The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

Some recent research from Indiana University suggests that, in the right circumstances, a stressful job is actually good for you. Assuming that you have a sufficient degree of control over your own work, and enough individual input on decision-making and problem-solving, you may actually live longer. In short, the future of work and the key to a healthy working life is both creativity and autonomy.

Time to re-think what the “dignity of labour” means? (Image sourced from Discogs)

Context

In a previous blog, I discussed the changing economic relationship we have with work, in which I re-framed what we mean by “employment”, what it means to be “employed”, and what the new era of work might look like, based on a world of “suppliers” (who offer their services as independent contractors) and “clients” (who expect access to just-in-time and on-demand resources).

The expanding “gig economy” reinforces the expectation that by 2020, average job tenure will be 3 years, and around 40% of the workforce will be employed on a casual basis (part-time, temporary, contractor, freelance, consultant etc.). The proliferation of two-sided market places such as Uber, Foodera, Freelancer, Upwork, Sidekicker, 99designs, Envato and Fiverr are evidence of this shift from employee to supplier.

We are also seeing a trend for hiring platforms that connect teams of technical and business skills with specific project requirements posted by hiring companies. Many businesses understand the value of people pursuing and managing “portfolio careers”, because companies may prefer to access this just-in-time expertise as and when they need it, not take on permanent overheads. But there are still challenges around access and “discovery”: who’s available, which projects, defining roles, agreeing a price etc.

Contribution

Meanwhile, employers and HR managers are re-assessing how to re-evaluate employee contribution. It’s not simply a matter of how “hard” you work (e.g., the hours you put in, or the sales you make). Companies want to know what else you can do for them: how you collaborate, do you know how to ask for help, and are you willing to bring all your experience, as well as who and what you know to the role? (As a case in point, when Etsy’s COO, Linda Kozlowski was recently asked about her own hiring criteria, she emphasized the importance of critical thinking, and the ability for new hires to turn analysis into actionable solutions.)

In another blog on purpose, I noted that finding meaningful work all boils down to connecting with our values and interests, and finding a balance between what motivates us, what rewards us, what we can contribute, and what people want from us. As I wrote at the time, how do we manage our career path, when our purpose and our needs will change over time? In short, the future of work will be about creating our own career opportunities, in line with our values, purpose and requirements.*

Compensation

From an economic and social policy perspective, no debate about the future of work can ignore the dual paradoxes:

  1. We will need to have longer careers (as life expectancy increases), but there will be fewer “traditional” jobs to go round;
  2. A mismatch between workforce supply and in-demand skills (plus growing automation) will erode “traditional” wage structures in the jobs that do remain

Politicians, economists and academics have to devise strategies and theories that support social stability based on aspirational employment targets, while recognising the shifting market conditions and the changing technological environment. And, of course, for trade unions, more freelance/independent workers and cheaper hourly rates undermine their own business model of an organised membership, centralised industrial awards, enterprise bargaining and the residual threat of industrial action when protective/restrictive practices may be under threat.

Which is why there needs to be a more serious debate about ideas such as the Universal Basic Income, and grants to help people to start their own business. On the Universal Basic Income (UBI), I was struck by a recent interview with everyone’s favourite polymath, Brian Eno. He supports the UBI because:

“…we’re now looking towards a future where there will be less and less employment, inevitably automation is going to make it so there simply aren’t jobs. But that’s alright as long as we accept the productivity that the automations are producing feeds back to people ….. [The] universal basic income, which is basically saying we pay people to be alive – it makes perfect sense to me.”

If you think that intellectuals like Eno are “part of the problem“, then union leaders like Tim Ayres (who advocates the “start-up grant”), actually have more in common with Margaret Thatcher than perhaps they realise. It was Thatcher’s government that came up with the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme which, despite its flaws, can be credited with launching the careers of many successful entrepreneurs in the 1980s. Such schemes can also help the workforce transition from employment in “old” heavy industries to opportunities in the growing service sectors and the emerging, technology-driven enterprises of today.

Creativity

I am increasingly of the opinion that, whatever our chosen or preferred career path, it is essential to engage with our creative outlets: in part to provide a counterbalance to work/financial/external demands and obligations; in part to explore alternative ideas, find linkages between our other interests, and to connect with new and emerging technology.

In discussing his support for the UBI, Eno points to our need for creativity:

“For instance, in prisons, if you give people the chance to actually make something …. you say to them ‘make a picture, try it out, do whatever’ – and the thrill that somebody gets to find that they can actually do something autonomously, not do something that somebody else told them to do, well, in the future we’re all going to be able to need those kind of skills. Apart from the fact that simply rehearsing yourself in creativity is a good idea, remaining creative and being able to go to a situation where you’re not told what to do and to find out how to deal with it, this should be the basic human skill that we are educating people towards and what we’re doing is constantly stopping them from learning.”

