Designing Your Business to Enable a Fluid Workforce

Designing Your Business to Enable a Fluid Workforce

For businesses to succeed in today’s mercurial world, they must implement new strategies and technologies, as well as a different way of working, than they needed even three years ago. Most of these new and different ways of working are catalyzed by digitization and remote work.

Digitization and remote work have changed what people do and how they do it so much that a job skills study led by BCG shows:

  • Overall, 37% of the top 20 skills requested for the average US job have changed since 2016
  • One in five skills (22%) is entirely new

But employees aren’t keeping up. According to a Gartner study, 58% of the workforce must be reskilled or retrained to do their current jobs. For businesses, reskilling their workforce is expensive and time-consuming, but they need skilled workers now. For employees, they often feel burdened with heavy workloads. How will they find time to reskill?

The answer may not lie in hiring more employees. Hiring is a slow process. In the best of times, no company can ever hire all the skills needed to push critical initiatives across the finish line. Although the Great Resignation may be cooling off, competition for in-demand talent is still so fierce that a Deloitte survey shows 71% of CEOs say the talent shortage is the main threat to their business strategy.

Even if they could hire all the people they need, many businesses are choosing not to. Some projects require skills that may not be needed full time. Some roles are being left unfilled as the significant stock market downturn and threats of a recession make businesses wary of adding headcount.

However, the work must get done. That’s why in successful businesses, critical needs are no longer only addressed by full-time employees with stagnant job descriptions. They are also supported by independent professionals engaged for their ability to deliver outcomes and not based on their full-time availability. Enter…the fluid workforce.

It’s about capabilities, not classifications

It’s time to update the old adage that a business is only as good as its employees. In today’s increasingly technical and unpredictable world, a business is only as good as its workforce.

The distinction is critical because the modern workforce is made up of more than employees. It may also include on-demand professionals, fractional workers, other independent contractors, temp workers, and consultants. All of whom probably make up your fluid workforce.

Why shift your focus to the fluid workforce? And why now? Because when it comes to talent, speed in accessing skills is still important. Depending on their specific needs, businesses can engage both employees and independent contractors to get work done well and on time. And the digital tools exist today to enable this kind of fluid work. Business needs can be met by whoever is the most fitting, be they full time, fractional, or on-demand, be they local or remote.

In a Capgemini report, Ley Wilson, Supplier and Vendor Management Lead at Travelex, points out how the fluid workforce can benefit teams beyond an immediate project:

A fluid workforce allows companies to open up the book to a broad spectrum of talent than just what’s on their doorstep. This system allows companies to bring in people just for the short term. These are people who can help us change direction or produce new projects. And, while they are here, they can capture and transfer their learning and expertise to our full-time employees.”

Focusing on capabilities can provide greater flexibility in how you work with talent. For example, when new ideas surface, the engineering team at PGA of America contracts specialized developers to test proof of concept. Tapping the fluid workforce enables the team to use resources more efficiently as employees can remain focused on higher-value work, and the team doesn’t invest internal resources into a new idea until it proves it will extend capabilities. “Independent talent changed how we handle development,” says George Whitaker, Director of Software Engineering at PGA of America. “They gave us the confidence to test new ideas and opened our minds to what’s possible.”

If you require certain skills for a limited time, you could contract people with a level of expertise and experience you may not be able to access by hiring an employee. This may be anyone from a fractional chief marketing officer for designing a go-to-market strategy to an augmented reality specialist to create an immersive training experience.

Fluid workers are becoming a core part of business

In the past, fluid workers were seen as fringe outsiders who didn’t care as much about a company’s success as its employees. As businesses recognize the potential of these flexible experts, they see these independent professionals as highly respected contributors who can support and accelerate core parts of the business.

