On the sixth day of Christmas Learning: the Social Contract

The 6th day of Christmas - social contract

The Social Contract between employee and employer is changing: are you keeping up?

I’m dedicating the last twelve days of writing to a series of reflections on key trends and features of learning in the Social Age. Today: the social contract.

Santa has it easy: every year the same old thing. Sure, as the population rises, he may get a little busier, but essentially, people’s expectation of him are the same: turn up, eat mince pies, leave presents. Are you still going to be in that job next year? In five years? Twenty? Chances are that none of us have a job for life, or that we expect to have one. Careers these days are fragmented. They evolve, fracture, make unexpected turns and leaps and take us in surprising directions, only some of which feels under our control.

In the older ages, the organisations we worked for owned our careers: from your first graduate position right up to your first promotion, your team leader role, management and, eventually a parking space. Then, one day, they would give you a carriage clock and send you on your way, into retirement. Your useful and productive days behind you.

But no more: today, you’ll be made redundant twice before you’re thirty five and the chances of getting a parking space are slim. Instead of a large office and membership of the executive lounge, you’re more likely to oversee a range of ‘change‘ projects and then be part of a transition team as your company merges. Then you’ll spend six months in consultation before they say ‘thanks‘ and goodbye, leaving you with enough money for a month in India before you start again. And retirement? In the reputation economy, that’s a far more fluid affair.

But the Social Age is not about abandoning the values and principles that govern good employment: it’s about expanding and enhancing them. The Social Age requires a social contract between employer and employee, based upon fairness, values, integrity and support, but recognising that the very nature of employment has changed.

Organisations used to provide the four walls of an office and a telephone, computer and chair: but what use are these in the Social Age? The office is wherever my iPad sits and the four walls constrain me far more than they enable me: the Social Age is about creating meaning, about effectiveness and transformation, riding the waves of change, not paddling along behind them. Just as the requirements of work are changing, so to are the things we need to look for in the social contract.

Everyday pressures drive organisations to look for the lowest common denominator: but that has to be countered by the need to be magnetic to talent in a global marketplace. It’s not enough to be cost efficient and streamlined if you can’t attract or retain the very best talent, because that talent is what will make you agile, it’s what gives you creativity, and creativity is the magic that will keep your organisation in play five years from now. Innovation around products, services, structure, cost models, technology: innovation is essential to any healthy organisation, but as the social contract fails, it’s harder to find.

A truly social organisation must pay heed to this and go beyond the traditional metrics and bounds of employment: they must do what’s right, not what’s legislated for. A social business needs to recognise the evolved nature of the marketplace and understand the drivers and pressures on those that inhabit it.

They need to support the development of skills and behaviours that will allow us to thrive in this job, then help us get the next one. If we recognise that there is no longer a job for life, the very least we can do is ensure we attract the best talent, develop it whilst we are aligned, and leave on good terms. In a portfolio labour market, chances are we will work together again down the line anyway.

Things like maternity and paternity leave: don’t lag behind, don’t take the most defensive position possible. Be bold, brave and do what’s right, offering equal terms to both parents.

The Social Contract should recognise that the walls of an organisation are highly permeable: people belong to communities that transcend geography and sector. Our brand, the reputation of the business, resides largely in those spaces. Have a bad reputation and you can’t be magnetic to talent, and if you’re not magnetic to talent, you’re not in a good place at all.

The Social Age presents challenges and opportunities to both employer and employee: as the fundamental mechanics of the workplace evolve, driven by both technology and social pressures, we need to adapt, but not to retreat to the most conservative place and lowest common denominator. We need to be bold, to implement a new social contract that recognises these evolved realities and leaves an organisation able to face these challenges with pride.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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