The Future of Work in 2035: A Forward by Dr. Michael R. Moore
The Future of Work Culture
In professional evolution and workplace transformation, few voices have been as prescient and insightful as Dr. Russ Ouellette. This book, I believe, is a pivotal piece on the future of work. It freely stands as a testament to his visionary understanding of the impeding seismic shifts in the professional landscape. As a fellow academic and researcher, I am deeply impressed by Dr. Ouellette’s ability to not only foresee but also articulate the nuances of these changes with remarkable clarity and depth.
The last five years have been nothing short of revolutionary in the context of workplace dynamics. The period from 2019 up until today has witnessed a radical transformation, catalyzed initially out of necessity during the global pandemic. Remote work, once a privilege for the few, became a widespread reality, challenging long-held notions about productivity and workplace efficiency. This shift was not just a change in location but a fundamental rethinking of what it means to work and how work integrates into our lives.
The dynamism of the workplace in the last five years has been marked by a series of ebbs and flows, reflecting the complexities and challenges of adapting to new work models. The initial resistance to remote work was swiftly overturned by the demands of the pandemic, leading to a widespread acceptance and even preference for this mode of work. This period saw a significant shift in the balance of power between employers and employees. Workers, having tasted the benefits of flexibility and work-life balance, have been unwilling to revert to the old norms. This has led to a clash with traditional leadership and workplace culture models, where some leaders have struggled to adapt to the changing landscape.
Dr. Ouellette’s foresight into these changes is nothing short of extraordinary. Long before the world grappled with these shifts, he envisioned a future where technology would not just enable but actively redefine our work environments. His predictions, once considered speculative, have become our reality. The transition from traditional employment models to gig and portfolio work is central to this book. I think it resonates more than ever in today’s professional climate.
This critical piece by Dr. Ouellette delves deep into these shifts, offering a nuanced understanding of an evolving employee-employer relationship. His expansion of the ‘Portfolio Worker’ is particularly relevant, as it encapsulates the essence of this new era of work. This concept goes beyond the mere location of work. It represents a fundamental shift in how we view our careers and professional identities. In Dr. Ouellette’s vision, workers are no longer defined by a single job or employer but by a portfolio of skills, experiences, and roles that they continuously develop and adapt.
“The Future of Work in 2035” transcends mere prediction, serving as a comprehensive guide for navigating both the present and future landscape of work. It provides leaders with valuable insights into managing a workforce that increasingly values autonomy and flexibility, while offering professionals a roadmap to build diverse and dynamic careers in a rapidly changing environment. For organizations, the books presents a framework to restructure work models in alignment with the evolving professional world. This visionary work is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand and adeptly navigate the complexities of the modern workplace, standing as a key reference and guide amid ongoing workplace transformation.
Mike Moore, Ed.D.
The Future of Work in 2035:
The Evolution of Business Culture That Will Improve Company Results & Well-Being in the 22nd Century
by: Dr. Russ Ouellette
The world of work is changing rapidly, and companies looking to attract and retain top talent need to create and maintain cultures where people feel valued and part of a community. As more people embrace contract work, companies are forced to redefine what employment looks like. They will need to adopt systems that allow people to take agency and be productive whether they are employees or contractors. This book shows what work looks like now, and how a growing number of contract workers, aided by technology, are changing what it will look like in the future. The people described in this book are based on real people I know and have worked with. The situations described reflect real situations I have experienced and learned from clients, friends and family.
Company culture is often described in job listings and on websites with buzzwords including collaborative, transparent, inclusive, engaging, and motivating. But what do these terms mean? And what do workers want? That last question, at least, is simple. Like in a marriage or a friendship, people want to be valued for the talents they bring to the organization. They want autonomy and to be professionally fulfilled. What they don’t want is to be treated like automatons paid a salary to do a job. Therefore, companies today have two choices: continue to do what they have always done and lose talent or change to provide a culture that attracts people and offers opportunities for growth.
The best companies are always evaluating and changing their culture because the best people are always evaluating and changing their desires. Matching company culture with the workforce is not as simple as putting together a puzzle. The pieces are always changing. Companies need to recognize people’s differing needs to find ways everyone can feel valued. This book explores these dynamics through the stories of three people at different stages of their professional lives.
