Musings on: Modular Work in times of COVID

This the finale of a 4-part series on remote work, which last covered the New Employee Experience

“Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not”.

— Leila Janah, Founder and CEO of Sama Group

Tl;dr

  • Remote work is becoming increasingly inevitable for many, yielding powerful potential second-order effects. By calling into question where, how much and when people work, remote work may finally encourage further modularization of work.
  • Modularization of work has been shown to be a meaningful antidote to the pay gap, diversity & inclusion drop offs and overall decreased labor participation. These are all critical components in reshaping the American and global economy after the pandemic.
  • A shift to modularized work and a more flexible workforce represents huge opportunity for new corporate training, tooling and management practices. These investments will be worthwhile, given the large potential for economic and satisfaction gains on both the corporate and employee side.

Why now?

This shift to remote work comes at a time when most of the US is at near-record unemployment rates, as is the world more broadly. Yet, certain jobs (e.g. nurses, engineers, certified accountants) remain impossible to hire for, with decade-long gaps expected. Workforce participation has been dropping since the Great Recession. This grave mismatch in jobs and education is further exacerbated by what Deloitte calls “a shortened shelf life for skills” from rapid technological advances.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has changed work as we know it is. People all over the world are working remotely, many of whom have retreated to home states or countries. Employees are often forced to work different or less hours due to time zones or childcare needs. New employees onboard much like a freelancer would — they drop in fluidly with a loose sense of their broader team. These changes have challenged long held assumptions:

  1. As referenced in the New Employee Experience, remote work may represent a new decoupling of the employer from the employee, which could further break the paradigms of average tenure and our binary view of “full-time” employment.
  2. Per Unbundling Meetings, totally new norms may emerge such as async documentation, limited meetings and an explosion of productivity tools to hold and chunk work across time zones. Over time, this could represent a modularization of workflows — work broken into repeatable, discrete tasks which can be executed and evaluated separately. Modularization represents an increase in access, because work could be divided up amongst fractional workers or fractional skills.

Specifically, remote work means we all operate on a level playing field in the virtual office. A top CS grad in Kansas can have the same interview as a top CS grad in SF. An entrepreneur in Berlin or Tel Aviv can pitch VCs all the same as one in Silicon Valley. And as geographical and time barriers break down, I think fractional barriers — part-time or freelance work — will also start to erode. If work is modularized and access broadened, will we see an uptick in workforce participation and entrepreneurship, two of the best leading indicators of economic growth?

When that happens, we could see a big boost in opportunity and talent — parents with part time care commitments, young adults in the midst of education for a career switch, and retirees who wish they could dip their feet back in. This would be meaningful in promoting skills development across the board and would likely contribute to burgeoning corporate D&I efforts as women and people of color unduly bear the responsibility of family caregiving. Put simply, remote work may force us to relax outdated constraints about how work gets done and who does it — finally enabling a workforce that mirrors our times and our technology.

What if? How might we?

Given the changes above, this section is meant to explore opportunity areas. “What If” extrapolates scenarios that are on the table in some form today. “How might” translates those into potential technological solutions and areas for startups to consider.

What if modularized work shifted the conversation from career switching to skill upleveling, as you could monetize skills along the way? How might a “Masterclass for the Enterprise” build a skills-based curriculum to address diverse needs at scale? While this has historically been a tough space which often involves high-touch consulting services, a remote world might finally enable a Netflix-style niche strategy that is fully virtual and archived.

What if the passion economy and the freelance economy see meaningful growth in this period, pushing more skilled workers into a part-time capacity? How might vertical labor marketplaces appropriately match flexible workforce based on skills, prior work and trusted recommendations? One could imagine taking what Andela has done for global engineering resources, and replicating it in other fields and geographies. Relatedly, such a shift may necessitate new payroll and employment tooling.

What if these workforce changes — both in diversifying talent pools and in altering team structure — require new management training and technique? How might we democratize access to executive coaching or create continuous management training modules? Today, we operate off the past century’s management literature, all centered around employees in an office for 40h/week. These changes represent a meaningful evolution in how teams are hired, motivated and evaluated. Thus, managers will need new tools to correct for biases, communication requirements and change management.

More thoughts to come — feedback/comments welcomed. If you are tackling one of these opportunities, we’re eager to learn more! Please reach out to monica@kleinerperkins.com to get the conversation started.

All things fintech, consumer, crypto. Currently @kleinerperkins ex @blockchain, @harvardhbs @jpmorgan @quartethealth @segoviatech @cornell @stuyvesanthigh.