Netflix recently announced an unlimited paid-leave policy that allows employees to take off as much time as they want during the first year after a child’s birth or adoption. It is trying to one-up tech companies that offer unlimited vacation as a benefit. These are all public-relations ploys and recruiting gimmicks. No employee will spend a year as a full-time parent; hardly any will go on month-long treks to the Himalayas. Employees will surely take a couple of weeks off, but they will still be working—wherever they are. That is the new nature of work.
In the technology industry, it is standard practice for employers to provide cell phones to their employees and to pay for data plans. This is because employees are expected to always be on call and to receive SMS text and emails. Urgent or not, the emails continue for 24 hours a day—even on weekends. Companies don’t mandate that employees check them, but few dare not to check emails when they are commuting, at home, or on vacation—to make sure that they haven’t messed up.
The reality is that there is no 9 to 5 any more. We are always connected, always on, always working—no matter where we are or what industry we are in. Everything is now urgent and problems that previously could have waited until the next day now need to be addressed immediately.
We can debate whether it is good or bad, but these are the new rules of work. Everything changed over the last decade as we became chained to the Internet. These changes are happening globally.
Information of all kinds is being digitized: project plans, land records, customer complaints, legal contracts, building designs, and photographs; everything there is. Most of these data are being stored on line—so we can access them wherever we are. There is no longer an excuse for not working.
With digitization, work is also becoming micro-work. A big project becomes a series of small projects that can be done by people in different locations. Accounting firms routinely outsource tax preparation and data analysis; lawyers farm out discovery and contract creation; doctors rely on skilled technicians in other countries to do their radiological analysis. Data handling, website development, design, and transcription are commonly outsourced on sites such as Upwork, Freelancer, and 99Designs. Smaller, micro-tasks are farmed out via sites such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, Samasource, and CrowdFlower.
With humanity becoming connected, many good things are becoming possible. Crowdsourcing is making it possible for people to come together as never before to solve social problems. I saw the possibilities at first hand when using the power of the collective to create a book, Innovating Women, on how we can get more women to participate in the innovation economy. I was able to tap into the knowledge of more than 500 women all over the world. Within six weeks we came to a consensus on the key issues and solutions and gathered enough information to publish not just one but several books. The participants learned from each other, and the quality of the discussion kept increasing.
Businesses are beginning to use the power of the collective as well. Rather than locking workers into departmental silos, companies on the cutting edge are using internal social-media sites to have employees communicate with and help each other. What used to be the quarterly memo from the CEO has become a torrent of sharing, with information being exchanged at all levels of the corporation.
Employees can gain access to people they would never have had contact with, including the CEO, and crowdsource solutions to their department’s problems.
You also don’t need to be physically present any more to be at work. Telepresence robots are taking video conferencing to a new level. There are several products on the market, such as Beam by Suitable Technologies and Ava from iRobot, that allow a screen mounted on a mobile platform to move around the office and experience what is happening in a more human way. Imagine walking into your boss’s office while you are on vacation in Disneyland, stepping into a conference room to join a meeting, and then chit-chatting with your peers around the water fountain.
Not only has the nature of work changed; so have the rules for getting ahead. Success no longer comes from hoarding knowledge, which was the key to job security in the past; it comes from sharing knowledge and helping the company solve its problems. The hard part is that employees have to take the onus to keep their skills current; they must keep reinventing themselves. They have to keep adapting to the changes that technology is bringing, because the ability to use technology is now a fundamental skill—like reading and writing. It also no longer matters what degree you have or from what school you graduated; what matters now is how effective you are at getting the job done. And that means staying connected to work constantly.
So employees can take as much leave as they want, but the employer’s expectations remain the same: that the job will be done.