Designing a Dynamic Workforce: Notes from the Field

Twenty years ago, if you told people that teenagers in Iowa would be making money by “unboxing” products on Youtube, no one would have believed you. Technology has already drastically reshaped where we work, how we work and what we do — and the change is only growing.

At IDEO CoLab, we see changes like this all around us, and we know they’re bigger than any one of us. Our response is to bring together people and organizations to design the future collaboratively. This December, we kicked off our 2019 impact portfolio, Dynamic Workforce in San Francisco. We convened a small group of companies, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, institutions, and deep thinkers and asked: When you think about the future of work, what are you excited about? And maybe even more importantly — what’s keeping you up at night?

For those curious about what came up, here are a few challenges we’re excited to tackle:

How might we enable people to do meaningful, purposeful work that satisfies their needs?

Work can be more than just an economic transaction — it can contribute to our sense of personal self-worth, our contribution to society, and a measure by which we judge the value of our days. And people, no matter their current role, are asking for more than money alone — 90% of Americans would take a pay cut (on average, a 23% pay cut!) in order to do more meaningful work. That statistic holds true across income levels — how we spend our time at work is how we spend our lives, and we’re asking for more than just money in that transaction.

The collaborators at the event were excited by the possibility that new tools might enable people to access jobs with more meaning for them. These tools could lessen the divide between what counts as “work” and what counts as “life” for the better. We’re interested in how technology might help us create ways for everyone to build skills, grow, and contribute. Ultimately, we’re excited to enable more people to do the types of work that help them derive meaning, value and a sense of fulfillment.

If technology took on rote tasks, like data entry, might people be freer to spend their time working on things that require uniquely human capabilities, like collaboration, emotional connections, or creativity? In the future, does the adage of “doing what you love” actually become possible for more people?

How might we ensure that meaningful work is economically viable for people to pursue?

We didn’t forget a pretty critical reason that people work — money. Most people feel like their jobs are economic necessities, rather than life affirming careers. We’ve “recovered” employment-wise from the 2008 recession — yet much of that recovery has come from short term jobs in the gig economy.

While flexibility has opened up new ways to for people to create value and get paid, it’s come at the expense of traditional workplace benefits, like health insurance or retirement savings plans. These changes are shifting risk and responsibility from companies onto workers who, as individuals, are more vulnerable to market dynamics and unexpected emergencies.

We’re excited by the possibility of rethinking our compensation models, to make more types of work economically viable for more people. If “work” represents a contribution to society — how do we tie our compensation to those contributions? We have the opportunity to design new businesses, products and services that rethink our social and employment contract to make “work” work for us.

How might people gain the skills they’ll need for future jobs?

Even if there were enough meaningful, economically viable jobs to go around, we haven’t done a good job of helping people access them. The “learn, earn, return” model of getting educated, getting a job and retiring has broken down in the face of the reality that today’s jobs need you to be constantly learning, iterating, and reinventing your career.

According to the World Economic Forum, 65% percent of children entering primary school today will hold jobs that currently don’t exist. It also predicts that skills like “problem solving” will be critical to demonstrate in the future. Yet we as a society haven’t even agreed on what “soft” skills like that mean. That makes those competencies difficult to put on a resume, and even harder for employers to value. Teens are unboxing products for Youtube audiences — but are employers recognizing that they’re demonstrating skills in storytelling, community building, social media marketing, content development, and project management?

We wondered, what does it mean to have “creativity” as a skill? How would you demonstrate it in a sales role, or as a designer, or as an Uber driver? How would an employer screen for it? When we think about skills people need to build in the future, there are layers of questions to answer. How will people learn new skills? How will they communicate competency and fluency, or use those skills to access their next opportunity?

How might we leverage technology to augment people, rather than disrupt them?

We’re interested in how technology might help us unlock new ways to provide both value and money to workers.

A lot of today’s conversation about technology and the future of work is about disruption. The robots are coming, they’ll take all the human jobs, and where will that leave the humans?

Technology is going to change the landscape of work — 800 million of today’s jobs are expected to be replaceable with robotic automation by 2030. As designers, and future-optimists, we look for the opportunities to use technology to make human lives better. We have the chance to design and discover new jobs, new types of organizations, new career paths, and new ways to build skills for the future. We think that’s pretty exciting. In fact, we’ve even started brainstorming how technology might change the way we work, the way we get paid, and the way we learn to work better for humans.

What if we used tools like blockchain to enable micropayments to people in exchange for their data?

What if we used distributed capabilities to help workers organize into loose collectives, and negotiate for better pay or benefits?

What if we leveraged connectivity at work to track skills, and helped workers translate those skills into new, more meaningful opportunities?

What if we could pay people out for years based on the value they created, instead of just once for the time they spent?

Building the Future

These questions are just the beginning. At the CoLab we’re not just interested in the conversation — we’re prototyping and piloting our way into new solutions. We start by surfacing problems and aspirations, like we did here. Then, we bring together organizations, designers and creators to make our ideas tangible.

That’s what the rest of 2019 is about. If we want to design a better, more dynamic workforce for humans to be a part of, we’re going to need to work together.

Interested in getting involved with the CoLab’s dynamic workforce portfolio? Get in touch at hello@ideocolab.com.

Illustrations by the amazing Sam Bertain.