A World of Work Without Jobs: What Are Butterfly Careers?

The modern workplace is entering a phase of perpetual evolution. HR thought leaders Dr. John Boudreau and Greg Pryor share insights on how a world without jobs could function and the value of butterfly careers.

Is it possible to picture a world of work without jobs? Five years ago the idea of remote working models being prevalent would have seemed impossible. And yet, hybrid roles are now fast becoming the industry standard. “How do you begin to imagine what will happen next?” asks Dr. John Boudreau, senior research scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California.

The reality is, making such predictions is incredibly hard. By nature of the infinite variables involved, the global workplace is full of uncertainty, and all the forward planning in the world can’t account for its inherent randomness.  

As Greg Pryor, co-founder of Connected Commons, puts it, “I have yet to come across a person—and I spend a lot of time with people who know a lot about these things—who says, ‘This is what the next world of work looks like. Here are the new policies. Here are the new practices. Let’s go to it.’” All bets are off—though Pryor jokes that if he had to put his chips on anyone, it would be Boudreau. 

But if we can’t foresee the business policies and practices of the future, how should businesses approach what’s to come? As part of their conversation at the HR Technology Conference and Exposition, Boudreau and Pryor outline a new way of working: a world where work can be broken down into its component parts and rebuilt in a more fluid fashion. 

We’ve pulled some key highlights, tracing the origins of their predictions, exploring how the pandemic led to the democratization of the workplace, and explaining how “butterfly careers” could lead to a world of work without jobs.   

Predicting the Unpredictable

When Boudreau and Pryor first met as part of a project called “Create” in 2013, both had their eyes firmly squared on the future of work. The impetus of their meeting? A gathering of 30 of the foremost thinkers in the human capital management space to ask: What will the world look like from a human resources (HR) perspective 10 years into the future?

The answer, even then, was slippery, says Pryor. “We were really expecting this tipping point to happen in the world of work, to happen in the world of human capital management. While we anticipated there would be significant change, we didn’t anticipate a little thing called the pandemic. We didn’t anticipate that one day many of us who could go home would be sent home and that it would change the world of work overnight.” 

“A driver of the ‘Great Resignation’ was people saying, ‘I don’t think my organization’s going to offer me a place where I can build my skills.’”

Greg Pryor Co-Founder Connected Commons

Now, nearly 10 years on, answering that question has only gotten harder. Drawing a parallel between work and software, Boudreau paints a picture of the modern workplace as in a perpetual cycle of becoming obsolete and requiring upgrades—both minor and major. 

Even harder again is addressing employee concerns around that inherent unpredictability, says Boudreau. “To be constantly telling people, ‘Tomorrow, part of your job is going to be updated,’ to constantly be telling leaders, ‘Tomorrow, you may be sharing workers with other leaders.’ Those are very difficult things.”

The answer proposed, however, is a simple one. Clarity and trust. As we look ahead to the potential dissolution of fixed job roles, Boudreau emphasizes how important it is that employees know who to direct any given question to and where significant business decisions are being made. 

The Democratization of the Global Workplace

While industry analysts may not have been able to predict the pandemic and its impact on the global workplace, in retrospect we can see how far-reaching and varied the consequences have been. Whether it’s the aforementioned move toward hybrid working models or the “Great Resignation,” we’re still feeling the ripples. As Boudreau puts it, “The genie’s pretty much out of the bottle.”

But what direction will the world of work take now? One option is increased democratization. Many employers are placing a greater focus than before on employee expectations—driven by the all-time high employee turnover rates in 2021 and employees' increased leverage thanks to social media. As a result, employees often have a greater stake in decision-making processes and higher visibility on leadership strategy.

A butterfly career enables employees to take on work sprints and develop new skills without having to change from one role to another.

While it may seem like many of the impacts from the pandemic have been most keenly felt by remote or hybrid workers, that democratization has also been felt on-site. As changes to technological processes and automation continue to accelerate, so too does the nature of people’s work, how they schedule it and their path for progression. A discussion of flexible work has to further recognize that these changes aren’t isolated to work-life balance—they’re far more widespread. 

As for where this evolution is heading, Boudreau has an inkling: “A world where work can come from anywhere, be anywhere, people flow in and flow out, and ideally, we’ve got technology that encompasses that and that teaches workers, leaders, and others how to manage it.” That fluidity is a major component of the butterfly career. 

Butterfly Careers: The Future of Work?

One of the factors influencing the mass exodus of talent following the first waves of the pandemic was skills development. Says Pryor, “Part of the driver of the ‘Great Resignation’ was people saying, ‘I don't think my organization’s going to offer me a place where I can build my skills and capabilities from a career perspective,’ and they got out.”

So what does skills development look like in an increasingly democratized workplace? And what do we mean by butterfly careers?

“Almost all work systems are built assuming jobs will be the unit of analysis.”

Dr. John Boudreau Senior Research Scientist and Professor Emeritus University of Southern California

A butterfly career is a direct response to the uncertainty of the modern world of work. Instead of workers having a fixed job remit, a butterfly career is more adaptable, enabling employees to take on work sprints and develop new skills without having to rigidly change from one role to another. As Pryor explains, by accumulating a “body of capabilities, connections, and skills through these career experiences,” not only are employees more satisfied, they also broaden their options to mitigate the risks of periods of rapid change. 

In discussing how such a work model would change career progression, Pryor and Boudreau draw a comparison with another medium: video games. Looking at modern games as an example, where there is often no fixed-win state, Boudreau suggests employees will move fluidly between different positions acquiring skills and thereby “leveling up.” Instead of “winning” by getting to the next obligatory rung on the ladder, employees will accumulate fulfilling microexperiences, maintaining optionality in the face of uncertainty. 

Moving Toward a New Work Operating System

What’s clear is that for butterfly careers to flourish, the way we work and how we define work relationships would have to change at a fundamental level. That’s why Boudreau calls for a “new work operating system.”

As Boudreau explains, in the standard working system, new experiences are limited by the availability of new jobs. Employees working in set roles are restricted to the capabilities they brought with them. “Almost all work systems are built assuming jobs will be the unit of analysis, jobholders will be how we count workers, and proof points will be qualifications and very specific degrees.” The question is, how can businesses create career paths with smaller incremental steps forward—or, in fact, steps in a totally different direction?

Instead of viewing workers in terms of their job role, businesses should begin to think of their employees in terms of capabilities. Rather than strictly defined roles, work can be broken down into projects, tasks, or gigs, creating a network of “free-floating pieces.” With the implementation of talent marketplaces, employees can more easily highlight their own skills and interests and find new opportunities. “It might be a stint with a certain group. It might be a learning experience. It might be a class,” says Boudreau. 

With one major upheaval after another, the world of work has become increasingly unstable. Moving forward, the businesses that succeed won’t be those that try to predict those changes and plan policy accordingly. Instead, it will be the businesses that build adaptability into their work operating system, enabling their employees to gain new experiences more organically and creating a culture with learning and development at its core. 

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