Interview 11: Janice Simmons

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Janice Simmons is a business executive with Accenture.

Tim: Could you tell me a little bit about your background is in dealing with staffing temp or contingent work?

Janice: Throughout my career I’ve had opportunities to hire people in the contingent and temp workforces. As a consultant, sometimes we need to bring in additional people to help us on a temporary basis.

When I was an executive in industry, I did the same thing, whether it was bringing in consultants or contingency staff for a short period of time to help out on a particular project.

Tim: You’ve been doing this for a number of years. There’s a lot of talk right now that this contingent work thing is new. Is that your experience?

Janice: Not really. What is new is that more people are seeking this kind of work as their preferred way to be in the workforce. More people are taking the lead in saying “This is how I want my life to be. I want to be able to come in and out of work. I may want to be able to work for 10 months in a row and take 2 months off. This fits in with my goals and how I want to develop professionally.” More people are interested in contingent work and wanting to do it instead of saying, “I’m just going to do it for a little while until I find the permanent position.”

Tim: There’s a lot of discussion right now that says technology is destroying jobs. But the way you speak about this suggests people are choosing to go into this kind of work. Do you feel people are choosing this work for lifestyle reasons or being forced into contingent work arrangements?

Janice: I think it’s a combination of things. Some people may find themselves in that space because of changes in jobs or changes in a company. Some people who find themselves there don’t necessarily want to be there. But I think other people are choosing it. My perception based on my friends, colleagues and the folks I’m working with are more people are choosing it intentionally.

Technology is becoming more and more a part of how we get work done. I’m currently working with the hospitality industry quite a bit. We’re seeing more robots in hospitality every year. For example, Hilton has a new concierge that works alongside of a human concierge. The name of the robot is Connie the Concierge, and she works with humans. She can process information faster than a human being. And so having a robot working alongside of a human you get both the personal touch as well as the power of a computer that can analyzed vast amount of data more quickly than a person can to answer a guests question.

Pizza Hut has a robot that they’re trying out in Japan called Pepper. You order from the robot, it can answer all kinds of questions about the menu, nutritional information, etc. It is so cute that you want to interact with it. Your order is instantly placed and you pay the robot with your phone. It makes it fun for people to come in and to interact with a robot.

I’m actually pretty optimistic that what we’re going to see with technology is some of the more mundane tasks that people can master quickly and don’t want to do will be done by machines. And new jobs will be created that are more focused around making great decisions and working with people and inspiring people to do new things. I think as robots become more and more a part of businesses, you’re going to have to have people who can care for those robots, who maintain those robots. Machines can continue to do stuff that is dangerous for people to do or do tasks that are mundane for people. This will open up new work that is more interesting. It’s going to create different kinds of jobs for us.

Tim: What is unexpected or surprising about the current discussion around contingent work?

Janice: One of the things that will have to change is the way companies engage in the gig economy. A lot of really big companies that I’ve either worked for or worked with have some very cumbersome processes in place to be able to bring in gig economy workers. If there’s somebody I want to bring in to do a certain piece of work for a certain period of time, there are many, many hoops to jump through, often in procurement and legal processes.
So one of the things I think people are finding as they’re trying to become consultants is a lot of big companies have very difficult, complicated processes for approving contractors.

I believe companies are going to have to streamline their processes if they want to be able to use more flexible external resources. They will need to become more agile, more nimble.

Tim: How do the people you have worked with handle the volatility of contingent or project-based work?

Janice: The individuals I know who do this well are really good at planning and budgeting. They know the basics of how much money they need to live and cover their bills, and they have a great marketing plan for their services. What I found is people who tend to be very successful are quite networked with other entrepreneurs and other people who do this kind of work. So that if one finds an opportunity that is bigger than their own capacity, they can bring somebody else in.

Successful independents have a number of different ways that they are making money. They might have something like an Uber on the side of their main business, and then they have an iron in the fire to develop in another area. To be successful in this space you have to be very entrepreneurial, look to expand your network, and know how to creatively use the tools available to you.

Tim: How should workers be thinking about work differently? How should they be thinking about the jobs they take on?

