Jobs and the Future of Work

5 ways to swim, not sink as part of a 'liquid workforce'


Gauging the currents … the 21st-century work environment. Image: Alexey Kuzmin

Nahia Orduña
Manager, Solutions Architecture, Amazon Germany
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Future of Work

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” will always be a classic question for kids at family events. Whether “future you” turns out to be a teacher or a bus driver or an engineer, the expectation is that it will be only one role, as has always happened in history. Until now. But today, we have something called liquid workforce.

Technology is disrupting our lives. Netflix, Amazon, Uber et al have changed the way we consume entertainment, shop, and move. As a result, our way of working is also changing. World Economic Forum predicts a displacement of 75 million jobs and the emergence of 133 million new ones by 2022. McKinsey informs us there will be a shift from manual, physical tasks to higher cognitive, social, emotional skills.

How can organizations and individuals get ready for a level of upheaval that is almost impossible to forecast in the medium term?

Testing the waters

One way is the concept of a “liquid workforce”. This means to organize and shape teams in such a way that they are able to rapidly adapt and change depending on the environment they find themselves in.

A highly adaptable and change-ready enterprise, enabled by technology, should have learning as a core competency, actively offering the skills in demand for projects using internal and external talent.

Image: Accenture

And what does it mean for us, the workers?

Companies are going to be demanding different competencies, and we need to be ready to meet this demand. I visualize the idea of the liquid workforce as an immense moving ocean. One day, we may have a great job and be enjoying a warm tropical area. However, strong currents may move us quickly from being in a stable position to new waters where our abilities are no longer as relevant, and the water is freezing cold. How do we stay where we want to be? How do we swim?

The liquid workforce

Nowadays, more than ever, we need to reinvent ourselves during our careers. It is challenging but essential to move from one role to a new one in a natural way. No matter your age or area of expertise, knowledge may become quickly obsolete. So how do you manage to be the right talent at the right time?

1. Understand at every moment where you are in the ocean. What is your best way to swim? The question for the liquid workforce is no longer what is your current role (for example, project manager), but which skills you have and where can these bring you. (It could be leadership, negotiation, scheduling, communication or risk management.)

2. Learn which ocean currents are coming in your area. Be up to date around what is happening in your industry. As a project manager, you may want to learn about new agile techniques and the possible evolutions of your role. As it is always difficult to imagine the future, PWC has defined four scenarios for 2030 based on fragmentation/integration and collectivism/individualism criteria. It can help to identify where you would be in a world where humans come first, or in one ruled by innovation. What would happen if sustainability and social responsibilities are the main drivers of society, or if we live a more corporate-driven scenario?

3. Set your direction. If you are working in the liquid workforce, you should know where do you want to go. What skill gaps do you currently have? You are only going to thrive in the new future if you are a lifelong learner. Make a conscious plan on how to develop new skills that keep you competitive. To take project management as an example, you may want to take agile and Scrum (an agile methodology) trainings.

4. In a world where long-term employer-employee relationships are disappearing, considering a portfolio career is a good idea. For example, combining a part-time corporate job with freelancing or delivering classes in your area of expertise. This not only brings multiple income streams, but also a greater sense of control and the possibility to explore different areas with your skills that can help you to thrive.

And lastly, most importantly: as a part of the liquid workforce, enjoy the swim. As job roles are fluid and changing, you have the chance to experiment and switch careers more easily. As a project manager, this could mean not only the chance to reinvent yourself in an agile role, but you can also consider new digital emerging roles that need your skills. It is an opportunity to find your purpose, test new waters and unlock your potential in a different area.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” My four-year old daughter cheered “a unicorn!” I was about to correct her and suggest examples of real-life jobs. But then I realised: who am I to guess if those professions will still be there when she is my age. They may be as likely as a unicorn. So I explained to her that she could be whatever she wants if she learns how to swim.

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Jobs and the Future of WorkEducation and SkillsBusiness
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