The Starbucks Paradox

The future of work.  Increasingly written about, talked about, tweeted and infographiced. The bandwagon effect is in full flow.  The early adopters have come and spoken at conferences and gone.  The laggards are quickly catching up.

There are plenty of clichés about the future of work, but one thing is certain: a change is coming.

I’ve heard it called the hollowing out of the labour market.

I’ve heard it called the hourglass effect.

I’ve heard it described as a void between the people who matter and the people who don’t.

Well paid highly specialised knowledge work at the top.  Low paid low value work at the bottom.  And nothing much else in between.

So goes the theory.

But like the saying goes, the future is already here, it is just evenly distributed*.  Zero hours contracts, low paid work, reducing employment rights, high youth unemployment.  These problems are already very much in evidence.

There are huge implications for HR and for people management in this definitely maybe future labour market.  We might just find ourselves with a strange tension.  The manager of the knowledge worker versus the manager of the traditional worker, living in a parallel universe, opposite extremes.  A completely new management gap.  If the predictions hold true, we are left with more unknowns than knowns.  A whole host of implications not just for managers and leaders, but the methods, processes and HR practices that support them.

Can all people managers and all employees embrace the potential of the future of work, or just a lucky few?  Will others be left behind, repeating the management models and methods of the past?  A Coffice for some and Taylorism for everyone else?  Will it ever be possible to switch from working or managing at the bottom of the gap to the top?  What will this mean for the skills and jobs mismatch, and the (sorry) so called war for talent?

Are we ready?  Are we heck.

There is a future of work, coffee shop paradox.

If you are a knowledge worker at the top of this future labour market, you can work in a Starbucks**.  Pitch up anywhere with a Wifi connection and a power source for your tablet.  Work is a thing that you do not a place that you go. Just saying no to the 9-5 thing, sitting in an office thing.  Coffee and cake. The crowd and the cloud.

And if you find yourself at the bottom of the hourglass shaped labour market, you too can work in a Starbucks.

Only you will be the one serving the skinny lattes.



*William Gibson said it first. Although Peter Cheese is fond of saying it too. 
**Or any other coffee shop chain. Take your pick. Personally I prefer Costa. 
 Additional note – after I published this post I found out that the title has already been used by David D’Souza.  Which means I have probably committed subconscious plagiarism.  Sorry David.

Better Working Lives? #CIPD14

My final thoughts following the 2014 CIPD conference.

Better work and better working lives. The purpose of the CIPD.

I spent two days last week blogging and tweeting from the annual conference, and I have been reflecting on what I heard ever since.  What does this mission mean?  And what the role of each of us within it?

The session that had the most impact on me was on day two. A panel session on the labour market with Norman Pickervance, Michael Davies (UKCES), Paul Novak (TUC) and Peter Cheese.  Pickervance struck a chord with me, as much of what he said aligns closely to my own views about HR and our core purpose. He mentioned the ever present search for a seat at the table.  He talked about the unintended consequences of the move from a personnel approach to one of human resources; treating people like they are just a resource on a balance sheet, to be done with as the company sees fit.  He suggested that leaders had divided people up into people who mattered and people who didn’t.  People who mattered include those who are defined as ‘talent’.  In the best boxes of the nine box grid.  And then there are the people who don’t matter.  The ones we have outsourced.  The ones on the zero hours contract.  The invisible agency worker.  The bogus self-employed.  We seem to think it is okay for them to have a different set of rights, be treated in a different way.

I hear lots of talk amongst the HR profession about how work needs to change. About how it is going to change, in the future.  And it does and it will.  We know there is plenty about the modern workplace that doesn’t work.  Heirarchy, meeting culture, effective leadership, skills shortages, disengaged employees. Add to this list as you see fit.  I hear talk about how we need a revolution in the world of work.

I agree that there is plenty wrong with work and working lives.  Try some of these examples:

  •  We live in an economy where a great deal of work is low paid and of low security.
  • 1 in 5 UK employees are considered to be low paid – that is 5 million people.  And once you are in a low paid job, it is difficult to get out of one.
  • The gap between the wages in the boardroom and the wages on the shop floor is growing.
  • More working households live in poverty than households where no one is working.
  • More and more work is disappearing entirely, as it is outsourced or automated.
  • We have structural, serious youth unemployment .
  • There is still a significant pay gap between men and women, 40 years after the Equal Pay Act.
  • Employment rights, and the ability to enforce them when they are breached, are slowly diminishing.
  • Wage growth and pay settlements are still well below the level that they were before the recession.
  • Carers struggling to balance work with care.
  • Low levels of engagement.
  • Thousands of women facing discrimination every year when they become pregnant.
  • A race to the bottom to pay the national minimum wage.
  • Workplaces filled with stress – an epidemic of it according to the panellists.

Michael David from UK Commission for Employment and Skills summarised the problems in the labour market as getting in, getting up, and getting on. Pickervance said that leaders in many organisations have become disconnected from what is happening in the world.  Maybe HR has too?  Maybe we are so busy worrying about whether we are strategic enough that we aren’t doing what we should be doing: making work and working lives better for the people at our place.

Some of the stuff in the list above is undoubtedly big stuff, challenging stuff.  Outside the hands of the individual HR practitioner.  Or is it?  Certainly not all of it. There are things, even if they are just small steps, that we can all do, at our place to tackle these challenges.

Coincidentally, the CIPD conference took place in Living Wage week. A campaign that calls on employers not just for minimum pay but reasonable pay. A campaign that asks employers to recognise that whilst they could get away with paying less, this isn’t the best thing for business, for people, for society.

So here is where my head is at right now. You can keep your holocracies and your unlimited vacation days and your democratised workplaces.  Because whilst I know stuff is changing, at least for some in this future of work, a bad work situation is many people’s everyday reality.  Waiting for pay day. Waiting to see how hours there will be this week on the zero hours contract.  Wondering where the next job is coming from.  Wondering if you are going to get made redundant when you get back from maternity leave.  Wondering if it is really safe to tell someone that you are struggling under the pressure.  Hoping, desperately, for a pay rise.

Talk of the need for revolution at work? This is my revolution. This is what better working lives means to me. This is where HR needs to lead the way.


You can read more about this session from the CIPD conference in this blog post from Tim Scott.

Just one final thing about CIPD14. The CIPD conference was blogged and tweeted by an amazing group of people.  They gave freely of their time, their annual leave, their sleep and their diets to provide all of the social coverage.  Massive appreciation to them all. Ian Pettigrew has collated all of the work in this post for your reading pleasure.  Until next year……