In 10 years' time, workers could find themselves at the beck and call of employers obsessed with measurement, or their loyalties may be won with the promise of greener, cleaner workplaces, or they may just be cut free to offer their services as freelancers. These are the three scenarios for the future offered by consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers in its report assessing the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
The three options extrapolate from emerging trends and are designed to encourage clients to re-evaluate their business models.
In the first case, companies that cut the "fat" from their organisations with retrenchments will use increasingly sophisticated human resources technology to assess potential recruits - making sure their organisational charts don't get flabby again.
They will also invest in tools to measure all aspects of performance.
The authors of How will the downturn change the future of work? note that people account for up to 70 per cent of the total business cost in some organisations.
"To compete in [this] world, organisations must become more focused on measurement and making human resources a hard discipline. The ability to invest in a talent pipeline for the future is critical," they say.
Among the risks for these companies from the financial crisis are that reducing graduate intakes will affect the talent pipeline and succession planning; cuts to training budgets will result in the companies lacking the right skills to take advantage of the upturn; low morale will increase employee fraud; the companies may misinterpret employee data and make cuts based on false assumptions.
"In a lot of organisations that we deal with, everybody gets scrutinised pretty hard but the systems used to do that often aren't clever enough to cope with a significant external downturn," says PwC partner Jon Williams.
"So you are measuring performance normally - assuming a steady state. Things turn around and you often have to redesign or change your measurement system."
The second, "green" scenario is a response to demand for greater transparency and social responsibility.
This is backed by a separate online poll of 1000 people by PwC, which finds younger people are overwhelmingly the greatest believers in the need for change in the way we treat our environment.
PwC also found that 80 per cent of "Millennials" (people now aged under 30) will deliberately seek out employers whose corporate responsibility reflects their own values.
Employers that fall into this "green" scenario may take measures to rein in excessive pay and bad behaviour, but the potential downside includes the creation of a highly risk-averse culture; creating a pay gap between a company's staff and its peers elsewhere; and travel cuts damaging valuable business relationships.
In the final scenario, the workplace has become fragmented. Workers sell their talents and innovations to companies, while gathering together in "guilds", which provide them with business services, legal representation and recruitment.
Risks in this world include a focus on the short-term, which affects innovation and investment in new technology.
Williams says the biggest question, as the economy starts to recover, is whether companies have the right business model for the future.
Bigger organisations will be drawn towards the performance-measurement scenario, because complex structures tend to provide a barrier to entry to new competitors, whereas smaller companies will be attracted to the flexibility of the "freelancer" model.
Companies that had embarked on adopting the green model before the financial crisis might have had a difficult time adhering to their principles during the downturn -and will be punished by staff defections if they go back on their promises.
"They are also asking whether the things they thought were important, before the crisis, actually proved to be valid during that time. You learn more about yourself during adversity than you do in success," Williams says.
"The classic from the report is this whole notion of corporate social responsibility. If you go back a year, every organisation and its dog were saying they were going to be the leaders in being carbon neutral and being sustainable and all that good stuff.
"People then had to make decisions about whether that was true or not and whether that was going to make them move into the red or have to close down business units. It actually forces you to make a decision about whether it [those statements] is window dressing."
Or, as American investor Warren Buffett famously said: "It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's been swimming naked."
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