’Liquid’ companies will change social relations

What are the new rules in a digitized world where employees desire more flexibility and freedom? What are the challenges for HR departments to manage change?

According to the philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, since the 2000s we have entered the era of ‘liquid modernity’ in which society and individuals are caught up in the incessant flow of mobility and speed. Unlike the concept of ‘postmodernity’, used until now, this ‘liquid modernity’ now represents a society without a stable reference point where individuals are constantly adapting to change. They must actually behave like ‘liquids’, which cannot keep their shape when subjected to external pressure and must therefore adapt instantly.

Are we entering into the era of ‘liquid’ companies, i.e. companies that must adapt quickly to both the fluctuating needs of the markets and the changing aspirations of employees? Companies in which expertise must come from everywhere: within the company, but also outside it, with speed and agility…

We are witnessing an unprecedented reconfiguration of work methods. Digital technology is accelerating the development of new types of jobs, leading to changes in the way we work. There are technology platforms dedicated to self-employed workers (freelancers) and employees want freedom, flexibility and autonomy with a new type of social contract, more in line with societal changes. There are over 4.5 million ‘slashers’ (people working several jobs) in France representing 16% of the active workforce, allowing more flexibility and autonomy, for companies and for employees. These new types of jobs are ideal for companies requiring flexibility and that need to manage resources with tight deadlines. Work methods within companies have thus been transformed and HR departments’ objectives reconfigured.

Since the industrial revolution, we have been formatted to work on a single activity, with long-term contracts as the goal. HR, up to now used to working with employees with standard contracts, must now know how to deal with new types of jobs and work methods in order to identify and follow these new employee profiles. Companies do not properly understand or support these employed workers and slashers’ desire for greater freedom in their jobs, especially in their relationship with their superiors.

These are all new challenges for HR departments. To change the links that unite employees in the context of a new social contract, we must rethink how work is organized and review management models. We also need to review how workspaces are set up and build a coherent team spirit around a strong corporate culture.

Difficulty in finding new and effective management models

At a time when our organizational models are being reviewed, bureaucracy is still a problem in French companies. However, many press articles regularly criticize the lack of agility of the processes and an increasingly invasive management.

Numerous attempts have been made in recent years to streamline work methods by reducing management hierarchy levels or even eliminating managers altogether! It is clear, however, that the new management models, promoted by those in favor of “liberated companies”, are not very popular. In many cases, eliminating managers has increased stress and the risk of burnout for employees, because they not adequately supervised.
It is essential that we think of ways to boost initiative, foster innovation and accept the fact that we can make mistakes, through more collaborative management methods.

A new social contract for companies in project mode

Due to the changes in how we work, we will need to rethink employee‘s social relationships and social protection. There are an increasing number of platforms that connect freelancers and companies and many organizations now act as intermediaries to provide social protection for people doing temp work or working on projects. Managing such people will become essential and HR departments will have to anticipate the requirements of their companies to adapt to the rapidly changing market and the need for new talent (see Christophe Bertrand’s article on the need for digital skills).

Hyperflexibility and the workplace

Whether they are temps or mobile workers, in an effort to not isolate themselves, such employees are often favorable to sharing open work areas. ‘Coworking’ areas have thus appeared. ‘Smart Cities’ are being created to improve mobility and connectedness. Thus, by promoting transportation and intelligent mobility for a sustainable environment, the use of remote working will increase and employees will be freer to manage their working hours. New econeighborhoods or ecocities will be based on ‘living labs’ and social media. A ‘Liquid’ company is only a step away from a ‘liquid’ workforce.

The importance of developing a corporate culture

The transformation of the workplace and the new contractual relationships that are developing must not however make us forget that we need to bring together the employees in the ecosystem, around strong values inherent in a company’s actions. According to the Forrester Research Customer Experience Index, there is a strong correlation between a company’s culture and its good results. It will therefore be necessary to rethink the employer brand to include the new ‘nomads’, who require freedom and new challenges. A study by Linkedin focuses on these new generations and their ability to change jobs at will (three jobs on average in 5 years from 2006 to 2010).

To conclude, companies will need to become increasingly ‘liquid’ and will have to maintain a volatile workforce both internally and externally. To do so, companies will have to rethink their objectives and values and work on attracting talent by ensuring employability.