Continuously Discontinuous

Frontline workers operate in the most discontinuous work context

Stowe Boyd
May 31 · 4 min read

Years ago, when considering changes in the modern workplace, I stumbled across an insight: work is increasingly decentralized, distributed, and discontinuous. I called this the 3D workforce.

Work is increasingly decentralized, as the result of many factors, such as the desire for and benefits from greater autonomy — and therefore agility — in organizational teams. This is principally driven by higher levels of uncertainty in the world, and the paradox that arises, as I recently pointed out:

In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, the answer is not to seek certainty, but instead seek to develop the capacity to identify and react to the unforeseen: this is the deep rationale for organizational agility.

Distributed work means both distributed in space but also increasingly networked out to participants linked in cooperative ecosystems, including freelancers, autonomous ‘organelles’, and partner companies. This requires new tools — like cooperative work platforms — and what I characterize as a fast-and-loose style of business operations, but tools alone aren’t enough. It requires a head shift: a new ethos of work. Consensus and command-and-control are both slow doctrines, and are based on power structures that centralize decision making and sense-making. If you want a more responsive and resilient organization you have to start by loosening the connections. This allows a transition to fast-and-loose operations based on autonomous cooperative work away from slow-and-tight operations based on consensus- or command-and-control-based collaborative work.

Work is increasingly discontinuous because we are constantly lifeslicing and workslicing — shifting from one project to another ten times over the course of a day, working wherever we are, working with different team members and different teams, and blurring the distinction between work and non-work.

I recently visited Microsoft, and had a discussion with Emma Williams, who is spearheading the company’s efforts to address vertical industry scenarios with Microsoft Teams. This includes building out Teams to address the needs of firstline workers in addition to integrating StaffHub into Teams. Staffhub was created as a standalone Office 365 app for workforce management and communications, and much of that functionality overlaps with Teams, so Staffhub is being phased out. Two new features for Teams are being derived from Staffhub: Home and Shifts. Matthew Finnegan wrote last year about these features:

Home lets frontline workers clock in and out of shifts or breaks, receive important notes, and find out who is working on a given day. Shifts allows managers to create, update and distribute schedules within Teams, as well as review and accept employee time-off requests and shift swaps.

And of course, frontline workers — many of who are hourly employees, and often doing much (if not all) of their work on their feet and without a desk — are principally connected through smartphones, and will now be relying on these features, as well as the baseline communications and coordination functionality of Teams. Microsoft says deskless employees make up to 80% of all workers: 2.6 billion globally.

Frontline workers operate in the most discontinuous work context. In fact, they are continuously discontinuous:

  • The frontline may not learn until almost the last minute what shifts they will be working, who else will be on their shift, and who will be their manager.
  • Along with uncertainty in the larger sense — the economy, competition in the market, precarity in their personal lives — the frontline lack continuity at the organizational level: who will be their teammates on the job?
  • Other sorts of workers may experience certain levels of discontinuity — they do not have control of who they work with from project to project, for example — but the frequency of staff changes is not a day-to-day issue, which is the norm for a retail clerk, or a picker in an Amazon warehouse.

There is a great deal of evidence that innovation can be vastly improved by creating a learning engine at the edge of the organization, where the customers are, where operational challenges are the greatest, and where innovations can have the biggest impact.

This is not at all the same as training the frontline to ‘do their jobs better’, which is a top-down command-and-control approach to these ideas. We are talking about the organization as a whole learning because of the experience and experiments of the frontline.

However, the inherent discontinuities of frontline work — as many organizations approach it — means the learning engine might never be built, and the company is squandering an opportunity to improve customer experience or other aspects of frontline work.

Here are a few key questions for frontline management:

  • How can the company institute communications to gain as much insight as possible from the frontline, and specifically not just analytics, metrics, and data?
  • How can tools like Microsoft Teams help the frontline learn from each other?
  • How can the frontline test new approaches to customer experience, or new ways to deliver value?
  • How can systems, management, and organizational culture converge on better frontline worker experience, and by extension, better customer experience?

I have one major suggestion: to the extent possible, management should work to decrease the discontinuity of frontline work. This means setting schedules as far in advance as possible, for example, and allowing workers a greater say in who they work with and for.

A true learning engine requires workers to be oriented toward the activities of learning, over and above providing value to the customer. To be able to add that additional margin of attention, and to draw value out of it for the business to learn and grow, will require a major head shift in both management and the frontline workers.

We are living in a 3D world, but we can work to thrive in it, and not just survive.

Originally published at


Stowe Boyd

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.



GigaOm is the leading global voice on emerging technologies. We help transform enterprises with insight and guidance in an AI-enriched, data-driven world.

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