Janice: My suggestion is that people need to think about it in a number of different ways. Most people want to use their skill set because they’ve built up capabilities and want to to use those capabilities to do great work. But they need to get creative about how they can apply those skills today. They also need to think about where they want to be two or three years from now in terms of capability and in terms of happiness. And then they need to look for areas that are going to become hot. Maybe it’s is getting deeper in their current field are or maybe it’s broadening their capabilities.

I think every individual has to say to themselves, “What am I great at today? How can I make a great impact, build my reputation, and build my brand? And what should be next for me in two or three years?” I don’t care if people are permanently employed in a company or doing gig work, these are the questions that everyone should be asking because work is changing so quickly.

I think in the next five to ten years we’ll see massive changes in work, how work is done, and who’s doing work. New jobs will be created. We all need to be thinking not only what we are great at today, but what do we need to be great at two or three years from now. And we need to seek out assignments and projects that will give us those capabilities.

Tim: What skills do you think people need to have to be successful today?

Janice: One skill is being able to build trust very quickly by being transparent. I call it being radically transparent by sharing your process, how you work, how we work together, and sharing all that up upfront. If you’re good at building trust and being very transparent about how you want to work, how things will get done, you get clarity with your clients very quickly, get shared understanding, and are able to move very fast. These things that are important to me when I look for folks to bring on my team.

The ability to move fast, to be agile, is very important. The quicker you are, the better able you will be to take advantage of opportunities that come up. That’s incredibly important. It’s networking, and it’s keeping your eye on what’s coming next so you can learn about it and take advantage of it.

Tim: How should businesses be thinking about and working with talent differently?

Janice: I work for Accenture and what we’re working with a lot of clients on right now is exactly this question: How do we think about work and workers differently? As a company, I need to start thinking about work in chunks. If I’ve got an important chunk of work that can be done, or needs to be done by somebody from the outside, how do I package or chunk the work and then find the best possible people to do this work in my external network. Businesses already have to work hard to find the right talent to bring in.

There are going to be more what I would call “talent broker” kinds of positions inside of companies or in external companies that can link a bigger organization with talent from different sources. If I were a large company, I’d be thinking about how do I get connected to talent brokers who can bring in talent for specific projects. And that talent broker could be a website. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. It could be an exchange site where I can go and say, “I have this work to do. Who can do it for me?”

The other thing that is interesting for companies to think about is what we’re calling the “liquid workforce.” These are people who want to come into the workforce maybe for two or three months to do a project, and then they want to maybe do something else for two or three months with another organization. Or maybe they want to work for six months and then they want three months off, and then they want to come back in and work for six months. It becomes this flexing in and out of projects and roles. Companies are going to have to be able to manage that flexing and give people more choices in scheduling. I’m working with a hospitality and entertainment client right now where they schedule resources for months at a time. They’re thinking about to attract people to work the time slots that aren’t the most attractive. They are asking lots of questions. Can they let people bid on when they want to work? Can they offer premiums for doing some of the jobs that are less desirable jobs or the jobs that are at less desirable times of the day? Maybe people can earn additional money or additional benefits. They’re playing with how to use this liquid workforce and people’s desire to come in and out of work, and their need to make certain jobs attractive for people. They are only thinking about permanent positions.

Every company needs to think through how are they going to set it up so that we are bringing in the best of the best. Every company needs to consider how well networked they are. Whether or not they are chunking the work in ways is attractive to people.

Many companies go out and give work to the lowest bidder. So they may be able to find high quality work done by the lowest bidder. But some tasks may be different. Companies may have to offer a little more incentive for people. Companies need to know the work, know the workforce that’s out there, and know what has to be done in order to attract the right kinds of people.

We just finished Accenture strategy graduate research study where we went out and for the last two or three year interviewing recent college grads in the US. One of the things that they’re consistently telling us over the last couple of years is most people don’t want to work for large companies. In fact, only one out of seven in our study said they wanted to work for a large organization. If you are a large company, how are you going to make your organization or your work attractive to these recent grads? How are you going to make it attractive for them to work in your company when they’re more inclined to want to work for smaller companies where they feel they are able to learn quickly, work on more interesting tasks, and rise through the ranks?

Tim: Where are companies on the learning curve? Do you think companies are in a position where they’re ready to make these changes, or are they still very much in a learning phase?

