Why are companies still “owning” employees?

In the age of smart AI platforms, ownership is a dying concept. So why are companies still “owning” employees by contract?

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March 27, 2019
Team Engagement

Ownership is on its way out. That’s old news, right? In the age of smart AI platforms, owning a song, a movie, a car or even a chainsaw makes no sense. Everything that is too expensive, too fleeting, too single-purpose or too occasionally useful to possess, gets streamed, shared or rented out. We’ve become completely used to that.

So why, then, are companies still “owning” employees by contract?

There are many voices in the world of work which claim that keeping one job, inside just one company will completely disappear. Very few of them are saying that fixed employeeship (is that a word?) will disappear altogether, though. Maybe because this is the type of truth that scares us to death. We have always felt the need for some kind of control or safety when it comes to our careers. Merely thinking that the ‘contract’ between our organization and ourselves could disappear, gives us nightmares.

The identity factor of work

That’s because – as future of work expert Heather E. McGowan told me – work has become a very big part of our identity. Today, we ‘are’ what we get paid for. That’s why writers or photographers for instance only “deserve” the noun if the activity is part of their livelihood: it's what they "are" and it defines them. Otherwise, they’re only ‘worth’ the verb: they are just someone who’s writing or who’s taking pictures (as a hobby).

But society and the work environment are evolving: speed of change became exponential and adaptation and fluidity are essential to stay relevant. In the age of occupational fluidity - that’s right at our doorsteps - we’ll have 2 choices: we’ll root our identity in other parts of our lives, or we’ll have to learn to live with a fluid identity. The latter is not as crazy as it sounds. We have been saying this about companies for ages now: that they need to become fluid; or better yet like phoenixes (this brilliant idea comes from Pascal Coppens, actually), constantly rising from their own ashes and reinventing themselves. And it looks like this might have to become necessary for people. We’ll no longer study to become an accountant and then be an accountant for the rest of our lives. We’ll basically learn to learn, to stay fluid, and to reinvent ourselves along with the change.

Identity cannot be fully fluid

Of course, there will be companies that will invest a lot in personal learning and reskilling programs for their employees. That's fantastic, and sorely needed. But it’s not realistic to expect complete fluidity from a person. For instance, we still have a ‘fixed’ character, and a propensity towards certain talents and that is something that is nearly impossible to transform. For instance, I like to think of myself as a rather creative person, but I don’t believe that reskilling myself for a highly logical and rational type of work would be effective. I might be able to do the job, but others would be a lot better at it then me, and – just as important – it would really drain my energy to do something so counterintuitive.

I believe that companies might start to “stream” talent like we stream music: carefully picking the right character profiles and talents for new business models or departments that pop-up and dissapear after a while. They could evolve to consist of a small fixed core – possibly (but not necessarily) those deciding upon the strategy and direction - and the bigger part will consist of a flexible ecosystem of ‘Mr. & Mrs. Right Nows’.

I’m sure that some of you are thinking something along the lines of “That’s not new. That’s what freelancers, consultants, temps or platforms like Upwork have been doing for years: providing fluid and temporary talent injections whenever and wherever needed.” True. But useful though they can be, these solutions tend to be mostly temporary, more of an advisory nature and on top of that often really expensive.

What we do need is a more structural solution to the problem of the mismatch between fluidity on a personal level (which is limited) and on a company level, which by the way already has a very hard time keeping up with the fluidity on a societal level. I have no ready answers here, but I do believe that this is a conversation that we will need to have, even if it scares us. Precisely because it scares us. Employee ‘ownership’ by contract could very well be on the way out, and ignoring this fact will not help our cause.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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March 27, 2019
Team Engagement