There’s a wave coming. You sense it when your competitor beats you to market with that inventive product or highly efficient way of doing business. Or, you sense the wave when your top performer in marketing, in whom you have invested by sending them to that prestigious, pricey leadership program, leaves suddenly to join a top of duty

How Working Has Changed Over Time

What’s the wave? It’s the new way of working, the new employer-employee compact called Tours of Duty, a term coined by three executives in Silicon Valley and laid out in the Harvard Business Review. In their article, authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh trace the evolution of the tacit ways that companies and workers interacted over time; simplified, it goes something like this:

For a long while now, the old compact, based on workers pledging loyalty and tenure in exchange for company pay, benefits and lifelong employment, has gone the way of canned vegetables. A confluence of changes, global, technological and societal, made that compact unrealistic. Even more accelerated change resulted in downsizings in the 1980’s and 1990’s, leading to the concept of workers as free agents who sought temporary work and self-employment; or stayed and tuned out on the job. While still a solution for natural entrepreneurs, free agency resulted in choppy resumes, budget cuts in hiring and training and a lack of engagement.

Tour of Duty: Defined

So what is the Tour of Duty? The idea is to hire workers for key company initiatives for a span of three, four, or five years rather than to fill a job that implies lifelong employment. Hiring for a project or initiative doesn’t necessarily mean jettisoning the employee when the initiative ends; rather, if the worker meets or exceeds goals, you offer another tour of duty, hoping they will want to stay. Rather than incenting workers by pay and long tenure, you are motivating workers intrinsically through the nature of the work itself, a concept touted by leadership expert Daniel Pink.

Many organizations see the Tour of Duty model as risky and a poor investment. They’d rather hire and keep workers who become experts in the business and in their functional roles over time. However, companies with a need for product or service innovation value the short-term dependability of workers with an entrepreneurial bent, tied more to accomplishing goals than to staying to collect benefits.

Is This Good for Your Organization?

How do you decide if the Tour of Duty employer-employee compact is a fit for your organization?

Here are some criteria:

  • You have stiff competition and a need for innovative, fast-to-market products/services
  • You have planned for specific initiatives that would benefit from fresh ideas and energy, even in the short term
  • Your leaders and HR professional(s) are partnered on initiatives and have a pulse on worker skill sets so that when a top performer leaves, others can step in or the position is efficiently filled

To start, I recommend learning more about the Tour of Duty model. Next, identify a subset of roles in your company that may meet the above criteria, and, with HR, actively plan to staff key initiatives with workers that bring that entrepreneurial energy. Be the company that gets to market first.