I’ve written recently about the importance of the maker culture, and previously commented on the value of the arts and the contribution that they make to society. There is a lot of data on the economic benefits of both the arts and the creative industries, and their contribution to GDP. Some commentators have even argued that art and culture contribute more to the economy than jobs and growth.

Even a robust economy such as Singapore recognises the need to teach children greater creativity through the ability to process information, not simply regurgitate facts. It’s not because we might need more artists (although that may not be a bad thing!), but because of the need for both critical AND creative thinking to complement the demand for new technical skills – to prepare students for the new world of work, to foster innovation, to engage with careers in science and technology and to be more resilient and adaptive to a changing job market.

Conclusions

As part of this ongoing topic, some of the questions that I hope to explore in coming months include:

1. In the debate on the “Future of Work”, is it still relevant to track “employment” only in statistical terms (jobs created/lost, unemployment rates, number of hours worked, etc.)?

2. Is “job” itself an antiquated economic unit of measure (based on a 9-5, 5-day working week, hierarchical and centralised organisational models, and highly directed work practices and structures)?

3. How do we re-define “work” that is not restricted to an industrial-era definition of the “employer-employee/master-servant” relationship?

4. What do we need to do to ensure that our education system is directed towards broader outcomes (rather than paper-based qualifications in pursuit of a job) that empower students to be more resilient and more adaptive, to help them make informed decisions about their career choices, to help them navigate lifelong learning pathways, and to help them find their own purpose?

5. Do we need new ways to evaluate and reward “work” contribution that reflect economic, scientific, societal, environmental, community, research, policy, cultural, technical, artistic, academic, etc. outcomes?

* Acknowledgment: Some of the ideas in this blog were canvassed during an on-line workshop I facilitated last year on behalf of Re-Imagi, titled “How do we find Purpose in Work?”. For further information on how you can access these and other ideas, please contact me at: rory@re-imagi.co

Next week: Designing The Future Workplace

The latest installment of Startup Victoria #pitch night

The numbers were out in force for the August edition of Startup Victoria‘s monthly pitch night. A full house (no doubt helped by a new beverage sponsor…) heard from another batch of startup hopefuls, operating in very different sectors: medtech, recruitment, food logistics and domestic services. Despite some AV issues, this event showcased some interesting businesses, all of them demonstrating some impressive early stage traction.

In order of appearance, the night’s pitches came from:

VideoMyJob

Launched in April 2016, this online tool allows recruiters and hiring managers to film, edit and share their job ads. The business already boasts more than 60 clients (some of them very high-profile), with the data suggesting an 82% higher success rate in hiring outcomes. This performance is largely attributed to the simple fact that candidates spend up to 4 minutes watching a video ad, rather than the average 12 seconds candidates spend reading a text-based ad before they submit an application.

The tool, which runs on a mobile device, includes a tele-prompt feature, in-app editing functions, a one-step process to publish to social, plus e-mail. Customer pricing is based on a $79 monthly subscription to place unlimited video ads. One reported benefit for clients is much stronger candidate short lists.

Given the changing dynamics in the recruitment market, where companies are finding themselves competing for talent and striving to become employers of choice, any new hiring solution has the potential to be a game-changer. Which is what the founders are probably banking on as their exit strategy, with a likely trade sale to a complementary recruitment platform.

PredictBGL

This medtech startup (previously known as ManageBGL) offers an app-based solution to help diabetes patients manage, monitor and predict their blood glucose levels. Despite regular patient testing, according to the founders, 80% of the data is actually ignored.

Able to offer more “real-time” testing, the app claims to fix wrong insulin doses within 3 hours (not the usual 14 days with traditional clinic-based testing), offers more precision dosing, and predicts patient levels up to 8 hours ahead.

It also has the option to incorporate live exercise data (from wearables), and serve patients who can’t afford expensive insulin pumps. As well as paying a monthly subscription, patients are also paying for insights based on the data. With a $10 per month fee, over 80% customer retention rates, and around 600 sign-ups per month, the app is breaking into the US market.

Asked about potential risk factors and the margin for error in patient testing, the founders explained that the user results are somewhat conservative, so they are embarking on clinical trials to refine the analytics.

Jarvis

Billed as “your very own personal butler”, Jarvis is one of a number personal concierge services, catering to the time-poor, inner-city residents who want to outsource domestic chores and errands.

From $33 per week (and an average of $55), Jarvis differentiates itself by offering a more personal touch, because the business hires and trains employees, rather than using freelancers or contractors.

Launched in January 2016, Jarvis is experiencing 20% growth per week, 90% customer retention, high referral rates and generating 10-15% margins. The founders are working on their logistical efficiency – routing, grouping – and deploying scalable technology – such as cluster algorithms. Pat of the attraction for clients is the fact that Jarvis does not see itself as a transactional service like some freelance and task-based apps and platforms.

