2016 Workforce Trends: The Mobile Workforce and the Rise of Unlimited Work

A companion to our 2016 100 Best Companies to Work for list, the following articles and interviews highlight issues and challenges shaping the rapidly changing world of work in this country: the divide between knowledge and hourly workers, our increasingly mobile workforce, the rise of unlimited work and, last but not least, the emergence of the empathetic CEO.

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Knowledge vs. Hourly Workers

According to Berrin Erdogan, a professor of management at Portland State University, there are, increasingly, two kinds of workers in the world: knowledge workers and hourly workers. Both groups of workers are experiencing what might be termed “work-centered living” — but in radically different ways. “For the knowledge worker, creative work is central and all-consuming because they want to do the work,” Erdogan says. The hourly worker, by contrast, is working all the time “because they have to.”

This bifurcation leads to a difference in workplace benefits. In the battle to retain knowledge workers with specialized skills, companies now offer elite employees a range of “cool and unusual benefits and perks: flex time, paid parental leave,” says Erdogan. Employers also give knowledge workers autonomy and treat them with respect. “This leads to looking at work not as a 9 to 5 concept but as work that simply needs to be done,” Erdogan explains. “The employee takes ownership of the work.”

The hourly worker, by contrast, has limited power and independence in the workplace. “They have fewer skills and are easily replaceable,” Erdogan says. Hourly workers must also negotiate an all-encompassing world of work to hold on to their jobs. On-call scheduling is one example: Many retail and service industry employers expect workers to report to work within a short window of time — but do not pay them for time they are on call.

“The employee is putting work first, but the work is depleting and draining the employee,” Erdogan says. Meanwhile, “businesses start thinking these employees are replaceable. So there is less of an investment in employees.”

Where are knowledge versus hourly worker trends headed? A growing number of service- industry businesses are placing greater emphasis on treating hourly employees well. Erdogan singles out retailers like Costco, New Seasons Market and Trader Joe’s. “They are not necessarily trying to be the cheapest player,” she says. “They are interested in providing unique customer service. So they see their human resources as a competitive advantage as opposed to just a cost item. Anytime the company’s marketing strategy is around differentiation rather than cost minimization, then you see heightened awareness of the importance of people and how you treat them.”

On the other hand, “at the lower end or the dark side, you are seeing margins squeezed even further,” Erdogan says. “Even companies that start out with good intentions realize they may have to make some short-term sacrifices, or resort to layoffs.”

The knowledge worker is not insulated from anxiety. Companies used to hire for the long term. But for the most part, this is no longer true, with the exception of government work and large corporations. As a consequence, employees in all industries are compelled to stay alert: learning new skills and paying attention to new job openings. Says Erdogan: “You now have what we call a career with no boundaries.”

Flex Time on the Assembly Floor

People employed by banks, technology companies and other knowledge-based companies and professional services often have the luxury of flex time — people who work for manufacturers, not so much. “We’re production oriented,” says Lori Miles-Olund, president of Portland-based Miles Fiberglass & Composite. “You can’t work from home in our industry.”

In lieu of scheduling autonomy, Miles Fiberglass offers its workers the opportunity to learn new skills and move between different departments. This kind of flexibility is key to retaining millennial workers, says Justin Luchak, quality assurance and head facilitator for Miles Fiberglass. “Young people in particular are interested in learning more skills in different areas.”

To incentivize workers to stay on with the company, Miles Fiberglass provides a bonus at five years, another at 10 and yet another at 15. “But the incentive isn’t just for time invested,” Luchak says. “It’s also for skills improvement.”
Paola Castaldo, a consultant with the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership (OMEP), agrees manufacturers face unique challenges in creating a more autonomous workplace. “I like to work really late at night if I can, rather than a normal day,” Castaldo says. “But folks in manufacturing can’t do that.”

How can production-line employers inject creativity and flexibility into the workplace? One possibility is tasking assembly-line workers with finding new ways of doing their jobs more efficiently, Castaldo says. But isn’t that typically the work of an outside consultant — like Castaldo?

“The only difference between me and them is that I have the privilege of having that background — being able to go to school,” she says. “Because I have the knowledge base, I learn how to use a software program that will make my job a hell of a lot easier. But why can’t manufacturing workers have access to those ways of thinking?  Let’s help them learn and solve problems so they can do what I do.”

Borrowing another page from the knowledge sector, Luchak says closing the gap between the owners/upper management and employees is key to making Miles Fiberglass a great place to work. “The employees aren’t just ones and zeros,” says Luchak. “The owners and upper management are constantly out on the floor.”

