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Ideas & Debate

Deloitte’s human capital study reveals economy of freelancers

Employees must pool their talent, resources, and expertise to build a winning team. FILE
Financial pressures on businesses have led to further staff reductions, we have witnessed increased mobility, particularly among millennials. All grist to the mill for the gig economy. FILE 

Well done Deloitte! Your recent publication, the 124-page Global Human Capital Trends Survey 2016: The New Organisation, Different by Design, was terrific.

Debbie Hollis, a Senior Manager at Deloitte East Africa, wrote about it in her recent Business Daily article headed Businesses Give Millennials a Wide Berth in Leadership, but as a staff member she couldn’t do what I can, tell you that it’s a must read. Go to Google please, download it, and absorb its conclusions as I did.

Let me share some more of its thought-provoking findings. I’ll start by telling you about a term from the report that was new to me: the “gig economy”.

At first I wondered what this was all about. Like with others on whom I have since tested the expression, my fumbling mind turned to gigabytes and suchlike. But no, it’s got nothing to do with e-storage, and when I read further it was very obvious what it actually meant.

Ladies and gentlemen, the gig economy is the one I inhabit as a consultant. For I, as more and more people in this day and age, are hired to perform gigs — just like the jazz musicians of the 1920s who coined the expression. It’s short for “engagement”, and until not too long ago it still only referred to performing at concerts.

Now it’s used to describe any temporary position relating to contracting independent workers for short-term engagements. Indeed a study by Intuit quoted in the survey predicts that by 2020, 40 per cent of American workers will be such independent contractors.

It’s not altogether surprising as, confirms Deloitte, “the workforce is increasingly mobile and work can increasingly be done from anywhere, so that job and location are decoupled.

That means free-lancers can select among temporary jobs and projects around the world, while employers can select the best individuals for specific projects from a larger pool than that available in any given area.” Just as happens with me.

The survey also deals with the consequences of digitisation, which has contributed directly to a decrease in jobs as software replaces some types of work and results in others taking much less time.

Financial pressures on businesses have led to further staff reductions, we have witnessed increased mobility, particularly among millennials. All grist to the mill for the gig economy.

Elsewhere in the Deloitte survey there’s material about “organisational design”, the most critical, the feedback reveals, of all the human capital issues.

“As companies strive to become more agile and customer-focused,” I read, “organisations are shifting their structures from traditional, functional models toward interconnected, flexible teams.”

And “this new structure has sweeping implications, forcing programmes such as leadership development, performance management, learning, and career progression to adapt.”

Indeed, in several of the organisations I’ve been working with recently I have been advocating the formation of task forces to expose up and coming staff to broader perspectives and bigger responsibilities, and thereby to learning and growth, to breaking out of the confines of their silos and to engaging in innovative and strategic thinking.

It is also an opportunity for talent spotting, for observing the performance of task force leaders and other members, seeing who is ready for a next step in their careers and what help they need to prepare them for it.

I was pleased to see that after organisational design and leadership, the next two trends that respondents to the survey highlighted were culture and engagement. For someone who is firmly convinced that, as Peter Drucker put it, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, this was most reassuring.

I also related positively to the descriptions of the two factors. Culture was defined as “the way things work round here” (close to the simple expression I commonly employ, “the way we do things round here”), while here’s their definition of engagement: “The way people feel about the way things work round here”. Great!

Role-model CEOs

If you have managed to develop a healthy culture then you’re well on your way to achieving engagement — of your people, and hence of your customers. And if you have an awkward culture, you can pretty much forget about engagement.

Not surprisingly, most leaders are perplexed about what to do to strengthen their present cultures and levels of engagement.

In this year’s survey, the percentage of executives who believe their companies are driving “the right culture” rose from a mere 10 per cent to a hardly improved 12 per cent. And fewer than one in three executives report that they understand their organisation’s culture.

Whole sections of the report are devoted to suggesting how to go about strengthening these factors. It must come from the top, from the CEOs, and not least by them acting as role models.

HR must be centre-stage too, going way beyond the traditional “personnel administration” function and paying particular attention to listening to employees. I was happy to see that the challenge of learning featured strongly too, with learning opportunities being “among the largest drivers of employee engagement and strong workplace culture… part of the entire employee value proposition, not merely a way to build skills”.

As Debbie Hollis pointed out, focusing on issues such as the leadership element takes consistent quality time.

For leaders at all levels, this must be an ongoing significant component of work. That’s so difficult in these times of doing more with less, of the tyranny of the e-mail, and of our challenging economic environments.

The report therefore draws attention to the need for what it describes as “design thinking”, leading to ways of helping employees to be less stressed and more productive.

So much food for thought, for the necessity of finding ways to delegate more so as to make time for that thinking. Well, that’s it for this gig. See you in a fortnight’s time for my next one.

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