Searching for Clues: Post-Recession Work+Life Landscape

One thing I know for sure is that the recession is accelerating the transformation of the work+life fit landscape for organizations, individuals, and public policymakers.  So in addition to focusing on surviving the current downturn, I’m thinking about how we might need to adapt in the new more flexible reality that will emerge.

Most likely we will not go back to “normal.”  But what will the new reality look like?  My search for clues is leading me in many directions.  Recently, I revisited scholarly predictions that inspired me as a business school student.  I became reacquainted with the work of famous British management guru Charles Handy, and was quickly reminded why I became a Handy groupie (in fact, I included a story in my book about how he works six-months of the year, and supports his wife’s photography business the other six-months).

Handy’s model of the Shamrock Organization, outlined in his book Age of Unreason, offers prescient insight into how institutions have been slowly reorganizing themselves over the past 20 years.   When I read his description of the Shamrock in the mid-90’s, I thought it was a fascinating but drastic departure from reality.  As I reread Handy’s description today, it sounded much more familiar:

“• The first leaf of the shamrock is made up of the professional core. It consists of professionals, technicians and managers who possess the skills that represent the organization’s core competence. Their pay is tied to organizational performance, and their relations will be more like those among the partners in a professional firm than those among superiors and subordinates in today’s large corporation.

• The next leaf is made up of self-employed professionals or technicians or smaller specialized organizations who are hired on contract, on a project-by-project basis. They are paid in fees for results rather than in salary for time. They frequently telecommute. No benefits are paid by the core organization, and the worker carries the risk of insecurity.

• The third leaf comprises the contingent work force, where there is no career track and often routine jobs. These are usually part-time workers who will experience short periods of employment and long periods of unemployment. They are paid by the hour or day or week for the time they work.”

As the recession progresses, many organizations are becoming more flexible in how, when, and where work is done, as well as by whom.  Reducing schedules, transitioning employees to project work, and encouraging telecommuting to save on overhead—these are no longer HR policies, but strategic levers for operating businesses in a more flexible, dynamic way.  And I believe they are here to stay, even after the recession ends.

If the use of such strategies does continue and expand, the Shamrock-like organization becomes even more of a reality. The potential implications that I’m beginning to see are revolutionary:

For organizations, work+life flexibility will become even more of a strategic business lever.  Line leaders in the professional core will see the broad benefits from increased organizational adaptability, improved client coverage, cost and resource management.  But, the dual application of work+life flexibility as a business strategy and as a work+life fit management strategy will require a radical shift in mindset on the part of all three groups in order to succeed;

For individuals, whether they are core professionals, self-employed professionals, or contingent workers, there will be many more work+life fit choices. That will be good news for most people.  However, with that choice comes even greater unpredictability, especially for contingent worker.  Like learning to manage personal finances, individuals will need to learn how to successfully manage their work+life fit, and do it in a way that meets their needs and the needs of the business.

And, for policymakers, this transformation of organizations will force the rethinking of retirement, unemployment insurance, healthcare, employment taxes, and Social Security, just to name a few.  Organizations will step out of the role of providing these benefits to permanent employees and something needs to step into the void.

Is the Shamrock Organization the answer?  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that the employment and organizational landscape that emerges from the recession will look different.  And I want to think about possible scenarios today, so that I have a better understanding about how we might need to adapt in order to not just survive, but thrive.

As I continue my search for clues, I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts.  How do you think the recession will transform the organizational or work+life fit landscape?  And how do you think we all need to begin to prepare and adapt?

2 thoughts on “Searching for Clues: Post-Recession Work+Life Landscape

  1. Call me a pessimist, but I think the recession will make it easier for “unenlightened” managers and organizations to continue in exploitative and prescriptive workplace policies, rather than empowering employees and working together to make a better company. But the structural issues in the labor force will continue unabated and eventually I think those organizations that harness their employees’ energy and win their trust will produce results that speak for themselves.

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