The Way We Work
August 8, 2013 by Guest Blogger

Editor’s Note: This is a foreword written by Stowe Boyd for oDesk’s recently published eBook: “Make it Work: Smart Advice from Real-Life Clients Who Found Success Using Online Work.” To read the full eBook, click here.

The world of work has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, and on many levels. Although my job is trying to make sense of that, it is difficult to concisely summarize what has gone on, what is going on, and where it is leading us: for the simple reason that this is new territory. And as the saying goes, “there are no old roads to new directions.”

To wind up at the level of the individual and understand the forces that shape the lives of billions of workers, we have to zoom all the way out and look at the big picture: the macroeconomic restructuring of work.

I believe, like many others, that at some point in the past decade we slid over an invisible threshold into a new economic era, one that operates on a different foundation from those of the late industrial/postmodern age. The fall of communism, the end of colonialism, and the rise of increasingly interconnected global trade collectively led to tremendous changes in national economies across the world, starting in the late 1960s and early '70s. But what has come in this century—the social web, the rapidly mutating and risky financial sector, the unprecedented rise of China and other advancing nations, and a wholesale shift to knowledge work (“services”) in advanced economies—has led many to conclude that we’ve moved beyond the “new normal” into something more permanent, and more perplexing.

I have used the term “postnormal” for this new era to differentiate from the postmodern. And more recently, a new term has started to appear—the “new abnormal”—intentionally contrasted with the milder and less frightening “new normal”. The economist Noriel Roubini wrote an important essay recently, along with political scientist Ian Bremmer, describing the “new abnormal” as a system operating on the basis of an “unstable disequilibrium,” while the earlier “new normal” presupposed the world economy was merely a transitory “unstable equilibrium.”

The takeaway is we’re now in a time of overwhelming volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, where forecasting becomes nearly impossible, and even determining which of the risks confronting us are most significant is almost unimaginable. This near blindness confronts governments, global businesses, the local bank, the entrepreneur, and every person on Earth. We are driving a car whose engineering is unknown (and rapidly evolving, in real time, under the hood), a car that is inexorably speeding up, with only one flickering headlight, and no brakes, on a road headed to who knows where.

I will leave aside any speculation of what might be done to slow the car, fix the headlights, or get the brakes working. That’s a discussion for something grander than this foreword. But this stark context for our world hangs over us like a threatening cloud, darkening every action we take.

The most prescient of business leaders are aware of the threats of the “postnormal” economy. Even back in the early years of this century, when we thought this was just a new normal, those leaders began to take steps to make companies more resilient, agile, and innovative when it became clear that those characteristics were the keys to success in a violently changeable world. Actions of international trade associations, cross-government trade compacts, and the machinations of worldwide marketplaces have created a very different policy context in this century, and as a result we have seen a wholesale reorganization of capital and labor markets.

At the business level, organizations are operating in a different world, one in which a greater number of skilled workers are becoming freelancers. There are several trends involved. On one hand, many professionals actively choose to become freelancers for financial and personal reasons, citing the desire for independence. Many simply want to avoid office politics and commuting.

At the same time, many people who would like to work full-time cannot find jobs that pay enough to make ends meet, and are forced to work one or more part-time or temp jobs, or in the worst case, to not work at all.

Business strategy has shifted in the past few decades, away from considering all skilled professionals as assets to be retained during downturn, as a means of retaining the value that had been invested in their training. Instead, the new normal (or new abnormal?) is to only hire workers who have the skills required for their job on day one, even in the case of new college graduates, as this quote indicates:

“To expect business to bring graduates up to speed,” Richard D. Stephens, senior vice president for Boeing human resources and management, says, “that’s too much to ask.”

And since companies don’t invest much in people’s training, those people aren’t considered a hard asset, so in a downturn they are let go, or they adapt by becoming freelancers who accept the need for self-advancement.So this means a profound change in the work context for the great majority of skilled professionals, who find their labor to be a variable in a giant global equation when they thought their work was a constant.

Governments are changing their policies, moving back the social contract, and adopting few new programs to help the increasingly precarious workforce, even in the face of the recent economic adversity. Businesses are shifting their relationship with workers, transitioning full-time positions into variable relationships. Labor organizations have fallen from a central societal role. And the individual freelancer—whether willing or not—has been put in a position of disadvantage because of the power imbalance between client companies and the individual. All of this would read like a tragedy in the absence of some new factor.

Basically a huge empty space has formed at the crossroads between these groups, and those in the best position to do something about it can’t or won’t. Governments are too stretched, too polarized to take action, and are actually cutting back on programs that have been around for years. Businesses are too challenged by economics and uncertainty to make new bets on workers.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. A new actor is emerging to fill this gap, to better the situation in a real win-win-win fashion, and to make a profit while doing so. Entrepreneurs, like oDesk’s Gary Swart and others, are building software platforms that create new online marketplaces for work. oDesk calls their site an “online workplace.” I call it a placeform (marketplace + platform = placeform), and believe that work placeforms are making the situation better for both the freelancer and the client.

Because a work placeform manages the interactions between a large number of freelancers and businesses (millions of freelancers and companies, potentially)—a company like oDesk can find new ways to harness scale that neither the independent freelancer nor HR staffer can. What’s the right wage for an iOS developer in London? What skills are needed for a call center staffer in the Philippines? Who are the best employers in Minneapolis for temp financial staff? Placeforms could accumulate this information as the natural outgrowth of the social business interactions of freelancers and businesses.

And in the final analysis, work placeforms are filling the gap absented by our governments, who are perhaps not yet up to the task of regulating today’s rapidly shifting labor markets. Instead of the heavy hand of some hypothetical government agency, a work placeform might bar employers who don’t pay on time, decrease the pay scale of workers who don’t perform professionally, and ensure that government regulations for tax reporting and freelance status are met.

Most critically, at the foundational level, work placeforms like oDesk offer increased flexibility for both the freelancer and businesses, leveraging the scale of information available to the marketplace platform that neither individual professionals nor businesses can hope to gain on their own.

The efforts of the companies chronicled in this book are using the leverage offered by oDesk to make headway in difficult times, and in many cases, to reconfigure how their businesses work from the ground up.

These are only a few companies in a larger world, but we shouldn’t forget what Margaret Mead said about the power of the few:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

A truly new factor has been introduced into the swirling chaos of the postnormal world of work, and it gives me new hope in a time with a lot of threatening clouds looming above us. At least in this one region of the new abnormal, we see what may turn out to be a way to decrease the underlying economic disequalibrium by a combination of big social data, large-scale social platforms, and entrepreneurs who see a way to make some money by saving more for others. And that—dare I say it?—makes things better for everyone.

To read more from the eBook, check it out here.

Stowe Boyd

Futurist, Researcher & Author

Stowe Boyd is an internationally recognized authority on social tools and their impact on media, business, and society. He is best known for his commentary on the social revolution, the rise of social tools, and the new world ahead of us at stoweboyd.com, reviews of work media applications at workmedia.ly, and his public speaking. Stowe is at work on a new book about the rise of a socially augmented world, “A Liquid, Not A Solid; A City, Not A Machine.”