For decades, work was quintessentially defined as having a 9-to-5 office job, or a manufacturing job on a set schedule. These workers left their houses, did their work and came home, having fulfilled the main objective of their employment – providing for their families. This arrangement was usually backed by an understanding between employee and employer whereby employees do their work and employers will pay them with a salary now and with a defined pension later. Prior to the introduction of 401(k) plans in 1982, most workers had defined pensions, healthcare, and other benefits. This meant people tended to stay at one job for decades because loyalty paid big dividends.
So what changed?
As businesses sought higher profits during the 1990s, the perceived contract between employees and their companies began shifting. Slowly, companies began to hire and layoff more frequently, mergers and consolidations within industries increased, healthcare costs shifted more to workers, and 401(k)s overtook pensions. By 2019, only 16 percent of private sector employees had defined pensions —meaning a key component of the “employee/employer contract” was gone. The loyalty of employers to employees had been removed. In addition, over the last four decades, organizations needed to “right size” to meet production levels, meaning layoffs became a regular part of the employment cycle. Gone were the days where you worked for one company your entire professional life. Because of these new realities, worker sociology and psychology shifted.
Today, people are not driven solely by money; they also work for quality of life. Everybody is seeking self-actualization and wants a work life that is fulfilling both financially and professionally. Not surprisingly, 88% percent of job seekers say a healthy culture at work is vital. This culture includes continuous learning, valuing conceptual thinking over output, and viewing workers as CEOs of themselves with the ability to make decisions and enact change. The problem is that many companies have an outdated view of loyalty that is mostly attached to pay while employees place a higher value on culture.
Importantly, culture does not have distinct geography. The healthiest companies have long allowed for flexible scheduling and some level of remote work so employees can balance their work and home lives. How did this happen? First, social media and technological revolutions allowed for better communication regardless of location. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. This resulted in an unprecedented number of people working from home and doing so productively. Despite this, some jobs and some companies still use outdated models to measure productivity, creating a company culture that doesn’t inspire employees. For this reason, two-thirds of companies have an easier time hiring employees than retaining them. Why? Because 51% of employees report not being engaged, meaning they neither like nor dislike their jobs. And 61% percent of employees report being burned out. These employees quit when they find another job or can’t take it anymore. They don’t feel loyalty to their employer, and money is not enough to stay.
Companies that want to be successful in the future need to understand the current trends, which go way beyond the change in the employee/employer contract. We don’t run our organizations the same way we did after World War II, and we will not run them the same way we do now in the next decade. Below are several trends that employees, managers and CEOs should watch:
- Productivity Peak: Email, Slack, and other communication apps allow for constant communication, but they also result in serious multitasking and burnout. We can’t ask employees to work any faster. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that people can be productive when they are given flexibility and not held to outdated standards. It also showed us that companies pushed people too far — and overworked people become less productive.
- Redefining Community: Advances in digital technology result in communities shifting from towns and workplaces to virtual hubs where those joining can be geographically anywhere. This allows companies to hire the best talent, not just the talent in their backyard. Globalization means that people have access to technology, ideas, and other people from around the world, creating more opportunity for individual empowerment and a more interconnected global economy.
- Technology: Communication (i.e.: Zoom) and social tools (i.e.: LinkedIn) allow people to interact around the world with ease, though these relationships at time prove fraught due to hacks. Technology will evolve to be safer and less corrupt, and we must evolve with it.
- Worker Demand: Different generations have different expectations of the workplace. Instead of knocking Millennials and Gen Z for being selfish and Baby Boomers for not wanting to embrace technology, we need to help all workers and employees evolve. COVID-19 has increased the worker shortage, so companies need to develop workers who think conceptually and can be more productive, whatever generation they are from.
- Desire for Continuous Learning: People now go to school for a specific degree, but in the future people won’t specialize in a particular domain to the extent they do now. Instead they will learn how to think and process through experiential learning so they can learn more things and evolve to the needs of the workplace and the economy.
