Employers slow to respond as workers ditch traditional careers

Feb 24 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Despite a growing number of us rejecting traditional careers in favour of becoming free agents, employers are being far too slow in giving their managers the freedom to employ people in new and agile ways.

According to research from the Career Innovation (Ci) Group, a think tank supported by leading international employers including Boeing, BT, Marriott and global charity Oxfam, this inability to embrace new idea means that employers will see some of their most valuable workers heading for the door.

"Employers are restricted by traditional mindsets, budgeting methods and a fixation with 'headcount,'" said Jonathan Winter, director of the Ci Group.

"But it's not just employers who need to change. Our research found that frustrated workers lack the skills to negotiate imaginative career deals with their employers. What's needed is an entirely new kind of 'career partnership' between employers and workers."

What's needed is an entirely new kind of career partnership between employers and workers

In a survey of over 2000 people from 32 countries, Ci found that almost half (45%) are either "Flexers" or "Agile Performers", groupings which describe people who are seeking new ways of working.

Their frustration is so great that around four out of 10 of these two groups say they are planning to leave their employer within the next 12 months, and almost half of them would be willing to give up some of their pay to achieve a more flexible working arrangement.

In total, just over half (55%) of the people surveyed for Ci Group's 'Manifesto for the New Agile Workplace' rated a complete change of direction attractive, with "working for yourself" universally the most popular employment option.

And as research published last year highlighted, individuals who freelance, work on a contract or temporary basis, act as independent consultants, or business-owning entrepreneurs now make up nearly a quarter (22 per cent) of the total workforce in the United States.

What's more, almost nine out of 10 (of these say that they are "extremely or somewhat satisfied" with their current overall employment situation.

Yet according to Ci, this discontent is about far more than just a desire for flexible working. Employers and workers are pulling in different directions, leading to dissatisfaction, poor performance and a stifling of talent and enterprise.

As a result, employers need to go beyond narrowly-conceived flexible working programmes to offer a broader mix of initiatives that make better use of people's surprising willingness to be agile themselves.

Symptomatic of this agility, Ci argues, is the fact that as many as half of workers are willing to re-train, four out of 10 would regularly work away from home for periods of a week or more, and over a fifth would work reduced hours for reduced pay.

The study also reveals three types of agility that employers need: the ability to scale up and down (scalability), the ability to re-train or gain access to new skills (versatility), and the ability to vary the location and time of work (flexibility).

There are hard commercial gains to be made from each of these. For instance in one year alone, Sun Microsystems, which introduced a programme through which staff can work 'wherever they happen to be', saved $24 million in IT and power costs and $71 million on its property portfolio. And 60 per cent of this time saving was translated into extra working time.

Some of these principles are already being put into practice by the Ci Group's partner organisations. For example, the global charity Oxfam is developing cut-and-paste roles, rather than traditional job descriptions, so that project teams can be reconfigured using part-time, full-time and contract workers to enable rapid response to crises.

Ci also suggests bringing together managers and staff to try out ideas such as "semi-employment" Ė payment of a retainer to employees for specific work, who may be paid more for additional projects when needed. This leaves them free to pursue other activities and to work for other employers.

Other successful experiments have included "development funds" to support retraining as an alternative to redundancy, industry-wide redeployment initiatives, supply-chain approaches to staffing and skills databases that include contract workers as well as employed staff.

"In the end, agility cannot be created through systems and processes," said Tony DiRomualdo, lead author of the 'Manifesto for the New Agile Workplace'.

"An agile organization is made up of agile people. That means companies first of all need to focus on engaging and inspiring commitment from all kinds of workers".