Janice: I was just talking to some colleagues about this question a couple of weeks ago and we came up with companies in two big buckets. Some of the more traditional companies that have been around for a long time are really having to pivot to this new way of thinking about work, the gig economy, and workers. They realize what’s going on and they’re working hard to pivot to the new. And it’s not always easy when systems, and processes, and mindsets are set-up for a different way of working.

And then there are folks who are actually creating the next new way of working. This is the “Uberization” of work that emphasizes flexibility of what work, how much work, and when work is done.

There are a lot of very well-established brands and companies who are working very hard to pivot to the new. And then there are lots of leading edge companies who are creating whatever the next new is going to be and taking it direct to the people.

Tim: What sort of system changes do we need? What do you think we need to be internalizing as a society as the nature of work changes?

Janice: That’s a great question. One thing I think is terrific is people will have new opportunities to use their skills and capabilities. That’s very positive for people because we all want to use our unique skills and capabilities. We need to be ready to embrace and support those new opportunities.

As an independent, whether you’re an entrepreneur or a small company, you do need to think about healthcare. Maybe we’ve made some strides in that direction already with the Affordable Care Act, time will tell. And I think we need to make it easier for people to access opportunities for themselves. We need to make it very obvious to folks where the work is and help people get connected. Those are the two main things I’m thinking of today. There are probably deeper questions than I probably have thought about right now.

Tim: I appreciate your perspective on the importance of accessing new work opportunities. I’m from rural Wisconsin where folks tend to be farmers, in the skilled trades, or have a very small business. Their skill sets are incredibly entrepreneurial, yet there is often this pressure to leave the work that created these entrepreneurial-minded people in order to get a college degree and a white-collar job. Meanwhile a lot of people in business ecosystems are saying they really need entrepreneurial people. That seems like a missed opportunity. Similarly, I do some work with marginalized communities in Milwaukee, and a lot of these folks are also very, very entrepreneurial. Yet there is this push towards acquisition of jobs that in a lot of ways just aren’t there.

How do we make a system that recognizes and values these entrepreneurial skills for what they are and connects them with work?

Janice: I do think there’s needs to be a collaboration. How do we make it really easy for both the companies and the people to find each other and connect? That’s going to be critical because there are opportunities out there.

For a lot of people that I know who think about stepping into the gig economy, their biggest question is how to find work. Especially if they have specialized skills or if they want to broaden develop new skills. We all need a fair amount of certainty and stability in ours life. For some people it’s a lot more than others. But how can people get into the network and consistent get opportunities? I think is one of the critical things we have to continue to solve for. And I think it’s happening. Creative people are finding creative ways to connect people. And I think that will continue to happen. It’s interesting.

The other thing I found is people questioning is what they really need in terms of education and learning. Is college the best path to success that we make it out to be? There are wonderful opportunities out there for folks without degrees, such as service technicians in auto dealerships. These are amazing high paying jobs where they use computers all the time. They are troubleshooters. They solve problems. It’s not always getting dirty and spending your life under a car. Cars are so much more sophisticated. Those jobs have changed significantly. There are lots of options for people with varying specialties and education.

Do I need a four year degree? Do I need to go to graduate school? It depends on what I want to do. I can make a great living in a lot of different ways. What’s going to make me happy and what’s going to be able to give me the life that I want? How can I keep learning and growing? These are important things to be thinking about as well.

Tim: I think you just identified that one of the potential systems changes is a change in perception of education and understanding how it’s important and when it’s important. A 4-year degree is great, but the real takeaway for me was learning how I learn.

Janice: Learning how you learn best is critical. When you know that about yourself, you are able to handle new situations that you may not be familiar with. Some companies are really great and they’ll give you tons of interesting learning opportunities that help and support development. Some companies don’t do that so much anymore. So I think you’ll find more people taking classes on their own and teaching themselves new skills.

Tim: Last question for you. What core challenges, and/or opportunities in this world of work are you focused on or do you find most exciting?

Janice: What I find most exciting are the opportunities people are going to have in this new world. There are going to be new jobs created, and these jobs are going to be really interesting. Being able to leverage and work side by side with machines—the human-machine interaction—can make the human part of our work much more exciting. People will also have new opportunities as we think about the liquid workforce and working in chunks on a project-basis. There’s going to be a lot of opportunities for people to broaden their skills, to deepen their skills, to do more rich and meaningful work.

Tim: Great. That’s everything. I really appreciate you taking the time for this interview.