If we are honest with ourselves, we know these trends will result in a shift in the approach to work and culture. That shift has really already begun. The question is whether employers embrace the shift or resist it. All generations share the same overall values, but how those values are applied to work differs. We must stop complaining about younger generations wanting work-life balance, because that desire is increasingly shared by workers of all ages. Employers also need to ensure employees feel fulfilled in their jobs, because if they don’t, they will find another job, which is readily available given the scarcity of workers. Part of fulfillment is having a work identity separate from your company. With social media, people are self-branding, which results in more small businesses. This will eventually lead to more people leaving traditional companies to become gig or contract workers. They can do this in part because of a plethora of social media tools that help market their skills. Companies can either embrace these self-actualized employees or lose valuable talent.
So what does this evolution look like going into the future? That depends on who you are.
Are you a late 20-something person who had three jobs out of college and quit because his company refused a vacation? A mid 30-something who is overworked and under appreciated, nearing burnout and wanting a better culture? Or a mid 40-something who leaves a job to start a business? These people will experience the future of work differently and each of their stories will be explored in the coming text.
The Workplace Today (in 2024):
Muhammed Ali, the American boxing champion, perfectly summed up what work should look like when he said, “Don’t count the days, make the days count.” If we look at people’s experience at work, however, it seems the opposite is often true. Many work cultures are task centered, lack flexibility and opportunity for personal growth, and have management that stifles dissent and/or works from the top down. Workers in these situations feel hopeless, unmotivated, and unappreciated. They must choose between working within the system or leaving.
Modern workplaces contain multiple generations, and while it is true that different generations have different needs, people cannot be easily placed into buckets. How we organize people within a company matters, but how we engage and connect with those people matters more because that is why they stay at a job and work hard. By focusing on generational differences, people miss the many commonalities that make a healthy company culture. These include flexibility (whether for community involvement, exercising, children, or caring for aging parents), opportunities for continuous learning and professional advancement, treating everyone as their own CEO, and embracing technology (whether to work from home, cut back on long meetings or provide additional engagement opportunities). By building a box and insisting everyone fit in certain slots, you will lose people who seek better opportunities when the economy improves. This is how work looks now:
Young and Adrift
Alec graduates from college unsure of what he wants to do with his life. His degree suggests he is qualified to join the workforce, but he isn’t confident in his abilities. He gets a job at an ad agency where he sits in a cubicle all day wearing ear buds while he works. He feels ignored and has no mentor. The work is uninspiring, he isn’t making friends and he doesn’t have a clear career path or any guidance on how to create one. He also feels if he asks for clarity, he’ll be judged as a needy Gen Zer.
After a few years, Alec leaves to work in agriculture and follow his passion for planting and growing. Within a year he is running the greenhouses and overseeing ten employees. Remembering how he felt at his last job, Alec purposely communicates with the people he manages to understand their needs and help them be productive and enjoy their jobs. After Alec gets engaged to his fiancé, he realizes he needs a career with more financial stability and work-life balance, so he approaches his boss, the owner, about a raise and a week off during the summer. “You will never make money here,” his boss tells him, also denying the time off. Alec is angry, though more about the vacation than the money. Still, he has hope, though not from his job at the grower. While working in the greenhouses, he also created a YouTube channel with a strong following among gardeners. He has enough followers that YouTube starts paying him ad income.
While Alec proves to be an excellent manager, he feels like a failure because he lacks a clear career arc. In reality, having a clear career arc in your 20s is a myth fed to us by society that reduces self-confidence among young workers. Alec also struggles with self-confidence due to lack of support from his boss and is unhappy because his values do not match the company culture. With the support of his fiancée, he quits his greenhouse job to focus on his YouTube channel.
Kara is in her mid-30s and has a successful career in engineering at a Fortune 5000 company. She is recruited to a Fortune 500 company seeking someone with the potential to become the engineering manager within a few years. The company has a culture based on performance and people aren’t comfortable taking agency, which concerns her. She is offered an attractive pay and benefits package and specifically invited to help change the culture. Soon after starting, Kara realizes her employees are hardworking, quiet and more stifled than she initially imagined. Unsurprisingly, they respond well to her encouragement and start to show self-motivation and share ideas. However, when people are asked to make their own decisions or collaborate with others, they retreat into their shells, which she connects to a culture that long discouraged decision making and self-actualization.
