Free Agent Nation Romance: The Good, The Bad, And The Unknown
You know the story. Once upon a time, companies courted new talent with the promise of a lifelong relationship. “Work” meant employment, training, benefits, and job security for years, if not decades. But for many, if not most companies and employees, the romance has died.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an estimated 40% of all U.S. workers now operate on a part-time or contract basis. Josh Bersin adds:
“Bottom Line: the workforce of today is specialized and highly virtual: working part-time, mobile, from home, and often on a contract basis. Our research shows that among large employers upwards of 32% of all positions are now “part-time” or contract-based.”
Bersin argues that social media have enabled employers and a fast-moving, trained workforce to link up with “local projects, local tasks, and local jobs.” He gives the examples of the rapid growth of job boards such as TaskRabbit and GigWalk, and notes that “this mode of work has hit the corporate market as well. . . . But they don’t see what’s really coming – an explosion of mobile, virtual, local workers. One can think of these new services as “mobile-enabled, local job-boards” – but what they really are is enablers of the younger, more virtual workforce.”
Here’s the bottom line and our collective reality check. Bersin sums it up nicely here “the contingent workforce is now a permanent fixture, so many elements of talent management, recruiting and engagement are being extended to these mobile ‘free agents.’
Really? Just how well are leaders rising to the occasion in this “highly scalable” new world order they’ve created?
Let’s take a closer look at this Brave New Free Agent World of Work.
1) The Good
Flexibility. For both employers and employees. Lots of my friends, especially my mom friends, like having freelance jobs for that reason.
Varied work experiences. Freelances can try different kinds of work and companies, without committing to any of them. They are “pan-opportunists.”
New skills. We like having the chance to reinvent ourselves and gain new skills. We never stop dreaming. This is very exciting.
Savings for companies. Firms save millions by not giving benefits or providing training or career ladders, and by freely expanding or contracting their workforce as needed. (All of which gives us a fascinating meaning to the word free in “free agents” and “freelancers” . . . )
Adapting to the new culture. “The fast-moving, technologically dynamic global economy has forced leaders to think about work in modular, ever- shifting ways. Organizations that can adapt, change, and innovate quickly have an advantage today. [Having] contingent and contract workers can facilitate this change.”
2) The Bad
No bennies. While my freelancer friends like the flexibility, none of them likes the lack health care, sick time, vacation pay, or other bennies. Many of them would willingly give up the flexibility if they could find work at firms offering these benefits.
No job security. Ever had that pit-in-the-stomach feeling as one project ends and you can’t see the next one over the horizon?
No training. No comment. There is no excuse for bad leadership. This should be a must for all companies and leaders. Even for “consultants” or “free lancers”
No engagement. What’s being done by leading-edge companies to ensure that contingent workers fit into the culture and engage with the organization? In fact, in nearly every way you can name, contractors are still considered “second-class citizens” in most corporate settings.
Less stability. The most stable firms are those that have stable and loyal employees. Oh no. Not good.
3) The Unknown
Have companies and their employees broken up for good?
Williams and Bersin seem to agree that contingent work is here to stay, in massive numbers. And so do I. The facts speaks for themselves.
“Dana Shaw, former senior Vice-President for Staffing Industry Analysts, reported that in the Fortune 100 companies, contingent workers make up 20-30% of the workforce, but predicts it will soon be 50%. Statistics Canada reported that by 2009, 52% of all temporary jobs were contract jobs, 25% of them were professionals. . . . McKinsey &Co. reported that 65% of U.S. corporations have restructured their workforce and have no plans to return to pre-recession employment, but rather are opting for contingent and contract work when the need for expansion takes place.”
What about innovation? What does freelancers’ “pan-opportunism” mean for innovation? The results aren’t in. All I know for sure is that innovation generally comes from companies who nurture their teams, support their passions, and given them scope to imagine and produce. This does not sound like a description of a company dependent on a contingent workforce.
As freelancers begin having families, needing health care, wanting stability, and so on, will they change—and insist on more meaningful relationships with companies? And, therefore, will we have the happy ending: with these protagonists getting back together in more permanent ways, both wiser than before?
Social media is awesome. It has done astounding things, producing cultural transformations in HR and Leadership and Technology we never dreamed of even a few years ago. Surely we should—and can—use it to foster fidelity between leaders and contract employees. Can we agree that building a fair, meaningful relationship between these parties is a good thing . . . for leaders, free agents, and our global world of work?
So. Light the candles . . . put on the mood music . . . And think strategically about the kind of relationships that will allow us to live happily ever after in our careers.
Will social media combined with this unstable jobs economy forever lead companies and employees into the arms of many different suitors, relationships, careers?
A version of this post was first published on Forbes.com.
photo credit: The Office(at home) via photopin (license)