Netflix & The Future of Work

It’s been about a month since I finished reading Patty McCord’s book, Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility. Despite it’s small size, the book contains a ton of thought provoking information about McCord’s life as the head of HR at Netflix. But, there’s one part in particular that has captivated my thoughts since I finished the book.  

In Chapter 5, McCord explores hiring - more specifically the hiring needs of a rapidly changing and expanding company. Throughout the chapter, I found myself nodding in agreement with what McCord was espousing. Everything she says makes perfect sense, like “[j]ust as great sports teams are constantly scouting for new players and culling others from their lineups, our team leaders would need to continually look for talent and reconfigure team makeup.” Sounds smart, right?

But then, McCord states: “We set the mandate that their decisions about whom to bring in and who might have to go must be made purely on the basis of the performance their teams needed to produce in order for the company to succeed.” 

Again, great if you own or manage the business. But, what if you’re an employee? Then the part about “who might have to go,” really stands out.

When McCord draws an analogy with a sports team, I automatically thought of a professional sports team. Team members do come and go, and we accept, albeit reluctantly at times, those changes with an understanding that the team is trying to win, period. Just like the company is trying to succeed.  

But, are our work teams really like the Golden State Warriors? In my experience, work teams are more like high school sports teams — you have the talent that happens to live in the school district. And, you do the best you can with what you’ve got. Some years are great, and others not so much. There are no free agents, no multi-million dollar contracts, no signing bonuses to try to change the makeup of the team. It is what it is.  

And, that isn’t all bad. Most high school athletes have fond memories of their glory days, and overall there were lots of valuable lessons learned.  

But, what if work teams started becoming more like pro sport teams? What if the future of work is such that a company’s need for agility means that team mates come, and go, with greater frequency?

And, that’s the thought that I haven’t been able to shake.  

Are we employees about to become even more expendable? Will the PwC version of UpWork take off and we’ll be bidding on projects, rather than applying for jobs? Will LinkedIn be able to identify skills gaps at such a micro level that we’ll be facing a relocation with each new job? Will my non-linear career path finally seem brilliant, rather than reckless?  

Just look at Netflix - a company that not that long ago sent me DVDs in the mail. Now, I’m not only streaming, but I’m streaming original Netflix content. All of this change (for the consumer, at least) occurred in roughly a 10 year period. Let’s say for the sake of nice round numbers, a typical career is 30 years. Well, then all of that change happened in just 1/3 of a person’s career.

I am quite certain that when I was in high school, even college and law school, that no one prepared me for a working world in which I would encounter that much change. If you think about being a lawyer at Netflix, 10 years ago you would have been an expert on postal regulations. Then, suddenly you had to figure out the legalities of storing property in a cloud. And, now you’ve got to know how to negotiate a contract with Jason Bateman. In my estimation, that amount of change in work was not handled by the same attorney. Hence the reason that McCord talks in sports team metaphors - in order to be the best, sometimes you need to get different talent.

Again, it makes complete sense for those in charge at Netflix. And, I think McCord’s approach to this constant evolution of teams was incredibly respectful to the talent she was letting go. So, if this is the new world of work, then let’s hope that McCord’s ideas and attitude spread like wildfire.  

But, if this is the new world of work, what does it mean for us, the employees? Are we like the blacksmith with no horses to shoe once the car arrived on the scene? Maybe we are. Maybe the job we’re doing today, won’t exist in a few years. Does that mean we’re out of luck, as well as a job?

I’d like to think that as some jobs expire, new ones will arrive. And, I’d like to think that we can be more like free agents, moving from team to team, and job to job, at our discretion, not solely at the discretion of the employer.  

To be more like free agents, then it is on us to understand our value — understand precisely what we bring to the table for our current employer. And, once that is understood, we will be better positioned to see changes on the horizon. And, we’ll be able to know when it is time to move on, and where to go next.  

It will take some extra effort on our part, with a good dose of brutal honesty. It could be that new skills are needed, or new technologies mastered in order to deliver real value. Better to know that now, than later.  

But, the trade-off? To me, there may be real opportunity for employees in this new world of work. Opportunities to seek more of the work that we enjoy. Or, opportunities to seek work that fits our particular needs at any one time (like times when our kids, or parents, need us the most). Or, opportunities to become more mobile, perhaps enjoy life in more than one state or country.  

I have three kids just hitting their teens, and the changes on the horizon will impact them much more than they will me. Thus, it seems to me that one of the best things I can do for their futures in work is to be realistic about what’s ahead. And, right now, I don’t see any reason why I cannot be realistic and optimistic. Maybe for them life won’t be all about working and trying to save money for retirement. Maybe for them, life will be more about living, with work being completed when and where it is best for them. 

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