Work Without Limits and the Mobile Workforce

Kory Kimball, general manager of Slalom Consulting (No. 23, Medium) and Megan Ross Farrell, director of marketing at Jive Software (No. 10, Large). Interviews have been edited and condensed.

OB: What does “work without limits” mean for your companies?

KK: In the consulting business—in the larger consultancies — it’s typically an “up or out” modus operandi, meaning you continue to have both an increase in pay and an increase in responsibility as you go from analyst to consultant to senior consultant to manager and so on. We are a very flat organization. There is a lot of autonomy given to all of the consultants to drive their careers.

MRF: The first thing that comes to mind is how we as “Jivers” work. We use the software that we make, and it definitely facilitates us working without limits. My husband’s job took us around the country for a few years, but I stayed with Jive in a very similar role and was able to do my job without any problem. To me, that’s what “work without limits” means: that you can do your job and do what you need to regardless of where you’re physically located.

KK: One of our consultants about four years ago expressed a desire to become a member of the leadership team and manage people. He did that for a period, then had a circumstance in his personal life that caused him to want to take a step back. So he came back [and asked]: “Hey, can I move back into being a consultant?” At Slalom, the answer is “Of course you can.” I like to think of [career options at Slalom as inhabiting] a sphere. Not a circle, but a sphere. You can live at any point in the inside of that sphere and move to any other point that you so desire.

OB: Define “mobile workforce.”

MRF: When we hear the term “mobile workforce” we think of it in terms of where you are working. We want to encourage growth for anybody who joins Jive. We train our managers to be good managers who will train [workers they manage] for upward growth. Also, changing positions within Jive is something that’s encouraged and supported. I’ve had many different roles [at Jive], some in marketing… I’ve been afforded opportunities to try new things.

KK: From a professional development perspective, I expect everybody to grow. But growing is not necessarily tied to a specific bonus or compensation. It’s about becoming a better professional. For example, we structure our professional development towards better executive presence, learning how to work with difficult personalities, giving people the ability to have fierce conversations, better consulting skills; to become a better professional, whether that’s another certification on the technology side or being able to manage client expectations on the management-consulting side.

OB: How do employees stay challenged and are they encouraged to look for new challenges?

MRF: We at Jive are in a dynamic industry. That presents challenges on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis. Those challenges can allow our individual folks to stretch their skill sets and learn along the way. We have the advantage in that we are not in a static world, like what you may find in other industries. That affords us constant growth and learning.

The Heart-centered Executive

This past fall, Oregon Business published an article about Frank Foti, CEO of Vigor Industrial shipyards. The story focused on Vigor’s code of values, which in turn hinged on surprisingly touchy-feely principles: namely, love and respect. But Vigor, and Foti, are not alone. A few pioneering businesses are actively moving toward a kinder, gentler relationship between management and workers.

Asked what defines a successful workplace, Lisa Neef, director of talent acquisition for Ruby Receptionists (No. 9, Large), pointed to the Dream Change Coalition, a nonprofit that sponsored a “Love Summit” last summer in Portland. “Compassionate, heart-centered workplaces are the future,” says Neef.

She singles out Ruby’s CEO, Jill Nelson, as an example. “If I have to tout Nelson’s inspiration to me as a businesswoman, it’s because she treats her employees and is connected to her employees just as if she has invited them into her home.” This attitude shows up in everything from the home-like amenities — kitchen and exercise spaces — to the personal interest Nelson takes in employees: “How are you doing today? Do you have everything you need in order to be successful in this job?”

Other companies cite the importance of personal connectedness in creating successful workplaces, and businesses. “All of our co-workers are like family,” says Donna Cox, sales manager at Tec Labs (No. 29, Medium). “If you need to be out of the office for any reason, we always have the ability to contact each other and still continue to get our jobs done without missing a beat.” Echoing Neef, Cox says management makes sure to take five minutes to ask how your weekend was and be involved with each other’s lives in a positive way.”

Of course, love and personal connection only go so far. Neef says Ruby’s executive team maintains a laser focus on compensation. “The team is always trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of what is happening: locally and nationally as trends start to appear related to salary, compensation and benefits.” According to Neef, the company’s benefits package, including paid maternity and paternity leave, are responsible for cutting turnover in half.

So why aren’t more companies investing in their employees? “There’s so much fear and focus on the bottom line profitability with CEOs and other executives,” Neef says. “But we are experiencing some of the largest corporate profits in the history of our country since the Great Recession,” and that fear is short sighted, she says. “They don’t understand investing in their most valuable asset, which are your people; they are the front line of your organization.

“The biggest difference between successful companies, now and into the future, is a focus on investing in the people who are doing the work of building your business.”

See the full list: “The 100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon 2016.”