The panel of judges asked about the risk of being disintermediated (by their own employees going direct to client). Jarvis claims that their key defense is the proprietary Butler app for employees.

Pantreeco

Last up was Pantreeco, which was established in 2014, with the goal of building “productive partnerships in food” by streamlining the logistics and supply chain communications between food suppliers and buyers.

A self-styled “co-commerce” solution, Pantreeco includes a messaging tool between producers, wholesalers, distributors, restaurants, cafes, grocers and providores.

Offering a freemium SaaS model (based on a per customer per channel basis plus commission), Pantreeco is in the process of taking its model to overseas markets via some major international expansion.

Asked by the judges about the competition, such as TradeGecko and Unleashed, the founders stress that they are not simply an e-commerce or inventory management solution. Instead, Pantreeco developing a range of integration services in response to customer demand – e.g., invoicing, accounting, communications as well as inventory management with 3rd party platforms such as Xero, ZenDesk and SalesForce. They also have plans to on-board major enterprise clients in the food and beverage industry.

Based on the audience voting, Pantreeco took out the honours on the night.

Next week: When robots say “Humans do not compute…”

Another #pitch night in Melbourne…

If there is one basic theme emerging from Startup Victoria‘s monthly pitch nights, it is this: whatever market you are in, regardless of your business model, and however disruptive you are trying to be, if you don’t know how to engage or reach your customers your idea is far less likely to succeed. This message came across loud and clear during last week’s event where four startup hopefuls pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges in front of a packed audience.

Picture sourced from Startup Victoria Meetup page

Picture sourced from Startup Victoria Meetup page

So let’s look at this specific issue in respect to each of the pitches:

First came JobPokes, an online recruitment service designed to help candidates match job opportunities to their career preferences. Because it claims to be addressing the hidden job market, candidates aren’t applying for specific roles – instead, it’s a form of reverse enquiry, where recruiters target potential applicants via their registered profiles. I applaud the focus on the non-advertised job market, but while it may well offer an additional channel for recruiters, I’m not sure there was a clear strategy to reach job candidates who need to create a user account, and who are probably already using platforms like LinkedIn and Seek.

Next was Airly, which is sort of “Uber for private aircraft”. The business model involves signing up a minimum number of customers (who pay a monthly subscription fee, entitling them to unlimited flights), and securing sufficient seat capacity via scheduled charter contracts. There is no doubt that the idea of flight flexibility, and an element of passenger exclusivity met with audience approval (Airly took out the people’s choice vote on the night). Also, the PR around Airly has generated in-bound enquiries, suggesting there is demand. But how does this market interest convert to individual customers, when many corporate travel policies rely on wholesale and bulk-purchase models (i.e., aggregation, consolidation, vendor discounts, agency rebates, preferred airlines) rather than catering for individual travel needs or preferences? Unless the target customers are business travelers that manage and pay for their own tickets?

If Airly was about the Uberisation of air travel, RagRaider revealed another aspect of the shared economy model. Squarely aimed at fashion- and budget-conscious women, RagRaider offers a peer-to-peer service whereby customers can hire clothes for one-time use. No doubt there is a market (high school formal, spring carnival, wedding reception…) but the question is how to connect with actual lenders and hirers? We know that the per customer cost of acquisition for 2-sided markets is a key metric, and it wasn’t clear how the founders were addressing this, other than a pre-launch website and some social media. As one observer has commented, the “model is focusing on the ‘product’ part first which is the reverse of how it should be”, and another commented that despite a defined market, the barriers to entry are considerable. The judges also questioned some of the proposed pricing, commission rates and logistics.

Finally, Rounded is another FinTech startup looking to service the SME sector, specifically sole traders, freelancers, sub-contractors and tradies. Another spin on the invoice solution when suppliers need to get paid efficiently, Rounded does not claim to be a full-service accounting software – but, as one attendee commented, key to success will be reaching and educating the end-user market.  Also, they are entering a competitive space, where a new entrant like Xero has already disrupted incumbents like QuickBooks, Reckon and MYOB. I wasn’t able to stay for the pitch, but I did have the opportunity to speak with the founders beforehand. Clearly driven by their own experience and needs, there is a solid but simple idea here – but as Xero and others are increasingly able to serve similar customers, Rounded will find it really difficult to compete.

If anything, these latest pitches showed how hard it is to compare apples with oranges, although the voting criteria (market traction, product viability, team composition, pitch presentation, and responses to judges’ questions) are designed to deliver a consistent evaluation. It was also apparent that these pitches divided audience opinion more so than previous contestants – which is probably a good thing as variety is the spice of life….

Acknowledgments: thanks to Graphican, Marlene M., Cornell and Dale G. for their input.

Next week: Re-Imagining Human-led #Innovation