As the economy improves, people leave the company for places where the culture is more welcoming and focused on well-being, job satisfaction, and shared values. Kara knows she espouses these values, but the overall company culture does not. It is run like a firm from 1990s with a lot of rules, requirements to be in the office, micromanagement, and a lack of a clear career path. Those who stay see this attrition and seem to have less pride for the company and less enthusiasm for their jobs. While exit interviews don’t highlight any dramatic issues, she intuitively knows people are choosing companies with a better culture—and that is why she is finding hiring more difficult.
During an executive retreat, Kara and her team present an argument for systematic change. The CEO pulls her aside after the retreat and offers her the chance to carry out that change. Kara knows some people on the team resist the change, but feels it is necessary to evolve the company culture to both attract and retain talent. She believes her desire to value people and show them that she cares and respects their talents and individuality will allow her to transform the company culture.
A New Start
Danielle has always worked in finance and left a career in banking as a commercial lender to seek a job that inspired her. After working with a career coach, she enters the field of development, where she benefits from strong relationships and good money management skills. She works first at a university as director of development. Over time, she disagrees with the university leadership and leaves to manage a development department of ten people at a national environmental nonprofit, where she reports to the CEO and advises the organization on development and other strategic efforts.
Danielle joins the nonprofit knowing fundraising lags the board’s expectations but feeling confident she can turn things around. The CEO’s direct reports are smart, scientific, passionate about the mission. The executive team is transparent and caring, but Danielle knows leadership starts at the top. The CEO is transactional and seems insecure. He is also known to throw his staff under the bus in front of the board. When a board member asks her about the CEO, she gently suggests a 360-degree assessment for the entire team, which results in coaching and overall improvement. Still, the CEO remains transactional and unwilling to create the environment Danielle needs to engage all employees and other stakeholders, and to meet development targets.
A few of Danielle’s friends have started consulting firms, and Danielle had invitations to join them but declined. She likes having stable employment and a good salary, even though it sometimes comes with staff morale issues and challenges dealing with the CEO. Desiring more diverse projects and flexibility, she eventually leaves the nonprofit to go to another nonprofit where she hopes to find a better cultural fit.
The Future of Work in 2035
Evolutions might seem sudden, but they never are if you look beneath the surface. The evolution of work is no different. Consider the resume. Resumes evolved from a few jobs people remained at for life (or at least decades) to multipage documents illustrating how people first changed jobs more frequently and by 2030, how most people will work as freelancers on projects with different companies. One person who saw this evolution coming was management guru Charles Handy, who addressed this shift to a portfolio life — and coined the term — in his 1991 book, The Age of Unreason. In the portfolio economy, a career is defined as a series of different projects, not working for a single employer or a few employers.
For decades, Boomers were most of the workforce and desired a stable job and a paycheck. Gen X and Millennials and took over as older Boomers retired, and Gen Z desires are now the priority. They are also the most diverse and technologically savvy generation. Gen Z values salary less than all previous generations, instead desiring more autonomy and job satisfaction. When employees are responsible for their own careers and have flexibility and autonomy, they work more efficiently and are more passionate about their jobs. To be clear, this autonomy and flexibility exists in some places, but in the future it will be the norm, not the exception.
Central to this economy will be the Portfolio platform. Unlike previous online platforms where resumes were not always accurate and the matching process between people and jobs was poor, the Portfolio platform is streamlined and accountable. Instead of being mostly aspirational, it will be factual. It allows employees, who will be almost all contractors, to go online and see a list of projects requested of them by companies using the platform to find talent. It gives employers an accurate view of the skills of potential contractors through a system of checks and balances including:
- Data on jobs people applied to and whether they were accepted or denied
- Online ratings of jobs completed by both the contractor and company
- Letters of recommendation
- Links to verified college transcripts
- A list of key accomplishments by project
The evolution to the Portfolio platform will come with a corresponding evolution in worker benefits. When fewer people are tied to companies, the role of human resources changes dramatically. With a core group of workers employed by companies and a majority hired on a contract basis, benefits menus will change. Employees will request and receive greater flexibility as to when and where they work, and can choose from an à la carte list of benefits instead of a prescribed one. To retain top talent, people will be given the option between being an employee and being a contractor. The difference is both contractual and psychological. For many people, being a contractor provides the autonomy they need to create an environment where they can do their best work.
