I started to adjust the way I think about my career when I visited university. Most of the time as a student I was working on different projects in different classes — designing a campaign for a marketing class, analyzing business cooperation models for a strategy class, calculating company valuations for a finance class. In these projects I was taking different roles in the project team: content designer, researcher or presenter.
Today in my life as a business founder, I continuously assign myself new tasks that involve different people with complementary skill sets. I keep a close eye on my own competencies and figure out ways to improve them. And I know a lot of people in flexible organizations are behaving the same way. This kind of behavior is especially dominant in generations that got used to the constant digital change around them, adopting new technologies to make their own and other lives easier.
We’re looking at the end to classical, straightforward careers and static jobs — careers where you stay at one company and constantly develop yourself in one single direction according to a rather fixed career plan. Setting up such predefined pathways assumes continuity, but naively ignores the individual desire for flexibility. Moreover, it restricts learning due to new circumstances and thinking outside the box.
I believe that members of generations Y and Z are able to adapt to new technology and environmental changes much easier than older generations have been. They develop a strong awareness about their skills, personal interests and potential for learning — and want to make use of it. To enrich their professional and personal life, members of these generations view competencies as something that must constantly be improved. Therefore, the definition of a successful career is always dependent on unique needs. It can only be defined individually.
Identify Your Skills, Knowledge, Interests and Learning Potential
Here’s a short exercise to identify your own potential. Take some time in a quiet environment and think about yourself. Visualize the different areas of knowledge you possess, the experience you gained in those areas and any interests and hobbies you have. Write these on a piece of paper. Now highlight the things you would like to improve and add items you want to train on. Finally, try to identify which kind of tasks, projects or job roles you are able to master with these competencies. Be creative here. It might help to do this exercise with another person to get an external view.
I did this with my friend and co-founder, Robert. Let me quickly present a part of our findings. On the one hand, the IT experience Robert gained in the past seven years makes him very suited to work as a full-stack developer. But he also possesses enough knowledge and skills to start as a business coach, and he has always been interested in music and has the creative ability to compose songs. With this, he can support our team in new ways — for example, when we need a jingle for our next video tutorial.
By visualizing your own individual traits and competences, you take the first step in thinking of your work life as a multitude of possibilities. This forms the basis for understanding why organizations must not be structured around static careers anymore.
Create Your Individual Way
Given your portfolio of competencies, interests and possible roles, why shouldn’t you pursue one or all of these roles in your career? What stops you from using your portfolio to create a work life that suits your own desires and life circumstances?
The answer is that nothing stops you. You will be able to do exactly that, by training yourself and pursuing new roles in modern environments. I believe that careers made of different skill sets will be common in the future of work. There is one professional group that proves the advantages of such portfolio careers while working for different employers in different positions: freelancers. Knowledge workers are in high demand, and even though companies try to employ and retain new workers in the progressing war for talent, an increasing number of professionals are deciding to work as freelancers. Upwork projects that by 2027, more than 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will freelance.
How Project Organizations Will Strengthen Flexible Careers
My advice for young talents beginning their career is to think in terms of roles and projects instead of jobs. Start to develop a consciousness about the skills you use when working on different tasks. Try to understand which skills are missing and figure out how to train yourself. It will benefit your overall development.
It makes complete sense to think like that, because more and more companies structure their work into internal projects and external client projects. Every project is staffed by people with different roles that are needed to fulfill the project goal. Each role requires a certain skill set. Such project organizations are building an internal network of professionals who can make use of their different capabilities within different departments. The HR Trend Institute’s forecast for 2018 included “The end of fixed jobs,” saying “People with broad skill sets, can use certain skills in Team A, and other skills in Team B at their next assignment.”
For example, somebody who was hired as a junior marketing manager might also create employer branding strategies for HR with her marketing skills. She could learn how to use Photoshop to co-create a new logo with the design department. Later she could attend expos with the sales team because of her prior work experience. All of that really can happen in one company.
A gradual training-on-the-job concept like this will work if companies increase the transparency of their planning processes to allow flexibility, self-organization and collaboration as if employees were freelancers, while giving them the security of employment. Companies permanently need to staff their employees in project roles based on their skills, interests, wishes and availabilities in comparison to the project requirements. Therefore, employers should know about skill patterns and make them visible, which will help identify skill gaps so individual training can be offered.
Yes, Flexibility Can Be Managed
Some of the company representatives I talk to are uncertain how to realize flexibility in their daily routine. I get questions like “How shall companies respond to this development, especially when they require a certain degree of reliability and security in their workforce planning? How can companies identify, attract and choose the right professionals to get their tasks completed? How can companies make educated decisions whether to hire an employee or contract with a freelancer?”
In such conversations I usually advise that companies review and scale their workforce-planning processes to fit the dynamics of their business. That could mean having permanent employees, freelancers, temporary employees and interim professionals simultaneously. It also implies installing a network of additional workforce suppliers, planning projects thoroughly, optimizing utilization and constantly developing internal talents.
Doesn’t this kind of flat network organization require a lot of manual effort, time and money? At first hand it seems like managers will have to spend endless hours screening and identifying suitable team members in CV databases, Excel bench lists and schedulers. But a new crop of tools are developing to automate such planning processes by matching workers to project roles or vice versa. This way innovative companies will let their employees determine their best possible next step. Who wouldn’t want to work for an organization like this?
My Projection for the Future of Work
Following a portfolio career must not create a trade-off between monetary security, work-life balance or proper social benefits. Increasing flexibility and self-determination calls for more coordination between those who search for manpower and those who offer it. Digital solutions will make it possible to seamlessly allocate these two variables based on a variety of structured data. At the same time, the costs and efforts to enhance planning processes will be reduced.
We will see a positive transformation in companies that manage their employees and freelancers in a transparent and collaborative way. It’s my vision that these companies will connect to form a network where employees with their different skill sets and unique personalities can be shared, depending on time, demand and supply. In such an environment, nobody will speak about classical careers and fixed paths anymore.
The demands of younger generations, enjoyment of self-determination and the resulting trend of freelancing are important drivers for the future of work. You will realize that classical careers and classical organizations are obsolete models if you start thinking about your own skill patterns and possible roles and projects you could take on. More and more companies understand that people’s competencies must be placed in the center of their daily routines. Being able to flexibly use capabilities where they are needed brings a huge advantage and allows for responsive project structures within organizations. If such organizations combine their strengths, we will even see networks of companies that share their knowledge and workforces collectively in the future.