase flexibility not restrict it
At Advantage, we're passionate about collaborative and productive technology and we understand how essential it is to businesses finding success. However, we don't place technology above people, instead, we treat the relationship between the two as a partnership.
Collaborative technology – such as Microsoft SharePoint, OneDrive and Teams – can and should be used to add value to employees' lives, as well as drive profits and long-term growth for firms. However, rather than being a tool that separates us, we need to guide the use of this technology and make sure it's bringing us closer together, not pushing us apart.
Before we join the rat-race and start finding competitive advantage wherever we can get it, we should look at our organisations and our employees and remind ourselves of what is special and unique about our business. More often than not, I think we'll find it’s just as much the people as the equipment used that make our organisations stand out.
Words by Camilo Lascano Tribin
To find out how Advantage can help your business unlock the power of collaborative technology speak to us today.
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