Subscription Employment: Why Platforms Are the Future of HR

Many employees have begun to “consume” work the way they choose a movie streaming service. Their job has become a “subscription” that can start and end at will. If they find a better deal, upgrading supersedes any existing commitments. Subscription employment is an unprecedented challenge for Human Resource (HR) departments, and it calls for new strategies.  


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Millennial culture and its “on-demand” lifestyle deserve some credit for subscription employment. But it’s only part of the story. Equally important, a perceived shortage of talent has given workers greater negotiating power, and the web now provides “insider” reviews on virtually every company. Employees have historically unmatched (though biased) information with which to choose employers. “Life is too short to …” hardly does justice to the elevated career expectations held by most 21st century talent.

So here’s the question for HR: How does a company attract and retain subscriber employees better than its peers? The answer, I argue, can be to adopt a platform model of HR that resonates with their consumerist tendencies. This article will discuss the characteristics of such a platform and how to design one.

Subscriber Employees

Consumer technology has rewired our brains to the extent that we’ve trained smartphones to do our bidding. They, in turn, have trained us to expect ease, instant gratification, and simplicity. Those are not the hallmarks of 20th century HR. We’ve transitioned from an era in which HR could say, “Take it or leave it,” to one in which HR should act more like the video streaming service. That’s where a platform matters.

A “platform” is a system that facilitates relationships between consumers and producers to create value. In a streaming service, for example, the film studios and their staff are producers. The people who watch movies and shows are consumers.

The streaming platforms bring these parties together and control the quality of goods exchanged. Some streaming services only publish well-reviewed movies and shows. Some also use “likes,” views, and similar data to determine what content users should see in their feeds.

Now, replace film studios with managers, and swap subscribers for employees. We have the basic parties for an HR platform. The next step is to consider how HR could create more value for them.

Personalized Business

In the Gilded Age, America’s business tycoons built epic railroads, factories, and oil companies. These operations thrived on repeatable, standardized operations. Twentieth century businesses inherited their priority: to make workers interchangeable. But this ethic backfired as employees became more creative and differentiated in their skills. Thus, in modern businesses, “personalization” is not just a marketing buzzword, but an imperative for managing employees effectively. That idea shapes how we should approach an HR platform.

Let’s say your company has a Vice President (VP) of Sales and a VP of Marketing. Their teams and goals are different. The VP of Sales aims to win big accounts and maximize customer lifetime value. Her team measures performance on lead conversions, revenue per account, and client retention. The VP of Marketing wants to increase web engagement, improve the quality of content, and supply sales with qualified leads.

Would it not be insane to force the same training and development resources on both departments?

The sales team wants to improve at sales strategy, speaking skills, and reading prospects. The marketing team, on the other hand, might need training in data analytics, creative processes, digital media skills, and so forth. They’d need separate training resources to maximize their potential.

Traditionally, HR has provided one generic flavor of education that, quite often, dissatisfies both departments. Everyone gets vanilla. The platform approach would be to offer a wide variety of training resources through a web portal.

Employees, rather than HR, can pick the skills that would increase their value. Each department, and each individual, inhabits a different niche that demands different proficiencies, performance management techniques, benefit packages, and so forth. The platform recognizes that diversity and offers choice and personalization.

Designing for Choice 

Employees used to grumble at coercive, backward HR policies. Now, they just leave the company. Neither managers nor employees will stick with an employer that suffocates their potential. Conversely, they will feel loyalty towards a company where HR maximizes choice and self-direction—ideally, using a platform.

Effective HR platforms will have a few principles in common. Consider incorporating these ideas into your design:

  1. Start with the journey. Employees follow a predictable course during their ‘subscription.’ From recruitment and onboarding to performance reviews, expensing, travel, and beyond, plot the moments and decide what services and options could improve each experience. When your platform simplifies these important (and often frustrating) moments, you reduce bureaucratic friction and increase the odds that employees will enjoy working for you.
  2. Think in identities. Employees fall into different identity pools, or personas. Your VPs have different needs and priorities than, say, managers at your retail shops. Likewise, the VP of Sales and Marketing each want to develop and manage their teams in different ways. Location, job function, age, culture, and country-by-country regulations should shape personas and what the platform offers to each one.
  3. Simplicity and ease. A streaming service likely won’t retain customers if finding and playing movies is complicated. The same is true of HR platforms: They provide an edge only if they’re as simple and frictionless as the consumer apps on your smartphone. Part of serving subscription employees is accepting—rather than judging—their proclivity for the path of least resistance.

Twenty years ago, employees couldn’t imagine a world in which perks like unlimited vacation, flexible hours, and telecommuting were not just available, but expected. Twenty years from now, employees will struggle to picture companies where HR platforms didn’t exist, and long, draconian e-mails dictated their relationship with the company instead. To help attract and retain the best talent, consider taking the consumer approach, and fight hard to keep your top talent subscribed.

Michael GretczkoMichael Gretczko is a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and General Manager of ConnectMe, which delivers a modern solution for the digital workplace. ConnectMe simplifies HR interactions and connects employees how and when they want. Gretczko has over 16 years of experience in business transformation and focuses on helping clients fundamentally change how they operate.

Gretczko has experience consulting on Digital Solutions, innovation, business strategy, service delivery, process design, enterprise cloud technology and operating model transformation including shared services, and outsourcing. His consulting experience includes helping clients define and change strategy, transform operations, globalize operations, enter new markets, increase employee and customer engagement, reduce costs, and manage with better business insights.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please click here for a detailed description of Deliotte’s legal structure. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.