Last week I took the plunge and spoke at TEDx at the ICC in Sydney. Those who know me well, know that this was no small feat as I often shy away from large crowds.
Yet, a topic as important as this, I couldn’t turn it down… and no, I’m not suggesting we all quit our jobs tomorrow.
Transcript of my TEDx Talk below:
I grew up in Ireland, near a beautiful small country village called, Feakle. We had a lot of fun with that growing up. As teenagers, we tried to set up a local newspaper called, Feakle Matters.
At our high school, we had an amazing larger than life Nun, Sister Bosco, who doubled as our Career Guidance Counsellor.
Every year, we’d cram into a little room to fill out this 20 question scorecard that would tell each us ‘what we should be when we grow up’.
No matter how many times I would secretly redo this test... mine always resulted in 2 options: a vet or a nun.
Remarkably, when I did graduate from University in depths of the global financial crisis, vet and nun were about the only jobs going in the village. In light of that, sadly, most of us were out of a job.
You quickly learn that’s the thing with jobs. If you’re not in one, you’re out of one. There’s very little in between.
I’d like to talk about that because my contention is this binary nature of work, being all in or all out is excluding a huge amount of people from our workforce, like a huge amount.
But it doesn’t need to be that way and we have a unique opportunity in history to make some changes to better set us up for a more prosperous and inclusive future - I’ll come to that.
A short while ago, I was working with the leader of a large organisation and was visiting their offices. When you walk into their building, It’s pretty cool - it’s got one of those wall gardens, floor to ceiling glass, Kombucha on tap, everyone is uncannily attractive and upbeat.
And still, 2000 were people leaving every year. The CEO wanted to know why.
As we’re walking into our conference room, he turned to me and said - you saw we got beanbags right? I was like yeah, I saw - really great!
As we got down to business and decided on a plan of attack, we decided it was best to speak to people who’d recently left the company but not gone to another job.
And the first person that we met was this wonderful woman named Joanna.
She had a Masters in Statistics from Stanford and was widely recognised as an expert in predictive modelling.
We chatted to her and what became clear was that she loved her work. Loved it. And she loved this company (to the delight of the CEO).
But her “job”, the 9-6, onsite, Monday to Friday, the expectation of most jobs, didn’t work for her anymore, and so she resigned.
Like the rest of us, if she’s really lucky - she’ll get a cake…. and a "good luck”. As I look across at this CEO, I can see he is freaking out, and rightly so because the penny has just dropped for him that he has thousands of open roles for people just like Joanna.
And as I sit there, high in this tower of dreams, what is crystallising for me is that across the globe, so many jobs are going unfilled, and in those same cities, bright and engaged workers, like Joanna are leaving the workforce in the millions, many never returning.
And so, if work is not working for so many people - why do we do it this way?
Well, for thousands of years, work was pretty flexible. We only started to put rigid structures around when, where and how work could or couldn’t get done about 200 years ago during the industrial revolution when work became a place.
In the 18th Century, there were few workplace norms or standards. So, one by one, we gradually introduced them to provide protection, stability and structure. Voila - suddenly we had a standard language and a way in which workers and work could come easily together.
We called these neat little units of our economy and our lives – JOBS.
So the answer is, we created this tight work structure because we needed it and, for much of the 20th century, it worked super well. Largely because work was largely commoditised. People who did it were replaceable and interchangeable. Thinking and operating in 1s and 0s made companies scalable and economies productive.
Additionally, society liked to have family units with one breadwinner and the ‘all in or all out’ nicely reinforced this.
But when we created the job - we didn’t consider things like; working parents, career breaks, career changes, the post-50-year-old experienced worker and of course... the highly mobile millennial. They simply didn’t exist yet.
It appeared that the company’s needs had evolved even more than our own. They needed to be able to rapidly deploy different skills and expertise in a more flexible way than ever to meet the ever-faster pace of change and talent are no longer easily replaceable, swap in and outable…
Consider all the developments in technology and the progress in our society and hey, It’s ok that a system we designed in the 19th century isn’t cutting it. We’ve got this.
So what is the solution? We all know it’s not beanbags… well, at least not just beanbags.
Let me tell you a story. We have a customer with about 4,000 employees. When their employees leave (on good terms), they’re not given some cake and never spoken to again. No, instead, if they’re not engaged in other full-time jobs, they are invited to become part of this company’s 'project panel'.
Rather than losing forever… those skills, relationships, and knowledge. This company is able to tap into those people on a project basis. What this company and many others are doing, is creating a new category of worker - their project-based worker.
In the future, organisations will still have a permanent workforce, as well as a project-based one. Their people can be rolling on or off work, taking some time off to walk the Camino, caring for a parent, writing a book or engaging in other projects.
As project-based workers, we may belong to the project panels of different companies, with whom we have trusted relationships.
Those of us who have stayed in jobs longer than we want to, because we feared the alternative maybe nothing at all, we can now do the work we love and live.
What’s more, we can apply this model to our most important and high-stakes work because that’s probably where we’ll need it most. Instead of treating people who need flexibility like they’ve given up on their careers.
Perhaps, new graduates, as well as asking what’s my path to promotion, will start asking…
“What’s my path to project-based working?”
And around their pool of project-based workers, companies will compete to build community, culture and professional development. As had been necessary for the industrial revolution, we need our policymakers to focus on adapting to protect and support the rights and realities of this new worker.
When we've engaged in this work ourselves, we won’t find it impossible to get a mortgage, get a rental property or save for retirement. Because, we will have a new category of work and worker that is unambiguously understood, valued and respected.
One day, we’ll look back and think that it was crazy that we worried about people seeing documents on desks when we let our most valuable IP walk out the door and never speak to them again.
We’ll reflect on these 200 years, a very short time in human history, and find it difficult to imagine a time when work was all or nothing.
When I was a kid, my mum always told me I could be whatever I want to be when I grew up. This caused a few ripples in kindergarten when we had a “career day” because we had to go up to the front of the classroom and pick the costume that represented the job we wanted to have when we grew up (noting I had not yet had my fortune told by Sister Bosco).
I remember standing there, looking at all of these amazing costumes with my mothers' words ringing in my head. I turned to my teacher and said, “I don’t want to pick just one”. He said to me: "You don't understand the exercise."
Somewhere deep in my little 5-year-old brain, I remember being confused and thinking: "I don't think you understand the future".