Will a New Model for Work Emerge from the Covid Crisis?

By  |  April 21, 2020, 2:17 PM


The jobs economy is “in free-fall,” as one panelist put it. At least 22 million Americans are suddenly unemployed. Work and how people do it is being transformed before our eyes. So Techonomy hosted an online roundtable, in partnership with Wipro, gathering three experts on putting the right people in the right jobs. All agree that the old model of “finding a job” and “hiring a worker,” generally doesn’t suit the world we’re in, and the one we’re going towards. In the fraught transition caused by the Covid-19 virus, they all see a unique opportunity to create a system that is better both for companies and for workers.

       The key will be new sorts of “platforms” that bring companies together with the right people. Two panelists already run such businesses, which match companies with talented workers who in an earlier era could probably never have been found. Mike Morris is CEO of Topcoder, which shepherds a global network of 1.5 million experts in programming, data science, and design. Its sophisticated platform matches them with jobs and tasks posted by companies all over the world, almost always done remotely, generally on a project basis. (Topcoder is part of Wipro.)

       Gina Hadley is co-founder of The Second Shift, a New York-based talent platform for veteran professional women. The Second Shift connects them with companies that “are leaning in to a more diverse way of looking at work,” as she put it, sometimes for part-time or project work, sometimes for full-time jobs. “Our mission is to close the gender pay gap and get rid of inequity in the C suite.”

       Filling out the big picture was Gary Bolles, head of the “future of work” program at Singularity University. “We need to increase the efficiency with which people find meaningful well-paid work,” he said. “We need to make it so organizations can specify the kinds of talents that they need, to solve problems.”

       “Our job,” said Morris of Topcoder, “has been to find the right opportunities for our community.” But the Covid crisis, he said, creates an entirely new set of challenges. “Coming out of this…you’re going to see a sustained need for enterprises…to stay resilient.” But, “our duty is to figure out how to make that resiliency work for the talents of the workers.” While Topcoder’s specialized experts may do well, Morris insists we need more such platforms, to start providing such services to a much broader range of workers, “not just the high end.” And, he added, “government and society has to put the guidelines in place for that.”

       Hadley emphasized the proven virtues of diversity in business, adding “If you want to see a more diverse workforce, you have to work with them on their terms.” But speaking of this weird moment where few are in offices, she said “what’s been interesting is seeing how rapidly…decision makers are embracing change, because they have to.”

       All three panelists bemoaned what Bolles called the “management by surveillance” approach that has prevailed in most companies. Said Hadley: “A lot of managers feel that if they can’t see you and they can’t monitor you, they don’t think you’re actually working.” Added Morris: “They’re thinking to themselves, ‘How do I know my person is sitting at that computer for eight hours a day? How do I know they’re doing the work they’re supposed to be doing?’ Well, if you’re managing them based on the output they’re creating and the value they’re giving to the organization, you’d never have that question.” He believes “a really positive thing that will come out of this is we will learn, in many industries, how to manage workers in a way that is better for both sides.”

       Bolles explained why a new model is so needed: “The old model of an organization is a box. There’s abundance outside of the box, where there’s lots of talent. And there’s scarcity inside the box. There’s only so many traditional job roles, and they’re in a hierarchy. And that’s it. So HR has been put in the uncomfortable position of trying to manage scarcity.” But he says many senior HR executives in corporations recognize that this model no longer works, and now want “a seat at the table” when management is working out its strategy. Work done more efficiently and equitably benefits both the worker and the company.  

       Some of the examples marshaled by Morris underscored the kind of inclusive, creative, and productive world that we need more of. One of the trained engineers in the Topcoder community is a woman in India who must stay home to take care of her children, but from there is able to do quality assurance testing for Microsoft’s Teams product. “It doesn’t matter if you have a Ph.D. from MIT if you’re able to solve the right problem,” he said. And for another project, in fact, Topcoder did work with Harvard, in collaboration with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, in a project to determine the best way to apply radiation for patients with lung tumors. Twelve data scientists from around the world were gathered to work on the problem. Though “these people would never otherwise have been invited to the table,” Morris said, “at the end of the day we got an algorithm that was as accurate as a panel of 15 oncologists.”

       It’s a long path before this becomes a standard part of modern work-life and management. Bolles noted that many platforms fail their workforce at times of crisis. (For example Lyft, he said, recommended drivers go work at Postmates when rides dried up because of Covid-19.) But while all acknowledged the challenges facing business, there was a genuine sense of a new realization dawning among business leaders that we really need to work differently for the more resilient, fairer future we need.

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Techonomy drew on its live audience during the roundtable to conduct a few polls. Here are the results:

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