Several institutional reforms will be needed to meet the demand of workers and companies in this changed landscape. The process of hiring, maintaining, and transitioning workers was previously slowed by bureaucratic rules and laws. New laws will allow these things to happen more quickly. Whereas companies used to create multipage contracts for projects with individual workers — contracts that heavily favored the company — that contract will be templated within the Portfolio platform and is fair to both sides. Employees who represent themselves inaccurately can be transitioned out of projects faster and companies that misrepresent their scope of work will be held accountable. All of this will result in the faster acquisition of people for projects, a more even partnership between parties and a more efficient system where everyone saves money and time.
Within this new framework, a new culture of work will emerge where how we treat people is as important as what we produce. In a system where most people are contractors and have an individual brand, people’s ties to a company are loose and based on singular projects or a few projects. Companies that don’t respect and trust people, don’t have accountability systems to keep projects moving along smoothly, and misrepresent project needs will find these facts highlighted on the Portfolio platform. This will result in a self-selection of fewer people choosing their projects, forcing change upon the company if they want to find good workers.
Culture will also dramatically shift within companies, with the core group of employees demanding both a louder voice and transparent communication from leadership. Other ways company culture will evolve include:
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion will be a key strategic value, and everyone will have a voice in the decisions made by companies to ensure buy in and company success.
- Since people will choose companies based on their culture as much as the job, companies will work hard to make sure workers feel valued and connected to the mission.
- Leaders will not be defined as decision makers, but instead as listeners, conveners, and translators. In ancient cultures, there was a leader for strategic and tactical decisions and a shaman for community wellbeing. Leaders will now view a company like a community and focus on both functions.
- People will be seen as CEOs of their own jobs and projects, and be valued for their input.
- Management will be more focused coaching and mentoring. Better technology will allow for the management and tracking of tasks and projects. The critical role of coaching and mentoring will take precedence to ensure that employees are supported to solve problems, be productive, and progress within the organization.
Within companies, there will be a cultural shift from employing people to get the job done to creating a culture valuing critical and conceptual thinking in a community of people who respect one another. This was certainly valued in the past, but now it is the norm. People are valued for thinking holistically, solving problems and working as a team. Organizations that solve problems more slowly or don’t value critical thinking enough will lose talent.
The psychology of the worker/company relationship will also shift dramatically. Internally, workers will be valued for the results they produce, not the hours they sit at their desk — to the extent that working hours are loosely defined. Workers and companies will have a mutual desire and obligation to achieve results because they trust each other and both benefit from the results. This shift will be aided by the many contractors who showed companies they could produce excellent results with little oversight, saving companies money and providing a vast and multitalented resource to pull from to produce projects just in time.
More than ever, companies will be dependent on technology. Online tools will allow all meetings and communication to easily occur between people anywhere in the world. Online tools will also collate ideas, organize the data and generate results that can be shared easily with everyone. At the worker-employer matching level, the Portfolio platform will serve as the brain of the portfolio economy, assessing posted project needs and connecting companies with workers who can quickly fill them.
The most notable thing about the future of work is the way in which it emphasizes individual actualization and fulfillment over the work itself. By doing this, companies attract passionate workers and contractors who consider themselves CEOs of their own projects and have a vested interest in doing their best work. This passion among all workers combined with a system aimed at allowing people to choose what works best for them, contracting or employment, will result in communities of people with the talents and desire to move everyone forward.
