Ultimate Software's Blog

Going With the Flow

Job fluidity is like gender fluidity. See why and how here.

In my last two blogs, I addressed two emerging workforce phenomena—identity fluidity and organizational fluidity. Another paradigm shift on the horizon is what I call “job fluidity,” in which people prefer not to be tied to, or identified by, a specific job description. Rather, they “go with the flow,” coursing between initiatives and supervisors to maximize the breadth of their many talents.

With job fluidity, each employee becomes much more than the person’s profession, title, or job description. Giving a worker the fluidity to move between multiple projects, tasks, or even job roles without the restrictions imposed by formal transfers presents an individual with extraordinary opportunities and challenges. These enriching experiences can benefit the organization as well, resulting in a more engaged, broadly talented, and productive employees. The rapidly growing gig economy is one testament to people’s comfort with more fluid notions of the job and one’s work.

Job fluidity is comparable to identity fluidity—how employees self-identify, jettisoning binary descriptions like “he” or “she,” and “introvert” or “extrovert.” It is also analogous to organizational fluidity, where the reality of how work actually gets done has little to do with formal organization structures that confine a person’s breadth of talents, and more with their ability to effectively collaborate with others in teams.

In combination, these movements in fluidity describe a new type of organization, in which management is dynamically distributed across teams of people, rather than restricted to a hierarchal “command and control” structure. Categorizing an employee’s job with a specific description and title is perceived as reductive, as it overlooks the many other talents the person may possess, in addition to their curiosity to learn new skills.

I looked up the origin of the word “company,” and was surprised to learn that it derives from the Latin word for “companion.” Certainly, a command-and-control structure has very little to do with people companionably working together on a project or other initiative. A companion is someone to whom you can freely express (and comfortably receive) an opinion. In a work setting, one would not want these colleagues to be limited in the range of their ideas because of restrictive job descriptions.

If an employee’s capabilities are not recognized and stretched, it increases their feelings of estrangement and disengagement from their work, culminating in retention problems for employers. Millennials, in particular, are especially prone to leaving an organization that limits the fullest expression of their ideas, or fails to fulfill their personal and career aspirations.

Such individuals (don’t we all?) want to be recruited by companies with a mission that is clear, purposeful, and meaningful, and then be given the autonomy to fulfill this mission the best they can. What they don’t want are tightly defined job descriptions that limit their capacity to learn and grow, or worse, that provide an “out,” enabling people to avoid challenging themselves and being challenged by others “because it isn’t part of the job.” Give them a specific job title and a restricted set of responsibilities and they will learn all they can, then fly off to another company to acquire their next set of skills.

Employers cannot empower this new workforce without advocating fluid job assignments. Job assignments need to be defined according to the work that needs to be accomplished, as opposed to an individual’s perceived role in the organization. Jenny may be a terrific writer in the marketing department, who, by the way, also happens to be an excellent public speaker. What a waste of talent to keep her at a keyboard all day.

Job fluidity is already having an effect on job titles. Zappos is among several companies that have eliminated job titles, flattening the organization to achieve a system of self-governance. The online shoe store has liberated its employees from its former organizational hierarchy, encouraging them to work together autonomously. In this workspace, authority is distributed to team members to make their own agile decisions, as opposed to being delegated by managers.

The Zappos example may not be practical for all industries and people, but providing some level of fluid experimentation in job duties and assignment rotation, going beyond low-risk internship programs, is much more likely to encourage unexpected collaborations and innovation to the benefit of all.

We live and work in a fast-changing world, where business moves at a blistering pace. Static job descriptions bound by hierarchical org charts and office politics will only slow the corporate engine. They also risk disengaging talented employees and can result in half-baked decisions. The alternative is a dynamic, democratic, and fluid work environment. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments!