Ultimate Software's Blog

Are You Ready for True Workforce Fluidity?

The composition of today’s working population is changing faster than organizations and their policies can react. For the first time in history, five different generations are in the American workforce. Their expectations vary when defining what work is—and how one conducts it—at a time of tremendous upheaval in traditional workplace paradigms.

Today’s workforce comprises more than just full-time employees. Provisional or non-permanent workers—such as independent contractors, temporary employees, freelancers, and other contingent workers—are expected to make up 40% of the workforce by 2020. Their short-term assignments, or “gigs,” have even fostered a new phrase—the “gig economy.” Other changes include flexible and virtual work schedules, job sharing, cross-training, and a greater emphasis on collaborative teamwork.

While these trends are beginning to reshape how companies operate, and how people work, an even more profound shift is underway that will have a lasting effect on the workforce of the future.

I call it workforce fluidity: the next iteration of workplace changes, driven by the increasing importance and visibility of individualization. What do I mean by individualization? The answer is simple: Our complex nature as human beings makes each one of us a singular person. Every one of our choices to be who we define ourselves to be is legally protected by our constitutional rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 further protects these choices in the workplace, disallowing discrimination in job hiring, termination, and promotions based on a person’s race, color, creed, and gender.

This seismic cultural shift in how people define themselves can be seen as an extension of the movement toward self-definition and nonconformity that began after the 1950s, yet it has reached a point where people can now choose to reject classification entirely. Today the individual is more fluid, wears many hats, and, increasingly, blurs the lines between definitions of profession, work, and even identity. Workforce fluidity encompasses not only flexible/virtual work assignments and the emphasis on collaborative teamwork, but also considers shifting corporate hierarchies and eliminating job titles (something Zappos has already done), or even the construct of a job, valuing contribution to multiple teams and results instead. It also includes the reality that every person—each team member—is a uniquely original human being, to whom care and respect must be accorded to ensure their individualism is not diminished, intentionally or unintentionally.

These issues are not new in themselves. However, the interaction of these forces—individualization, job, and organizational fluidity—becomes a formidable phenomenon. The elements of fluidity cannot be understood in isolation because each alone only partially constitutes the issue and magnitude of true workforce fluidity.

And there is a further dimension: I believe organizations that fail to thoughtfully address workforce fluidity in all its forms—job fluidity (people not tied to or identified by a specific job description, but able to flow between initiatives and supervisors to maximize their contribution. The choice of work assigned in partnership and consideration of the person’s curiosity and competence, as well as organizational need); organization fluidity (the reality of how work gets done, alternative collaborative constructs, the absence of formal organization structures, and even team-based hiring and compensation); and, finally, identity fluidity (the self-definition of people, who may reject generational stereotypes or the limitations of binary identity categories “black” or “white,” “male” or “female,” as Facebook has by offering users 71 identity attributes to choose from when creating one’s profile)—could run the risk of becoming less appealing destinations for employees and job seekers alike.

Those of us in the HR arena are bearing witness to these profound societal changes, perhaps more so than others, as they begin to enter the workplace. Certainly, this is disruptive, as all sociocultural shifts are. As people challenge the traditional classifications of their lives outside of work, they will increasingly expect their work colleagues across five generations to understand and appreciate their individuality.

Because Ultimate’s mission is to put people first—whether it’s how we support our employees; how we operate, design, and develop solutions; or how we serve our customers—we think that nothing is more “People First” than understanding how the workplace is changing based on drivers like workforce fluidity. It is our responsibility as a people-first organization to advance the discussion around this evolving topic and its implications for the workforce at large, and to explore concrete implementations. To that end, I’d like to get your thoughts and comments on a workforce fluidity maturity model to help organizations assess where they fall on the continuum of workforce fluidity. It is clear that not all companies will reach full workforce fluidity, nor would it be authentic for every organization to do so. My aim is to start a conversation about this most human subject, thinking along with you about the ramifications of true workforce fluidity for customers, colleagues, solutions, and our own behaviors in the workplace.