Portfolio Worker Profiles
The biggest difference between the gig economy of the past and the portfolio worker economy of the future is that gig workers existed outside the traditional work framework and portfolio workers are within that framework. In a world where businesses only employ their core employees and contract with everyone else, portfolio workers do not provide added value — they provide just-in-time talent that companies need daily. Online apps have evolved from helping workers establish a brand to sites with validated information and reviews about worker skills and finished projects, along with a matching tool so companies can easily identity and connect to portfolio workers with the right skills.
Culture will matter just as much as it does now (maybe more) because businesses in the future will be organized around the portfolio worker economy. Portfolio workers within common industries and/or with symbiotic skills will form small businesses guided by valuing people, offering flexibility, and having a shared sense of purpose. Some of the people working in these new companies will be employees; many will be portfolio workers. All of them will be more effective and happier in their careers because they have agency to make their own decisions, are doing work they love, and can choose which projects interest them most. This is how work will look in the future:
Alec started a YouTube channel related to gardening and quickly gained followers in the gardening community, which led to ad income. His proven influencer skills attracted other businesses. When he closed his first contract to produce and manage a YouTube platform for an insurance company, he realized he found his direction. He had companies court him to be an influencer and was turning people away when he got too busy. This gave him a level of respect he never felt in previous jobs.
Alec’s new job was one of self-actualization. He chose a career that motivated him and provided him with good income — double what he made at his previous job. He was also continuously learning, as his clients came from a variety of industries. This learning included mentorship. As a small business owner, he needed an education in contracts, negotiating deals, and sales strategies. Because he was transparent and authentic, local business owners offered their help, providing him an on-the-job MBA.
When Alec started his business, he would meet people for lunch to see if they wanted to work with him or knew someone else who would. The evolution to portfolio workers made this process easier. The portfolio platform became an accurate and efficient matching tool, and Alec could log on and have numerous jobs waiting for him that he could accept or deny.
After years of working in this way, Alec gained immense skills that led to several long-term portfolio work projects with a few companies, allowing him to work bigger and deeper projects and continue his growth. Eventually, he would become an executive with one firm under a contract where he could be self-actualized on a larger playing field and have a bigger impact that was fulfilling.
The New Worker Contract
With the support of her company, Kara took on the role of leading the company culture. Her efforts to transform her company from a place where being hardworking but obedient was valued to one where collaboration, creativity, and professional growth drove culture was successful. After several challenging years of evangelizing, mentoring, coaching, succession planning, and establishing company culture, the company evolved and won multiple Best Companies to Work For awards. The company now hired for character and problem-solving abilities, not just for talent. They had reached the tipping point where about 15% of the most influential people at all levels bought into the new culture, so culture took on a life of its own.
The nature of the work contract also changed. Kara institutes a policy of asking employees for a two-year contract, after which they could mutually agree to stay, or the company helps them find a new opportunity. This inspires managers to work with employees and keep only those who are a good fit. This system is facilitated by an evolution from people fighting for talent to one where companies work together. The Portfolio platform allows companies to access each other’s employees and share work and talent between them.
Kara’s success came from a belief that culture is the pivot point of everything. A company that was merely transactional not only has lower worker satisfaction, but reduced revenue because workers are not as energized to do their best. She is an example of transformational leadership. This is when a person inspires people to move beyond immediate self-interest to include the well-being of others by creating an environment where everyone is valued, and self-actualization is a top priority.
She will eventually become an indispensable person in her company and will likely take on the formal role of leader. Her ability to be both strategic and human, and to create sustainable environments that can adapt, attract, retain, and steward employees make her invaluable to any organization. She was allowed to act as a portfolio worker inside her firm, and that fulfilled her. By trusting Kara to exercise her wisdom and ideas, the company culture will adapt and thrive.
Portfolio Worker Business
After working at several nonprofits in the development department, Danielle is very successful professionally but encounters a culture problem everywhere she works. She decides to start her own firm. Within a few months, she has three solid contracts to last her the entire year. Danielle starts co-working with other development consultants, as her projects grow beyond the scope of her time and talents. She is learning a lot about the independent business world. If one project falls through, she quickly finds another and becomes less concerned about her ability to make a stable income. She learns over time that there is really no job security because if she is working for a company, they could let her go at any time whereas, if she loses one project, she still has those that remain and is confident more will come along.
