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Boundaryless Careers

Boundaryless Careers. Does your career break boundaries?

By Professor Yanjun Guan

The boundaryless career characterises modern employment and professional development. In today’s increasingly globalised economy, rapid technological advancements have prompted significant organisational restructures which, in turn, have resulted in a more fluid approach to working life and career progression. Whereas, previous generations entered the workforce with a set path in mind and a clear route up the ladder, such patterns are no longer essential to effective career management.

In fact, staying in one role and one sector may put a professional at a disadvantage in some cases. As their industries evolve around them, a disinclination to change gear, build new skills or explore new avenues could lead to a professional’s skillset stagnating and their ideas and priorities being at odds with those who have been proactive in responding to the shifting landscape. Today’s industries require a more flexible approach, putting pressure on employees to constantly reset their goals, expectations and skill levels as they adapt to keep pace with competitors.

So, what is the Boundaryless Career?

The term refers to the concept of pursuing a variety of job roles and opportunities that extend beyond one singular function over the course of a working life.

Previous research has identified the boundaryless career as the crossing of a number of traditional boundaries: organisational (changing employer), relational (changing your network or industry), hierarchical (changing your rank), work-life (changing your activities and schedules) and psychological (changing your perspectives). Each one of these is absolutely correct and yet on their own do not fully embrace what a boundaryless career really means. As our geographies and industries continue to become more interconnected, as technologies forge stronger links between and improve the capabilities of workers, companies are forced to operate in new ways. And as the general length of a professional’s working life gets longer, a boundaryless career is defined as the ways in which professionals and organisations adapt beyond the traditional confines of industry in order to remain successful, whether taking on a new role, switching industry location, working from home or challenging their ideas of what success looks like.

What are the benefits?

Several published review papers have tapped into the potential gains associated with boundaryless careers, noting that organisations which can adapt to change often improve their talent retention levels, become more innovative and, as a result, more profitable. But the transition is by no means easy.

For individuals, career transitions often involve a significant shift in their professional identities which can leave them vulnerable. Change role too swiftly, or without taking the time to build the necessary competencies, and they may find themselves starting from scratch or at a disadvantage to more well-seasoned colleagues. It also often requires admitting gaps in their knowledge and a need to re-train and upskill – not always something they may wish to disclose to an employer or, in a manager’s case, their staff.

For organisations, change must be implemented gradually and with plenty of guidance and engagement from all stakeholders, or else risk alienating customers, workers and even investors. The changes of job duties, social relations,
work environments and family life that accompany career transitions can also cause a great deal of stress for workers and company owners alike.

How to succeed

Together with colleagues from Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University in Boston and the VU School of Management at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, we conducted a study which reviewed a wide range of peerreviewed literature on the relationship between ‘Career Boundarylessness’ and success, published between 1994 and 2018. As well as acknowledging the varied ways in which previous researchers and professionals have viewed what the concept of the boundaryless career actually is, we found that boundaryless careers can have both positive and negative effects on individuals’ career success. Crucially, success depends on a number of external factors – not least whether or not individuals had voluntarily or involuntarily transitioned into a more boundaryless way of working.

In general, career boundarylessness was positively associated with increase in pay at an executive level in comparison to traditional career models. However, for lower-skilled or lesser educated employees, boundaryless careers held
a higher possibility of negative consequences. Achieving success requires a flexible, exploratory and adaptable mindset – both for the individual and for their employers.

Business leaders must become open to new ideas, support employees who wish to test their capabilities in new areas and encourage others who may be reluctant to upskill or retrain.

The boundaryless mindset was also found to be positively linked to employee promotion and unemployed people’s re-entry to the workforce as individuals became more open to trying new things and following new paths. Furthermore, a number of studies made a positive connection between career boundarylessness and career satisfaction, reporting decreased levels of professional burnout and better talent retention, particularly in circumstances where professionals
had made a change voluntarily.

However, in regards to wellbeing, the literature we reviewed held some valid concerns. One paper found that upward job mobility linked to increased levels of strain within professionals and an increase in the level that work interfered with a professional’s home life.

Overall, our review suggests that to better understand the complicated relationship between career boundarylessness and career success it is necessary for researchers, organisations and professionals to develop a more systematic framework to organise and understand the different components of boundaryless careers and their potential impact.

Indeed the opportunities and gains on offer can sometimes seem to be outweighed by the costs and risks involved. However, when approached and implemented correctly, boundaryless can stand to bring a great deal of success.

Professor Yanjun Guan’s full paper, Career Boundarylessness and Career Success: A Review, Integration and Guide to Future Research, was published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour in 2018. Further information can be found in his article here.

This article was first published in IMPACT magazine in January 2019.

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