17/04/2019 | Expert opinion - Philippe Le Gloahec, Consultant Manager, Hardis Group

Will we all be consultants by 2030? This is a big question that has come up time and again in recent years. But it isn't always framed in the right way. The real issue isn't about employees' status or the supposed end of employment contracts, but rather about the future of organizations and the role that their members play-both within and outside.

Have conventional working arrangements had their day?

Much has been said and written about the end of conventional working arrangements in business—not least in the biggest companies, where inflexibility is often cited as an impediment to new business models, and where multi-layer management structures are blamed for stifling agility, innovation, creativity, and collaboration. Yet there is no agreement on the best way forward. Efforts to bring in alternative management models—such as liberated companies, agile businesses, and startups—have so far produced mixed results. Agile and liberated models are well-suited to smaller teams. But for larger organizations, where that kind of culture it not hardwired into their DNA, they can be a source of great confusion.

What's more, big businesses are struggling to recruit staff like never before—in part because potential employees view them as too traditional and inflexible. That view is especially true among younger workers, who are seeking alternative ways of working and are keen to strike a better work/life balance.

Meanwhile, this is all happening against a backdrop of uncertain employment policy (think flexicurity, gig work, and zero-hours contracts), and growing concern—among businesses and observers alike—about how artificial intelligence will affect the future of work.

Consultant: not a status, but a state of mind

Now more than ever, businesses need resilience and the ability to adapt to an environment in which competition, customer demand, and other factors are changing at an ever-increasing pace—especially as entire sections of the economy go digital. The side effect is that employees, and workers more generally, are having to face these same questions and choices at a time when the days of a job or career for life are well and truly over.

To address these challenges and safeguard jobs, businesses must shift away from the employer-employee model and towards a customer-supplier relationship with their staff, helping them to become effective “co-producers” and encouraging “intrapreneurship”. Under this new model, businesses assemble teams of experts—from within and outside the organization—to work on specific projects. For employees, meanwhile, the arrangement means they can bring much more to the table than their job description dictates. The result is strength in numbers, and more motivated and loyal staff.

If businesses are to make a success of this paradigm shift, they need to encourage employees to become more versatile and use their skills in a way that, until now, has been the preserve of external consulting firms—whether they're making, supporting, advising, training, coaching, facilitating collective intelligence, or something else. In other words, businesses should be asking staff to work less like employees and more like consultants. Eventually, there will come a point where every member of a team is a consultant, regardless of their status (employee, or contracted or independent consultant).

New habits, new tools

Sweeping social changes lie behind these profound shifts in the way we work. And that starts with where we work. In the past few years, we've seen the rise of telecommuting, so-called “third places” (co-working spaces, living labs, and fab labs where people can share, get creative, and innovate together), and location-independent digital nomads working from a laptop or smartphone.

As the fixed-place-of-work model comes to an end, the physical landscape—land, transport, communication infrastructure, and more—looks set to change beyond recognition. Businesses will shift to smaller offices to accommodate skeleton on-site teams, staff will move into bigger houses or further away from the office as they spend more time working from home and no longer have to face the daily commute, and everyone will enjoy high-speed fiber broadband.

These changing patterns of work will demand greater trust between employers and employees, and businesses will need new communication and collaboration tools to keep off-site workers in touch with the rest of the team and the wider organization.

But whatever comes to pass, human interaction—face-to-face or remote—will remain the cornerstone of success, both for organizations as a whole and for this new breed of consultants.