Melding Flexibility and Connectivity in the Workplace

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Many leaders are questioning whether their talent ecosystems can be widened and deepened. Their recent experience with the surge of remote working has underscored this potential. It is no surprise that in a recent MIT Sloan Management Review/Deloitte survey, 87% of managers said they consider many external workers to be part of their workforce — including contractors, service providers, and app developers. What managers value is the agility these contract positions bring.

It’s not only leaders who are questioning how work gets done. Many employees report that their experiences during the pandemic have tested traditional assumptions. They are experimenting with the place and time of work, embracing home, coffee shops, and holiday rentals for “place” and flexible scheduling and even four-day workweeks for “time.”

Just as important, stripped of many of their daily working habits, workers are reevaluating their life plans. The idea of a multistage working career is not new, but it initially was taken up only by social pioneers. Now it’s gone mainstream. People are hungry to craft lives that integrate diverse activities — work, side businesses, family, continuing education — and have a personalized trajectory. Many people are relishing the possibility of autonomy and flexibility.

So here is the puzzle: Project leads want a pool of talent that is agile and readily available, and employees relish autonomy and flexibility. But many of the core roles in companies require a high level of connectivity and the tacit knowledge that, historically, only full-time employees have been able to bring.

Some executives are actively working out how to solve the puzzle of melding flexibility and connectivity. Experiments are giving workers the chance to create working lives that resemble a portfolio of different elements while giving team leaders the chance to bring both employees and contractors into projects in highly connected ways. I call this the “third way” that sits between full-time work and contract work.

Building Connectivity and Flexibility

While contracting out assignments is fine for relatively repetitive work that requires a high degree of explicit knowledge and is easily chunked into discrete projects, it can be a challenge for work that is based on deep organizational knowledge or that requires the assembling of stakeholders from across businesses. While contract workers offer flexibility to organizations, they usually bring less connectivity — and sometimes connections are crucial to success.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen a number of experiments that have tried to build this third way of working for the best of both worlds. As ever more talented and knowledge-rich workers push for flexibility, understanding the possibilities of this third way becomes more crucial. These experiments are giving us a sense of what is ahead.

From ‘Owning’ Talent to ‘Accessing’ Talent

Finding a blended model was what Morag Lynagh and Placid Jover from Unilever began to work on in 2017. Lynagh is the company’s global future of work director, and Jover is vice president of human resources across Latin America and leads the New Employment Models agenda globally.

As Jover explained to me, “The bottom line was that we needed to create a new type of employment contract — to create a third way, which at that time did not exist — to fill the white space between being a full-time employee and being a contractor or agency worker from a third-party organization. We wanted to move from owning talent to accessing talent.”

To do that, they launched the U-Work employment model. Under this structure, some Unilever employees receive a monthly retainer in addition to being paid for each assignment, have the provision of pension support and access to health insurance, and are given the opportunity to engage with the company’s online learning capabilities.

Since the program’s launch, employees have used this flexibility in unique ways. After a six-month stint spent mapping stakeholders for one of the supply chains, one graduate of the company’s Future Leaders program took an extended trip around the world. Another employee, who has 45 years’ experience at the company, spends two days a week as a business performance mentor for the business leaders. A third works as a Unilever legal adviser while caring for her children and working part time with a media law firm.

From Full Time to Role Sharing

Role sharing can make sense for jobs that are difficult to fill or for work that needs continuity rather than being divided into stand-alone projects for part-time workers.

At Open Banking, a U.K.-based financial services company that creates industry guidelines for retail banking, Sherelle Folkes and Nichola Johnson-Marshall job share as coheads of external communications. This gave Johnson-Marshall time to build a boutique consultancy with her twin sister, and Folkes was able to take time out to write the book she had been meaning to work on for years. “We are definitely the upbeat communications team of Open Banking,” Johnson-Marshall explained in a podcast from, a technology platform that matches professionals so they can co-apply for jobs. “I feel very grateful in this role.” How many people, she mused, end up having to leave a job to take a career break or take a sabbatical because of burnout?

At Unilever, Shelagh Muir and Jane Maciver came together for a job share as vice presidents of research and development in the U.K. “It is like having a trusted peer with you all the time that you can bounce things off, that you can think things through with, and I find that incredibly powerful,” said Muir, in another podcast episode. Added Maciver, “We often shared the challenges of wanting to have a challenging role and an exciting career but also having passions outside of work that you also want to invest some time in.”

Learning From These Experiments

There are sure to be many more experiments that explore this third way. Here are some of the lessons of early adopters.

Look specifically to where value is being created. A U.K. study estimates that people participating in role sharing are 30% more productive compared with traditional roles. Data from the U.K. Civil Service — which has around 1,000 role sharers within its population of over 300,000 employees — also found that 12% more job sharers reported being satisfied with their lives (76%) compared with full-time workers (64%).

What is the basis of this gain in productivity and well-being? That’s a question I put to Sophie Smallwood and Dave Smallwood, co-CEOs of Roleshare. Partly, it’s from pacing: The Smallwoods described how having space away from work is a real lift, with job sharers not having the midweek dip in productivity that full-time workers can have. Instead, job sharers tend to be extremely focused on the two or three days they’re working.

Productivity boosts also come from the amount of learning that happens between the paired workers. People drawn to job sharing want to perform well not just for themselves but for their partner — equally, if not more. As Sophie Smallwood remarked, “There is healthy peer pressure, because you know you are handing the work off to someone else.”

Be prepared to back early adopters. Third-way experiments are often adopted by individual teams who see value and then build out. That’s been the experience of Derrick McCourt, general manager of Microsoft’s U.K. customer success unit. In a podcast episode, he explained that he brought on someone for a job-sharing role who had been working part time for another organization. “If I hadn’t had role-share capability in my organization, frankly, that person wouldn’t have shown the interest in Microsoft in the first place,” he said. Because of that experience, McCourt is now opening up all his job postings to job sharers.

Realize that the third way is not for all jobs or all employees. The flex models of having people on retainer and offering job sharing add the greatest value in roles that require tacit knowledge and connections to networks. Employees who are most interested are often people who want a multistage working life. Lynagh and Jover, for example, have calculated that U-Work will be an interesting option for between 2% to 4% of Unilever’s population. But with around 150,000 employees, that’s still as many as 6,000 people — a significant number.

Use this learning as a launchpad. The more that companies experiment with the third way, the more they see other possibilities. As Lynagh and Jover told me, “Once we have cracked the code, we can widen. We are now thinking about how we can support the wider Unilever population — for example, people on paid learning sabbaticals. This is a real opportunity to be creative about the redesign of the employment contract.”

The narrative of work is becoming more nuanced. Managers are grappling with managing synchronous and asynchronous work and the impact of virtual working on knowledge flows. They are being forced to become more intentional about the design of work — where it takes place, when it happens, and who does it. The challenge will be to keep networks strong and connectivity high while folding in the flexibility that so many people crave.



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Comment (1)
Paul ONeill
Perhaps one of the most insightful aspects of this article is the comment "From ‘Owning’ Talent to ‘Accessing’ Talent".

The organization chart is the means by which managers can "own talent", however it is NOT the means by which managers readily "access talent", whether it is resources under the manager's direct control, or perhaps more importantly resources "belonging" to other managers! Hence that approach (derived from an org chart perspective) gives rise to the silo mentality!

At NolijWork, we perceive work as a "network", rather than the construct of a hierarchy. This echoes with models such as "wirearchy" approach or perhaps "team of teams". No-one "owns" the network, they just "access" the network, in order to get work done.