Flexera, an IT management company, made on-demand talent sourced through Upwork “part of the water supply.” CEO Jim Ryan wrote on-demand talent use into the company’s goals, then set out to evolve internal policies, processes, and technology to safely support use of on-demand talent at scale. Jim Ryan said:

In talking to other C-level executives, my message is clear: Using Upwork isn’t so much about cost, as it is about fast access to ready-made, cutting-edge talent. Having access to an unprecedented pool of super talented professionals enables us to increase our velocity, and as a result, our competitive posture in the market.“

Kevin Scott, Head of Technology at PGA of America, told the engineering team that he expected superhuman amounts of work from them and that they must figure out how to get it all done. Then he gave each engineer broad access to contract on-demand talent through Upwork. Soon, team members were contracting talent for anything from updating PowerPoint presentations to testing proof of concept. Scott said:

That actually worked unimaginably well. They were able to learn leadership. They learned self development. They learned how to manage people, how to work remotely. And at the same time, they were just cruising through work. When employees aren’t limited by internal skillsets or resources, they can extend their capabilities and leverage their time. Freeing up their bandwidth enables them to put their energy across what’s more valuable, so they can create bigger improvements and changes that help themselves and the team."

Moadh Bukhash, Chief Marketing Officer at Emirates NBD, values how contracting the fluid workforce exposes team members to greater diversity:

When you've got access to millions of freelancers around the world with different backgrounds, different experiences, different mentalities, and different cultures, you generate more ideas and can tell more impactful stories. You also gain speed; team members can take action on their ideas almost immediately, instead of waiting weeks to test ideas or months to start large projects.

Upwork is its own best customer. Our internal teams are made up of over 600 employees and more than 1,700 hybrid workers engaged through the Upwork platform. This means roughly 73% of our workforce is made up of independent (on-demand) professionals. Specifically, these are members of our Hybrid Workforce Program (HWS).

For Robert McCauley, Director of Content Marketing, having access to on-demand professionals changed how he builds his team:

Before, our response to a need was wait and hope it grew into something bigger to justify a 40-hour/week hire, add it to a team member’s already full plate, do it myself, or realize it probably would never get done. By contracting on-demand talent through Upwork, I'm not constrained by hours or job titles. I think of skills. There is no project we can't tackle.”

Watch: How Marketing Teams Use Upwork to Scale

Executives are leading demand

The fluid workforce isn’t just for supporting individual contributors. In 2022 Business Talent Group, providers of high-end, on-demand talent, saw CXOs and presidents reaching for on-demand talent more than any other buying group. More than 70% of all requests come from VPs and above.

70 percent of requests

Executives are tapping the fluid workforce for interim leaders and consultants to help grow business. A few of the most in-demand project categories include business processes, innovation and R&D, growth strategy, and product launches.

5 trends increasing demand for fluid workers

As new challenges emerge, business leaders are finding the most nimble and cost-effective solutions involve the fluid workforce.

People are accustomed to remote work

A sizable portion of the fluid workforce works remotely. This characteristic was an obstacle in the past as businesses believed work could only be done in person. But that belief is quickly fading away.

During the pandemic, managers grew skilled at managing based on outcomes instead of by seeing people in seats. And businesses invested in the technology and processes required to support remote work.

Whether a business returns to being fully on-site or offers employees some type of remote work option, teams are growing comfortable working with people solely across computer screens—be they employees or independent contractors.

An Upwork Future Workforce report demonstrates managers’ comfort with remote talent. Of the hiring managers who used remote, on-demand talent during the pandemic, most plan to increase remote freelancer use over the next two years.

Percentage of companies using more remote freelancer

Skills are becoming highly specialized

As your business digitizes, it inspires new experiments that lead to new short-term work opportunities. For example, you may need to test proof-of-concept, implement a new tech stack, and redesign workflows changed by automation. Such projects require specialized skills that, most likely, aren’t available in house. And in the early days of your transformation, there may not be enough work requiring such skills, such as AI writers and drone operators, to warrant a full-time hire.

This is why as new jobs are created by AI and automation, most businesses (60%) fill them with fluid workers.

