The Future of Work Isn’t Tech and AI. It’s Artists and Cogs

Most articles talking about the future of work seem centered on the question of how much of an impact will bots, AI, and machine-driven automation drive our new lives. Maybe you can expect some mention of blockchain revolutionizing … something (though that seems to be fading at the moment, reflecting the fact that no one really has a good use case for it). Or maybe it ventures into science-fiction territory and talks about what work becomes when no one really has to work.

But these articles miss the real pivot that’s happening in front of us as we watch. The future of work isn’t about moving away from open office spaces. It isn’t about how much AI will impact us (a great deal, but 90 percent of it will be invisible to us). It isn’t about remote work or flexible hours.

The future of work is the growing gap between the artists and cogs in our office.

With a statement like that, we should probably start with some definitions.

There are really two groups of workers you’re hiring right now. The first are those whose tasks, scope, and impact will be pre-defined and delivered to the worker. Think of someone who works as waitstaff or as a cook, someone who drives a rideshare, someone who answers customer service calls, an inbound sales rep, or the person who delivers your mail. For each role there is a clear manual of what the job is, what to do, and how to do it. There might be benchmarks for numbers of tasks completed per day. There might be a script to follow. Success comes from how well the worker adheres to the manual and script, how little they deviate from the anticipated plan.

These are cogs, effectively Taylorism writ so large as they become their own economy. Their roles are pre-determined and structured before they walk in the door. They are expected to execute the tasks given to them as they are unstructured without variance or change. They are expected to execute to specifications.

Cogs do the job that they are given.

How do you know if a role is one for a cog? First, cogs are hired to fit the shape of the role, not the other way around. Second, if a cog brings in extra skill or expertise, they are expected to ignore it and do the role as prescribed (assuming you’ve even filled the role with someone “overqualified” for it). Third, the structure surrounding the role is more important and valuable than the people doing the task.

Finally, if there is little difference in value between a cog who is average and a cog who is excellent because the structure ensures that output stays within spec, why would anyone try to pay more for a given cog? The lack of return on investment means the cogs become commoditized and prices reflect it. 

This leads to a bleak picture, I know. The biggest impact is that cogs become commoditized people. Their salaries are flat (if not declining). Their roles are being taken over by software. They don’t feel like they have agency in this world. They are robots with debt and anxiety.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the emergence of the gig economy, where you and I design a request or need (get me from point A to point B, put my bookcase together, write an article for me) and can expect to get it back as expected. The gig economy is the cog as freelancer, not expected to do anything extra, and certainly not expecting to be rewarded for doing more than what you asked them to do.

The other group are artists. We call them artists, not because they are special or intensely creative in an art school kind of way, but because the work they do is something that doesn’t come from a plan.

Artists aren’t just the people solving problems. They are figuring out what problems to solve, what the value of solving that problem is, what resources can be found to apply to the problem, and maybe even how to make the problem moot. They are not given a manual or a playbook; they are given a blank canvas and asked to find a way to provide value.

Artists are expected to invent their job every day.

We’ve reached a point where all the “easy” problems are already solved. Instead, what we ask artists to do is find new challenges and problems to solve. They are expected to look beyond what’s in front of them and find ways to add value. This means that their challenges never decline, their work can’t be optimized over time because it keeps changing and growing.

The challenge they face as an artist means that jobs don’t optimize over time. The challenges  continue, forcing artists to grow every day. In fact, growth is the hallmark of the artist’s process. They don’t just grow, they plan to grow. The role you hire them for changes almost the instant they step inside it. And it continues to change and grow.

The differences between these groups could hardly be greater. And yet, as recruiters, we tend to try and shoehorn all into the same ATS application and interviewing process. Recruiters and sourcers find 100-150 people, determine the 10-20 people worth screening on the phone, send three to five to the hiring manager, and one gets picked. The presumption is that they are all looking at the same role, the same criteria, and selecting someone to do the job.

It’s only as we are more and more desperate to find more artists that we start working around processes like the ATS-driven application. Think of that lead developer or VP of operations who you engage with and shephard through the recruiting journey entirely outside the ATS, to the point where a recruiter might have to input the candidate’s information for them before an offer can be made.

And remember that we live in a world where we don’t want people to do the job; we want people so good they get promoted, they change the job, they expand the boundaries of what the job could be. How do you write a job description for a role that hasn’t really been defined yet? How do you expect recruiters to take the vague and amorphous req and use it to find candidates?

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The tools that recruit cogs won’t recruit artists.

We often think of this detouring as a temporary process, a work-around, or a problem to be solved through more rigid adherence to the ATS. But developing relationships outside the ATS is the new normal. ATSs are internal tools designed for recruiting and HR to use, not the candidate. It was never meant to be a public or candidate-facing tool.

This is why you’re seeing the rise in AI-driven bots who interact with the candidate so that they never touch the ATS. Or CRM tools that help recruiters build relationships with prospects before there’s a rec to apply to.

Remember, it is the artists who will grow your business, who will find new revenue streams or processes that save you money. The value they return to the business has the potential to be significantly higher than the anticipated value of the cog. Thus, you should expect to spend more (time, resources, effort, money) hiring an artist than a cog. Trying to get everyone to use the same model leads to what we have right now: a place where neither candidate nor recruiter is happy.

The speed at which you embrace this new reality, and the level at which you invest in treating these audiences differently, will determine our hiring and recruiting success. If you really want to hire the people who will make your company grow, stop trying to push them through an outmoded recruiting process.

They are artists, so treat them as such.