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Get Ready For the Hybrid Worker

Pink is not my color. Especially when it comes in the form of a layoff slip. There’s a whole world of hurt from the current economic crisis, not least of which is a maelstrom of maladies in our workplace with layoff at the forefront. It seems to be an equal opportunity caring not for educational degree, longevity, passion or initiative. Like a deadly airborne pandemic, layoff is a nasty, ugly, wretched thing in which you really aren’t sure where it will land and who it will infect next. Still, not all is doom and gloom. Just as we saw the hybrid engine result from the convergence of sky rocketing oil prices, Middle East politics and eco-friendly policies, current global events are leading to a new type of worker – perhaps even more agile and creative than previous workplace generations.

According to Gerald Celente, CEO of the Trends Research Institute “Current events predict future trends.” This brings me to the revolutionary pattern beginning to brew underfoot. Do you think people are likely to risk going through another market (and ensuing job) collapse like this again? For that matter, what about organizations? I doubt employers have enjoyed this miserable fare of terminating the very life blood that makes their companies tick. Think of the pain as akin to having a bad case of shingles. I had them and can safely say I’d rather cut off my toes, rub sea salt in the wound and pour alcohol on top rather than endure the pain of those itty bitty blisters. Which is why I believe there is a trend underway for both workers and companies alike (who currently find themselves faced with the rotten prospect of no work) to forge a new way of going about work. Get ready for the hybrid worker.

Hybrid Workers (like busy beehive dwellers) are already at the community level.

In the winter of 2007, the Centre for Creative Communities in London wrote about the increasing visibility around a type of social worker in our neighborhoods – one who could approach a traditional struggle with an unexpected remedy. The Centre asserted that:

(There are) a growing number of people who are using creative processes to confront the complex interests, talents and problems of people and communities directly. Artists are working with hospital patients, theatre practitioners are working with young offenders, and police are working with designers on public spaces. On the fringes of all sectors new, often creative hybrid workers are emerging who deal directly with the interdependent realities of contemporary problems. It is not surprising that sectors struggle to keep up.

A current example of this hybrid approach can be found in Southern California as reported in the Los Angeles Times, January 2009:

Fire chiefs in tinder-dry Southern California, faced with lean budgets while more people squeeze into the region, are starting to rethink long-standing policies on ordering mass evacuations in a wildfire, debating whether it may be wiser in some situations to let residents stay and defend their homes.

We don’t have enough resources to put an engine at every house in harm’s way,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper. “We figure, if people are going to stay, maybe they can become part of the solution.”

Local fire departments are beginning to employ training and development skills launching new programs called “Evacuate or Stay and Defend.” Who would have thought that our neighborhood firefighters would also become community trainers?

In essence, the innovative marriage of skill set know-how to an existing dilemma has been in the works for some time. However, with the current economic recession in full swing, we’re more likely to see this creative choreography take on a blunt workplace interpretation.

Would you like a red couch with that Excel spreadsheet?

Disaster breeds imagination. Post war ruin and natural catastrophes have historically ignited resourcefulness and creativity with entire cities, industries and individuals seeking to rebuild or re-invent themselves. It’s amazing how clever people can become when faced with adversity.

Likewise, this economic calamity is giving birth to savvy approaches for surviving (and even succeeding) in a shriveling marketplace. Workers are beginning to think about unusual ways to peddle their skills apart from traditional career paths and normal disciplines. For example, I just met with a professional who for the past 18 years has been up to her eyebrows in corporate management. How is she approaching current events? She’s becoming certified in interior design. The goal? To invent a new workspace where knowledge is more readily shared among co-located employees and their virtual team mates.

One company or two?

Putting all proverbial eggs into one basket is a risk many workers will become increasingly averse to adopting. This isn’t only a result of the current recession, but also the emerging role Gen Y’ers will play in our workplaces. Richelle Rivera, a former Human Resources Director for a large medical device company (and now a hybrid worker herself) says:

Gen Y saw what the recession of the 80’s did to their parents and vowed never to be owned by a company. That’s why turnover rates in the 20 something year olds is hugely disparate to other generational groups. They’re thinking about their own stability – not the organization’s ability to withstand change. Many think that two years with one company is more than enough. They’re big believers in not becoming overly invested in one place.

Now book end the already wary to commit Gen Y’er with the Baby Boomer who finds themselves (after decades of 60%2B work hour weeks and forfeited weekends) standing behind their children in the unemployment line. What you find is what one recently laid off baby boomer colleague summed up “I’m nauseous at the thought of going to work for one more company where I work countless hours pouring my heart and soul into it, just to have them spit me out when finances turn sour. I’m in my 50’s… I can’t afford to be starting a career all over again!”

As a result of the resounding cubicle call of fed up workers, you’re likely to see more and more adopt a quasi-consultant and contractor role of working for more than one company at a time. By doing so, risk is spread. So if that egg basket does get dropped, all income hope is not lost.

The company’s reaction? Many will advocate a part time role to cut their own operating costs. With profitability streams narrowing and costs of health care and worker’s compensation insurance premiums soaring out of sync with reality, companies will court the brilliant talent at a reduced work schedule, but also at a fraction of previous talent management costs.