At some point, co-working on projects turns into a discussion about starting a small company with other portfolio workers. She merges with two other portfolio workers to create an environmental development consulting company. Together they use the online portfolio platform to advertise their skills, expertise and project focus. The newly formed company can focus on projects and growth without worrying about administrative hurdles because there are minimal human resources needs. Beyond the three partners, all work is on a contract basis, including with clients and other portfolio workers they hire to assist. These contracts are defined and outlined in the platform, saving her company time and money.
Danielle will eventually sell her share of the business to the other partners and help transition her legacy to others. She eventually starts a coffee shop in a small town, finding self-actualization as a small community leader.
The Cultural Evolution is Here:
The stories of Alec, Kara and Danielle highlight how workers universally seek to be part of a community where they are valued for their skills and given agency to produce good work. Their stories reflect evolving personal and professional priorities and a changing relationship with the companies they work for. All of these changes require a new language, which Charles Handy outlined in an essay for the Harvard Business Review in 1997. Back then, Handy’s suggestions were ahead of their time. Now they are coming to fruition and will become even more relevant as work continues to evolve. Handy wrote that defining workers as employees or human resources is the language of ownership, and that citizen would be a better term. This cultural shift, he said, would create companies with a “citizen contract” where “the culture and purpose of the community have to pervade the organization” for everyone to feel rewarded and valued. This is exactly what the best companies are doing now and is exactly what will be required of workers and companies for success in the future.
Technology enables companies and workers to reimagine what work looks like, and the most successful companies are embracing this change to retain and attract workers and contractors. To be clear, this does not mean the end of the employee, but it does mean far fewer employees sitting in cubicles from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Instead, they are working at home, working schedules that fit their families, and spending more time in shared spaced, both physical and virtual, working in teams. For managers, this requires a new mindset as to how we define, approach, value, and relate to workers.
Job security matters more than ever, but the definition of job security is evolving rapidly. Where it once meant staying with one employer for decades or doing meaningless work that provided a steady paycheck, it now means choosing work that provides agency, self-actualization, and fulfillment. Employers that offer this culture will attract employees and contractors, while employers that don’t will lose talent. People like Alec will leave jobs where they are unnoticed members of the workforce to find happiness and fulfillment elsewhere. Managers like Kara will recognize that culture is the pivot point of everything and improve culture to attract and retain workers. People like Danielle who desire an inspiring and secure job will learn that job satisfaction trumps job security, and that both are possible outside the traditional employee/employer relationship.
Existing successful companies can’t turn everyone into portfolio workers overnight, or even in weeks or months. And not all workers have the desire, means of self-promotion or small business skills to start their own venture. Work has traditionally meant committing to a full-time job and accepting the need to sometimes stay in your lane and be less satisfied in exchange for pay and benefits. Traditional management talks about culture and fulfillment, but they are measured by results. As this worker/company relationship evolves, and people leave companies for places where they are valued or to start their own jobs, companies will be forced to make changes. It is best, Handy wrote, to create work cultures where people are treated as citizens. By changing people’s mindset and changing the culture of work we can create companies that are communities.
Alec’s career arc shows the importance of valuing employees. He left his first job because he felt unnoticed and unfulfilled. He left his second job at the greenhouse because his hard work was not recognized by his boss, even though he loved the job. Alec wanted to bring new ideas to his boss at the greenhouse, but his boss wasn’t interested and made him feel less confident. In both cases, Alec was not valued. People who do not feel valued tend to be less productive and have two choices: remain for the pay and benefits or leave for a better opportunity. Alec left, creating a new opportunity for himself as a one-man influencer on YouTube. In this role, he was passionate, well compensated, and valued. Every person that makes this move is a reminder to companies that valuing employees really matters.
Company culture must also create a sense of agency where individuals are empowered to be CEOs of themselves. Kara noticed that the old way of thinking about culture where people do a job for pay prevented people from raising deficiencies, resulted in no feedback to employees or development plans to help them grow, and reduced productivity. Once she empowered her employees, she then needed to help the entire organization adjust to produce enough change to transform the entire company culture. Her idea of providing two-year contracts to engineers created a sense of ownership, and that what they accomplished was not just merely for the company but also for them.