AI raises demand for freelancers

Work is increasingly being completed as projects

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, former Chairman of the Project Management Institute, sees a future where job descriptions will come to an end because work has gotten so complex, it is increasingly being done by cross-functional project teams.

Between automation and the increasing complexity of work, Nieto-Rodriguez predicts that, “Organizations will shift their focus more than ever to projects and project-based work instead of roles and their job descriptions. Projects are the new norm for creating value and, indeed, for staying in business.”

Nieto-Rodriguez calls this new future the project economy. One where employees must become skilled generalists and bring in independent specialists (fluid workers) according to project needs.

Perhaps the project economy isn’t too far off in the future. The numbers of project starts are growing so quickly that it’s estimated companies will need 88 million people in project-management related roles by 2027.

88 million project roles

Businesses can increase competitiveness while remaining cost effective

Fluid workers are generally paid on a by-project basis as you bring them in as needed. This flexibility enables you to create a variable cost for talent, which can be advantageous when compared to the traditional recurring fixed cost of talent.

Creating a variable cost for talent enables you to free up cash, boost productivity, and increase agility. All of which expands your capabilities to better service customers and meet business goals.

Employee burnout is rising

Changing life circumstances and increasing burnout are causing workers to quit at historically high rates. The exodus began with the Great Resignation as entry- and intermediate-level workers sought greater job fulfillment and life balance. Not surprisingly, front-line to mid-level managers are following suit in a phenomenon known as boss loss.

According to the Humu State of the Manager 2022 report, managers have had enough of being expected to handle heavier workloads, longer workdays, and emotionally exhausted teams without adequate support. Managers are burning out so fast that they’re 2x more likely to look for new jobs than individual workers.

Managers attrition rate

CompuVision, an IT support company, gets ahead of burnout by contracting on-demand talent to handle specialized tasks and shoulder workload spikes. You can also give managers greater support by tapping the fluid workforce to provide:

  • Virtual assistants to handle administrative tasks
  • HR specialists to coach leaders on managing teams through difficult times
  • Fractional and interim executives to lend expertise on critical initiatives and reduce workflow interruptions

Design workforce like Legos®

Global thought leader and best-selling author Keith Ferrazzi says it’s outdated and limiting for businesses to continue treating their workforces as a fixed structure. Successful businesses adopt what he calls a Lego® block workforce in that it’s maneuverable and infinitely variable.

What he means is to treat your workforce as a massive pool of onsite and remote individuals who assemble, disassemble, and reassemble again on a project basis. Once you open your mind to how your workforce can work, it’s easier to enable such fluidity.

Many businesses begin by having employees focus on core work and offer non-core work to the fluid workforce. To determine who to bring in, start from the end. Determine what the main project deliverable is, such as a new product. Then ask yourself:

  • What are the component deliverables that ladder up to that deliverable?
  • For each component, what are the tasks that deliver that component?
  • For each task, what skills do I need?
  • Who can I source from a work marketplace or vendor to own that task?

After you identify who you must bring in, you’re left with core work that only an employee can do. Then you can ask, What can I assign to someone here on the team?

Liz Elliott, technical project manager at PGA of America, tested this process by contracting on-demand talent to handle a single task within a larger project. As her comfort working with on-demand talent grew, she offered larger projects to them.

Elliott saw how on-demand talent enables her to increase the value she provides the organization and job fulfillment. “Having high-quality talent available lets me focus on high-visibility projects. I know the other projects are getting done and the stakeholders are receiving the support they need,” said Elliott.

Perhaps the bigger takeaway here is that when you enable a fluid workforce, you meet the needs of the business and employees equally. So, if a business is only as good as its workforce, then a fluid workforce helps make business very good.


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Author Spotlight

Designing Your Business to Enable a Fluid Workforce
Brenda Do

Brenda Do is a direct-response copywriter who loves to create content that helps businesses engage their target audience—whether that’s through enticing packaging copy to a painstakingly researched thought leadership piece. Brenda is the author of "It's Okay Not to Know"—a book helping kids grow up confident and compassionate.

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