Dena McCallum, co-founder of Eden McCallum, grappled with this question at a one-day Management Today conference on The Future of Work, held in London on 23rd June. The panel discussion with Karen Mattison, co-founder and CEO of Timewise, Peter C Barker, market development manager EMEA for 3M and Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, was chaired by Kate Bassett, features editor of the magazine.
With that day’s Brexit referendum threatening domestic political upheaval, participants discussed the broader changes affecting working lives across the developed world – a slower revolution perhaps, but just as dramatic.
Dena began the discussion by outlining the variety and shape of portfolio careers, using Eden McCallum’s current network of consultants as examples.
“Fundamentally, it is a trade-off between job security on the one hand and independence and control on the other.” At Eden McCallum all consultants are freelancers, she added, “so we see a huge range of portfolio careers.”
Some have two or three non-executive directorships, a couple of NGO trusteeships, plus consulting one or two days a week: “They really have a fabulous mixture and it’s very stimulating.”
Young people, according to Dena, might manage their portfolio career, or their gigs, in a more sequential way – setting aside time for start-ups and travel, for example – because a series of projects seems to suit younger workers. And these trends have implications for employers as they try to attract top recruits.
“For people who are highly skilled and talented,” said Dena, “you are now competing not just with other corporates, but with this freelance, portfolio career – and it really is a valid career choice.”
A 2014 survey in the UK found 87% of students with first or second-class degrees see freelancing as a highly lucrative and attractive option. In the US, a separate survey revealed that 65% see freelancing as a more respected career now than it was three years ago.
So employers must offer not only job security – even in economically turbulent times – but also address some of the flexible working expectations of today’s and tomorrow’s workforce. Many companies are changing their working practice to accommodate this challenge – offering home-working, unpaid leave or unrestricted leave. Trusting contractors to work hard – wherever they are based – was relatively easy, Dena said, because the freelance model means instant feedback and “you are only as good as your latest gig.”
But when it comes to the enduring attractions of a secure job, training is highly valued, and Dena argued it was an advantage for corporate recruiters who offer a personal development plan and a sense of career progression. “That’s quite difficult to replicate in the freelance world.”
Benefits for employers from this new world of work include, she added, two big wins: instant and easier access to high-calibre talent, and the agility to respond to project-based demand and to manage your cost base.
The panel also discussed the downsides for companies of using freelance workers. Peter Barker of 3M highlighted the risks to data security with so many unfamiliar faces in the office, as well as the lack of data security from hot-desking, open plan offices or even using cafes and airline lounges as offices on the move. Downsides for freelancers include the lack of legal protections and welfare, and the challenge of getting credit approval – for a mortgage, for example.
Dena anticipated a change in public policy here: “With fluid boundaries between employment and freelance, it will be hard to know which one is which. Government policy will have to catch up so freelance doesn’t mean you are stuck without any benefits.”
“People do need protections that aren’t yet there.”
Karen Mattison observed that businesses had been “really good at offering flexible working to people they know, to keep talent”. But when it came to advertising new jobs, her company Timewise found that this adaptability was much more rare – only 8.7% of job ads offer flexible terms. Employers needed to realise, she argued, that “flexibility is as important as salary.”
Dena noted that the stigma attached to part-time and flexible work (as a so-called mummy-track for the uncommitted) was out-dated: “This isn’t just a working mum issue. Actually 70% of our consultants are male and this is an issue for everyone.”
Ann Francke of the CMI agreed that the future world of work would be marked by a greater emphasis on bringing values into the workplace, with “people being more flexible.”
“The more tech we have, the more important it is to be human,” she said, arguing that managers particularly needed to take an ethical approach, not just because being a collaborative boss was proven to boost productivity and results but also because “all the characteristics of a bad boss demean and devalue you as a human being.”
With the changing pattern of longer working lives fast rising up the agenda, the panel turned to the conventions of retirement – a “dead concept,” said Dena, as older people will need to keep their incomes and stimulus, marking a huge positive change for both individuals and employers. “That is so fabulous for companies, avoiding all that experience just walking out the door at age 60. The notion that you go full guns then stop and relax for the next 40 years is just mad.” In the career of the future, suggested Dena, “we will work with different levels of intensity throughout our lives.”