Quiet quitting? The gig economy? How emerging trends will define the future of work.

Stuart McLeodCEO & Co-Founder, Karbon
Stuart's headshot. He's wearing a white collared shirt, has graying hair, and the background is a blurry green and brown tree.

It’s not new information that the current economy is affecting companies, tech and otherwise, around the world.

And as the leader of a business that has had to lay off employees, it’s not a subject that I take lightly.

It’s a situation that no leader wants to find themselves in, but despite the best laid plans and intentions, unpredictable circumstances arise that force the hand of even the most prepared leaders. 

Times of economic downturn are not new to me. I was around when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000 and for the Great Recession occurring between 2007 and 2009. But drawing a direct comparison between today’s economy and that of the past is an oversimplification. 

20 years ago (even 10 years ago), the workforce and the world looked much different than it does today. 

Remote work, quiet quitting, the gig economy: these are all concepts that just two decades prior would have felt massively foreign to most. And it’s probably safe to say that 10 years from now, our world will be equally unrecognizable. 

Still, despite our ever-shifting reality, I’m offering up some thoughts on the latest trends in the workforce and how business leaders should start thinking about them. 

Quiet quitting: It’s not about laziness, it’s about defining (and finding) purpose

When this phrase first came on the scene I’ll admit, I had to Google it. And I’ve come to the conclusion that quiet quitting is nothing new; now there’s just a name for it. 

When the wave of remote work captivated our workforce, we became momentarily distracted by some myths about job satisfaction. Instead of telling ourselves that we weren’t fulfilled at work, we told ourselves the physical location was the issue. The mindset became: If I just take my work on the road with me and embrace the digital nomad lifestyle, then I’ll be content

And while #VanLife worked for some, it’s not a panacea. Many were faced with the harsh reality that it wasn’t their physical environment that made them unhappy, but it was the work itself. 

You can take your laptop to a picture-perfect lakeside community, but if you hate your job, it’s not going to solve your problems. As living, breathing beings we need to feel a sense of purpose. Sunsets alone won’t cut it (for most). 

So while it’s easy (and perhaps more comforting) to point blame at the quiet quitters by labeling them as ungrateful or lazy, it’s important for business leaders to understand the role we play in the narrative, too. 

Whether your unengaged employee is quietly phoning it in at work or loudly announcing their resignation to anyone who’ll listen, we must invest in helping our teams see and feel purposeful in what they do. 

And yes, not everyone will find purpose in all work environments, but wise leaders can identify those that will thrive with just a bit more TLC. 

The elastic workforce: Why leaders should look to become competitively flexible 

While the gig economy is traditionally identified as those providing lower-cost services—transportation, deliveries, etc.—a new segment is emerging—the elastic workforce. 

This slice of the workforce pie is made up of highly skilled freelancers who are changing how business leaders look at scaling and building their talented teams. From product developers to content writers, the elastic workforce allows companies to bring in talented individuals on an as-needed basis, allowing businesses to expand and contract based on their current circumstances. 

To be clear, the elastic workforce isn’t cheap. Just go to Upwork and you’ll find individuals billing upwards of $250/hour for their expertise. And finding and managing high-quality elastic workers presents its own unique set of challenges. But particularly when stability is hard to predict (whether for internal or external reasons), it’s an increasingly appealing option that can give businesses the edge over their competitors. 

Geographically disparate workforces: The implications of globalization and remote work

Our increasingly interconnected world means it’s easier than ever to expand offices beyond the confines of your company’s home country. And there are significant benefits that come with this approach including the ability to more easily reach a wider audience, expanding operational hours beyond a traditional eight-hour work day, and attracting top talent from a broader pool of qualified individuals. 

But those looking to cross into new territories must understand the implications that come with expansion and many aren’t to be taken likely. Here are just a few topics that need to be carefully considered before hopping on a plane and opening an office across the pond:

  • Tax implications (but I don’t need to tell you that) 

  • Employee/employer benefits

  • Government regulations 

  • Cultural differences 

Additionally, businesses should be mindful of the ripple effect that can come with opening international offices. For one, are your employees able to maintain healthy boundaries now that your company operates in multiple time zones? If you don’t explicitly account for these unintended consequences of expansion, you run the risk of capsizing your company’s culture and values. 

Solving for these ripple effects doesn’t have to be complicated, but they must be intentional. Take the email signature used by Jourdan Pym, our VP of People & Places. At the bottom of his emails you’ll find this simple, yet effective message:

My working day may not be your working day. Please do not feel obliged to reply to this email outside of your normal working hours.

It’s a clear message, relayed to all, on a regular basis, which reinforces expectations and protects our commitment to our company values, like being good to yourself (and others)

Offshoring work: Whether you like it or not, outsourcing comes with moral responsibilities 

As some of these trends combine (particularly the emerging elastic workforce and geographic diversity), business executives have increasingly complex ethical situations to grapple with. Yes, there are the technicalities to consider, but what about the more human aspects? 

These human-focused questions will become increasingly relevant as more companies offshore talent—either through individual contract hires or through partnering with third-party companies for business process outsourcing (BPO). 

We know that when we open a new office we have a moral obligation to care about the well-being of our employees working out of that location. But what about our freelancers? Or our BPO partners? 

What if a number of your contracted employees are based in Ukraine? Most leaders will care about the wellbeing of those individuals—after all, you have a working relationship with them. But does your obligation extend beyond that? Should you provide additional resources and aid during times of hardship?

Is there a different set of obligations based on the terms of the partnership or the extent of the working relationship? 

These questions are widely unexplored, but are unfolding in real time.

On the flipside, offshoring is also an opportunity to further company priorities, allowing employers to use their decision-making powers as a force for good. Business leaders have an opportunity to offshore more than operations. Companies can (and have started to) strategically invest in certain areas or economies to lift up their social priorities and values. 

For example, partnering with third-party BPOs based in countries that have progressive climate change policies allows businesses to indirectly invest in company-wide priorities focused on environmentalism and sustainability. 

So where are we headed? 

No idea. I kid. (Sort of.) 

Here’s the reality: Our world is changing—rapidly. As business leaders we have three choices:

  1. We can put our heads down and stick with what we know. 

  2. We can jump at any and every emerging trend. 

  3. We can lead with intention, making careful decisions about what to adopt (and what to ignore) based on our understanding of where things are headed. 

My vote’s for the third option. It may not mean that we’ll always be first to adopt the trend-of-the-moment, but it gives us our best shot at remaining relevant, staying true to ourselves, while still attracting top talent that’s the right fit for us. 

Taking this approach means staying informed, welcoming new ideas, and making decisions with care and purpose. We won’t know for certain, but we will be confident in our choices. And at this stage of our unpredictable world, does it get much better than that?

Stuart McLeod
CEO & Co-Founder, Karbon

Stuart started his first business 13 years ago and has had many successful ventures, including Paycycle, founded in 2009, which he sold to Xero in 2011. He then built the global Xero Payroll team that delivers payroll software across the US, AU, UK and NZ markets. Stuart is now paving the way for smarter tools to improve how knowledge workers collaborate with their colleagues and look after their clients.

Stuart's headshot. He's wearing a white collared shirt, has graying hair, and the background is a blurry green and brown tree.