Are we simply going to see a resurgence of the contractor movement? After all, the recession of the 1980’s is believed to have prompted use of this worker role in the first place. The difference is that in this recession there’s a twist – hybrid workers will labor in more than one company concurrently… not just work on more than one project at a time.

The hybrid choreography offers a sense of fulfillment in addition to an economic safety net.

Hybrid workers are finding that the dance between skill set mix and across company lines provides a keener sense of fulfillment and expression (not to mention a prudent economic safety net). For example, take the employee who works for a large manufacturing company as their facilities coordinator but also teaches music part-time to inner city youth on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Or consider the anesthesiologist who moonlights by playing flamingo guitar at a local Spanish restaurant. Increasingly, people will want their lives to be filled with memories and rewards that extend beyond the simple affiliation a company offers.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s (while sparking an unbelievable number of black bean recipes) also pulled families back to hearth and home. Who can forget Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life?” Set during the Depression, Jimmy’s character “George Bailey” struggled to learn that a life invested in others is where joy resides and real treasure is found. Since the film’s debut in 1946, four generations have learned from Mr. Bailey. With this recession in place, I believe we’ll see more George-like moments – real epiphanies that there is more to life than money alone.

It’s a world of one size fits one… not all.

From the 1980’s through the millennium our management classes have been teaching that the leadership ladder requires workers to start off as specialists and then expand their capabilities mix to the point of being a generalist. Today? According to Shannon Jordan, a senior career development facilitator at a prominent telecommunications company “It’s about being both. Our workplaces will require a broad base of capabilities AND expertise in targeted areas. For the last several years, we’ve been stressing to our workers that they display agility – and this is going to be the biggest test to date of being truly adaptable in today’s setting.”

Our hybrid workplace will necessitate adaptation to people, projects and processes in ways we’ve not yet experienced. We’re likely to witness a new advertising vocabulary “boutique-like service and agility with mammoth sized capabilities”.

Whether telecommuting or working on site, it’s all about transferring knowledge via mass collaboration at a virtual level.

When not sitting in their home offices the hybrid worker will be driving their hybrid cars to the local Starbucks where hybrid coffee and intranet access are served.

Obviously, with the price of gas all over the map (and the push for eco-friendliness so hot) there will be added momentum to the already coveted flexibility of working from home (or the coffee shop). Besides, according to Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, authors of the best-selling business book Wikinomics:

Millions of media buffs now use blogs, wikis, chat rooms, and personal broadcasting to add their voices to a vociferous stream of dialogue and debate called the “blogosphere.” Employers drive performance by collaborating with peers across organizational boundaries, creating what we call a “wiki workplace” customers become “prosumers” by co-creating goods and services rather than simply consuming the end product. So-called supply chains work more effectively when the risk, reward, and capability to complete major projects – including massively complex projects like cars, motorcycles, and airplanes – are distributed across planetary networks of partners who work as peers…. Indeed as a growing number of firms see the benefits of mass collaboration, this new way of organizing will eventually displace the traditional corporate structures as the economy’s primary engine of wealth creation.

Frank Lynch, Ph.D. and organizational learning expert, underscores what our research in knowledge transfer over the past few years has found:

When looking for interpretation of key topics, collaboration, problem solving or morale boosting, people go to people- not heavy data systems. The trick for companies today is in finding a way for people to be able to tap into their co-workers who happen to be sitting across the ocean in Melaka, Malaysia the same as they might defer to their team mates 20 feet down the hall. Finding a system that is easy to use and affords workers a positive experience of reaching out to interact with their teammates (irrespective of geography) will be a central activity.

Seeing an end to the recession will not imply resuming business as usual. Mass collaboration and knowledge transfer (on a virtual level) will be the norm. There are scores of laid off workers who know this, which is why they (within days of being laid off) have created their own websites or posted responses to net based free lance marketing sites.

To manage or not to manage, that is the question.

Let’s face it. With a lay-off comes down sizing which means that flat reporting structures are in and hierarchy is out. Add to that the recent economical debacle in which Wall Street firms (as well as our own Treasury Department) have been unable or unwilling to account for billions of bail out tax dollars and you’ll find that the loose strings on the financial front will trickle down and eventually be construed as short leash accountability in the workplace. The new hybrid workers will be the ones who can manage people or be managed by someone, but most importantly they will be doing a whole lot of self- managing.

We’ll see individual accountability right up there with organizational ethic mantras and poetic vision prose. As more and more organizations advocate quarterly business reviews, an increasing number of workers will find themselves frequently initiating individual action plans that align with department or organizational goals while making a conscious effort to tie to tangible business results.

Additionally, it won’t be enough to just create and submit a plan’s progress. Each hybrid worker will follow in the footsteps of the late vaudeville entertainer W.C. Fields (adding public relations expert to their growing list of capabilities):

Tell people what you’re going to tell them… tell them and then tell them what you’ve told them!

We live in a world changing at warp speed which requires a workforce who can do the same. Barack Obama was inaugurated today. How amazing to bear witness to this historical event. In his speech, our 44th President reminded us of the great challenges we face.

They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met… We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

Indeed. Though faced with lay off and business restructuring, we may yet re-discover the better parts of our American work ethic and heritage – the DNA handed down from our business forefathers – the ability to imagine and persevere in our pursuit of purpose, contribution and contentment.

Get ready. There’s a new type of worker in our midst.