The change to a portfolio worker economy will also create new kinds of companies. While Danielle first worked for universities and nonprofits seeking inspiration and job satisfaction, she learned that the culture at these organizations did not offer the support she needed to be successful. The best companies value the input of all individuals, treat them with respect and give them agency to do their jobs and take ownership of them. While Danielle was not interested in being a long-time portfolio worker, she found her niche as a co-owner in a small business that mostly employed portfolio workers. Danielle was doing the same work she loved in nonprofits, but as a small business owner, she was empowered to choose projects that satisfied her along with the support of the company she co-created.
These different paths in the future Portfolio worker economy all depend on the Portfolio platform. As described early, the Portfolio platform is factually based, but also aspirational. Currently gig worker platforms used to hire for projects (Upwork, Fiverr) are not used by traditional organizations and the sites that are traditionally used, namely LinkedIn, do not accurately or effectively match people to jobs or screen out unqualified candidates. The Portfolio platform will be different in that it will:
- Include vetted reviews of projects by workers and companies
- List specific skills workers possess, the kinds of teams they want to work with
- Have detailed information about projects they have completed
- Have data on projects they applied to and which they were accepted at.
Using all this data, the platform will match workers to companies. Workers will have a list of possible jobs waiting for them on the platform, complete an informational interview, and start new projects quickly. Companies will input project needs on the site, including skills and characteristics of workers. Companies understand they are getting the just-in-time work they need from someone with the perfect skillset, and have the mindset that this matters more than a large pool of employees they oversee.
The Portfolio economy will keep workers, managers, and companies on their toes. Leaders will be hyper aware of the culture of their organization, as they must sell it each time that they post a project online. Business and profits continue to matter, but culture will be equally important. Given the choice between portfolio work and being an employee, workers can choose the arrangement best for them, knowing companies are focused on meeting their needs as much as the company’s profits. This will create a culture of shared valued of goals, which is the best way to reach long term success and profitability.
The future is coming quickly. There is no portfolio platform right now, but gig worker sites exist and continue to evolve. Once large companies embrace this model, everything will change. The biggest change will be a shared understanding of what work looks like. Successful companies allow all workers to take agency of themselves. Successful leaders treat workers as CEOs of their own work and seek to help them excel. Successful workers take on work they enjoy for companies that value their talents. Technology experts are behind the scenes working to create better online tools every day. As the gig worker economy continues to grow with more people embrace working for themselves, the online platforms will be forced to evolve to connect this growing pool of workers with companies. Change is coming, and both companies and workers need to be ready to embrace to create better company cultures, and better companies.
Resources and Further Study on The Future of Work
Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code: The Secret to Highly Successful Groups. New York: Bantam Books, 2018.
(Real stories based on examples of intentional cultures that perform well.)
Drucker, Peter F., Esther Dyson, Charles Handy, Paul Saffo, Peter M. Senge. “Looking Ahead: Implications of the Present,” Harvard Business Review, September – October 1997
Graeber, David and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
(We have evolved, we are foundationally good, and can improve to a better society, and improve how we are organize our cultures.)
Handy, Charles. The Age of Unreason. Boston: Harvard Business Review, 1991.
(To understand the ideas around the portfolio worker the future predictions that we are now coming true. Handy has written extensively on culture and our organization role in it.)
Harari, Yuval N. Homo Deus; a Brief History of Tomorrow. New York: Harper Perennial, 2017.
(Examines the future as a synergy of sociology and technology. This work inspired and scared me at the same time.)
Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens; a Brief History of Mankind. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018.
(Fascinating perspective how our societies have evolved, both how far we have come and changes, and how much we haven’t.)
Russ Ouellette is the president and senior executive coach at Sojourn Partners, a Bedford, New Hampshire-based consultant group providing customized training for executive and career coaching, company culture, leadership development and strategic business planning. Russ’s consulting centers on executive performance, firm motivation, planning and organizational change. He has coached thousands of clients, spoken at hundreds of corporate engagements and is author of books and blogs.