The Fluid Workforce is Here to Stay
I recently had the honor of being cited in a research paper on the Fluid Workforce by the Capgemini Research Institute. Being able to share my knowledge and insights with a larger platform is always a pleasure and an honor.
But here’s the funny thing: they interviewed me before COVID-19 even hit. It’s quite ironic if you think about it. There I was, sharing my insights about the Fluid Workforce, as we were on the precipice of the Fluid Workforce’s grand revolution.
Let’s address the terminology first. What exactly is the “Fluid Workforce?”
They are the freelancers, the gig workers, and the independent contractors who have played a growing role in the development of the 21st-century global economy.
But the pandemic has put them front-and-center, and with that newfound spotlight comes a greater need for organizations to understand their ever-evolving set of demands and expectations.
It’s certainly been a fascinating time doing the work that I do, which has a strong focus on the future of work and the transformation of how we do it. I’ve been studying these areas for two and a half decades and have witnessed incredible shifts in global connectedness, emerging technologies, and the evolution of both employer and consumer behaviors.
And now that COVID-19 is here? These shifting dynamics of all these elements have gone into hyper speed.
Leveled Playing Field
Pre-COVID, worker distribution was predictable and traditional. Executives had their own offices, base-level employees were spread across the floor in their own cubicles or zones, and the freelancers were at home or in coffee shops.
Today, it doesn’t matter who you are: you’re probably working from home now. You may even be working from home indefinitely or forever.
Research has shown that this may become the new norm. According to Gallup, 59% of U.S. workers are keen to continue their remote work for as long as possible.
Another poll by getAbstract has shown that 43% of U.S. workers want to continue remote work, despite the pandemic’s status because the absence of a commute and flexibility are paramount.
So this isn’t just a small little blip. These numbers, and you’ll find them all over the place if you do a quick search, show that the pendulum is swinging. The nature of work is fundamentally changing.
There’s something really unique about this both in terms of challenges and opportunities. Now that everyone is in their living room or home office, old constructs break down. Think of the entry-level employee who has to report to their boss, via elevator, to a fancy corner office. What that represents from a hierarchical perspective is gone now.
What exactly are we working with then? Well, leaders will require entirely new skills to rein in their employees to entirely new structures or silos. These new formations must be created on the basis of driving business outcomes and innovating while also tending to the social and emotional needs of a mixed team.
And yes, I said emotional. Think about it: during your last business meeting, one of your employees might’ve had a screaming child in the background, you just didn’t hear it because their mic was muted. Pressures like these – also, dealing with vulnerable family members – make this change process 10x harder.
But it has to happen, organizations must accept this as the new way of life.
When we look back, history has shown us that attempts at remote work have been patchy at best.
Best Buy gave it a go in 2004 by putting greater value on tasks accomplished as opposed to hours worked. But the program was put to an end in 2013 and the company put out a statement saying that it simply gave employees too much freedom.
IBM tried to develop a similar culture: in 2009, 40 percent of its workers – over 300,000 in three-fourths of the world’s countries – were operating in a remote setting. But as the 2010s reached its latter half, revenue for the company was showing a slight decline, so they called scores of employees back to work in-person.
But that’s the past. What about now? How is this approach going in the age of COVID-19?
Surprisingly well it seems.
An organizational consulting firm, Korn Ferry, found that 64% of workers affirmed that they were more productive at home.
Another firm, Fundera, found that “two-thirds of managers report that employees who work from home increase their overall productivity.” Additionally, “86% of employees say they’re most productive when they work alone—devoid of distractions like inefficient meetings, office gossip, or loud office spaces.”
In fact, these findings go on to show that telecommuters tend to make more than their counterparts (and would even accept less).
Some companies will become entirely remote. Facebook, Shopify, Zillow, and Twitter have all announced plans to let employees take this route indefinitely.
But this isn’t to say that the age of commuting is dead. I would argue that a blended solution to in-person and digital collaboration is needed to really stir the pot of innovation and create entirely new ways of both creating products and working.
So what should we actually be thinking about moving forward?
For one, it’s important to realize the Fluid Workforce is now an essential part of the equation. Before COVID-19, this population was a bit of a wildcard. But the culture has shifted and we must ensure that these workers are included; not waiting to be included, not hoping to be included, not wishing to be included.
Freelancers and their “fluid” peers must be put in a position where they feel like they have the reins. They need the space to put together their own plans, sit down with company leadership, and provide their own solutions. They must be a part of the picture; somehow, someway.
I believe that such deep involvement – occurring alongside the normal operations of employee activities – will bring about incredible bouts of innovation.
Speaking of innovation, here’s another thing that’s been on my mind: Would it hurt to take a look at other industries every once and a while?
Here’s what I mean.
Companies of the modern era seem to be so focused on their own realm and their own influence that they completely disregard anything happening outside of that.
In my eyes, this is a missed opportunity. It’s my hope that these fluid workers will bring in expertise from other areas and help instill a cross-industry perspective for businesses across the globe.
Work in technology? See what agriculture is up to. Big pharma? Maybe check in on construction trends. Sounds crazy, right? That’s the point. Innovation, to an extent, originates from crazy. Step outside the box and listen to your fluid workers. They may provide the missing link you’ve been searching for.