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The Contingent Workforce: Managing and Profiting from Agile Talent

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Businesses and other organizations have long understood the advantage of employing a contingent workforce and relying on a stable of agile talent. Retail stores throughout the 20th century hired additional sales associates to deal with the holiday rush, suppliers employ warehouse associates for annual inventory audits and just about everyone has outsourced accounting and advertising functions in order to concentrate on their core business.

As the war for talent becomes increasingly competitive and talent innovations become pervasive - e.g. instantaneous communication, cloud-based experience management platforms and limitless mobility - firms need to invest in agile talent in order to thrive. Today’s workers place greater emphasis on work-life balance, variety of duties, and personal freedom and the best talent often needs to be engaged in different constructs. With a current historically tight labor market, we are encountering a perfect storm of social and commercial interests in which contingent workers and organizations that can manage an agile workforce can thrive.

Forward-thinking companies already have taken steps to adapt to the realities of the workforce of today and tomorrow. Many experts expect that freelance, part-time, crowd sourced, and other contingent workers will increase from about 12 percent to around 50 percent over the next decade. Commercial firms need little convincing that an agile workforce pays off in two important areas:

  1. Sourcing diverse, specialized, scarce skills
    Successful companies are those that are nimble enough to anticipate market shifts and respond to threats and opportunities in their industries. For that to happen, they must have access to subject matter experts, communicators, project managers, designers, and other professionals with experience in a wide variety of sectors. Keeping all these human resources on a full-time staff is virtually impossible. But keeping them “on call” and ready to perform in a creative talent pool construct gives companies a sustainable competitive advantage.

  2. Managing costs in an era of intense competition
    Hiring, training, paying, and providing healthcare and other benefits for full-time staff quickly cuts into an organization's profit margins. The specialized talent required to complete complicated projects often is underutilized when roadblocks such as these obstruct the talent pipeline. With a contingent workforce, companies can bring in the skills they need, when they need them. Often the agile workers who possess these abilities gain them from working for and with other companies, reducing the need for costly onboarding and unproductive start-up times. They can “hit the ground running,” enabling firms to quickly drive impact. 

Few would argue that the workforce of the future will contain a significant share of contingent workers. But fewer still have developed comprehensive approaches to managing their agile contributors.

Here are some tips on forming strategies that will help companies employ their non-traditional “employees” most effectively:

  1. Plan – An agile workforce definitely has a place in most organizations, but it is not a panacea. Freelancers and gig workers will not, in most cases replace a company’s entire salaried and hourly workforce. Firms must determine which areas and under what circumstances contingent workers will deliver better results than full-time or outsourced options. Matching agile workers’ skills to company needs and supplementing them with other resources will be the key to best utilizing this worker base.
  2. Attract – Companies’ desire to tap into the rapidly deployable and "on-call skills" contingent workers provide is obvious. What may be less apparent is why the agile workforce may want to contract with specific firms. As with the competition for competent full-time workers, companies will find themselves battling for performers among the alternative workforce. To win, they will have to market themselves and offer rewards that agile workers value. These may not be the same carrots traditional workers cherish. The contingent workforce is comprised of a diverse population. Younger workers may be attracted to higher pay; parents may sacrifice a big paycheck for flexible schedules; older workers may be looking for mentoring and team leadership positions. To get the best, companies will have to appeal to workers’ values.
  3. Train - A big appeal of agile workers is that they come ready-equipped with important abilities that an organization may be lacking. But while these workers possess specific technical knowledge and management skills, they still need to be brought up to speed on the organization’s goals and market strategy if they are to be most effective. An introduction to the company culture, expectations for the project, success metrics, hierarchy, and other core details will help workers make better decisions and take actions that are consistent with the project and company's overall goals and mission.

Sophisticated consumers, technological advances, and rapidly changing market conditions favor companies that are swift to recognize and take advantage of opportunities. Nimble firms require nimble workforces. Companies that can harness the power of contingent workers – mobilizing them and helping them become productive from the start – will reap significant advantages.


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