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Feb 9, 2015

We want it both ways as employers.

We want workers who keep their skills up-to-date and willingly pursue learning and development. In addition, we also want workers who take accountability for their own performance results, accept placing more of their compensation at risk via incentive pay, and maintain their bearings and contributions in the face of constant change and shifting priorities.

And we also want workers who will put company and work group interests above their own, protect our corporate brand at (nearly) all costs, and happily defer to the preferences of their organizational overlords.

The challenges in Uber-ifying our talent base

We are aware, many of us at least, of the tension here — our wanting both the cake and the eating of it, too.

But I wonder how well we’ve thought through the implications? Most of our business models rely deeply on people — aka, the talent — to deliver economic value. How does this work as we incrementally Uber-ify our own talent base?

Zappos recently stepped out into this space with a new scheduling platform for their call center, prompted by a conversation that CEO Tony Hsieh had with the company’s Labs team (the division focused on innovation and digital technology) about trying something “like Uber” for the center.

As a story on pointed out:

That conversation sparked the development of what is now known as Open Market — referred to as “Om” internally — an online scheduling platform that allows workers to set discretionary hours and compensates them based on an Uber-esque surge-pricing payment model: hourly shifts with greater caller demand pay higher wages.”

How the high-talented deal with “free agent nation”

While the on-line retailer admits to not having worked out the legal and benefit kinks of this pay model, Zappos intents to fully integrate compensation for all call center employees and — longer term — integrate this model into all departments. Time will tell how that goes, but it certainly provides us with an interesting experiment to watch and draw lessons from.

Steve Boese — blogger, creator of the HR Happy Hour Show, and now the Co-Chair of the annual HR Technology Conference — presents us with a different take on this phenomenon: That of the highly talented professional.

Steve shares the story of a few recent collaborative projects he has pursued with industry colleagues. As he tells it, when these initiatives became socialized inside the corporate meeting rooms of the organizations where the different people were aligned and the “geometry of the deals began to alter.” Higher-ups suddenly wanted to step in, put their stamp on the effort and impose their own preferences (sometimes their own people) on the initiative.

In Steve’s words:

This ‘free agent nation,’ this new world that is sometimes referred to as the ‘Uber-ification’ of work where most workers are essentially carving out their own personal careers, less dependent on organizational support (and protection) than before, is one that puts not only these workers under more pressure than before as they shoulder more personal risk than ever, but it also will stress their company brand owners as well.

I don’t think my perspective as a potential partner/customer is all that unique; I am interested in collaborating with the best people I can, and often, (and maybe soon always), I am not that interested in their ‘official’ titles or what their current company leadership believes how I should interact and engage with them. As sometimes I like to say, that is a ‘you’ problem, not a ‘me’ problem.”

Do your free agents need you all that much?

I guess I will leave with this – the free agent nation has delivered exceeding benefits to company brands — less fixed costs, less regulations, more flexibility, and even more profits. But there are some risks, too.

Some of your free agents don’t really need the company brand as much as the brand needs them. And some of your best customers and partners want to work with people, not with companies. And as the ties between people and companies continue to loosen, (almost always at the behest of companies by the way), the company’s hold on talent and opportunity and profit will loosen as well.

Steve’s reflection on this experience should serve as a wake-up call and our notice that this is not a trend impacting only our call centers, but one that promises to change the fabric of our relationship with our highest potential, top performing and most critically skilled employees.

Are we ready?

This was originally published at the Compensation Café blog, where you can find a daily dose of caffeinated conversation on everything compensation.