Building The On-Demand Workforce

BCG's 'Building The On-Demand Workforce' report encapsulates a thought-provoking conversation around the revolution of freelancing during the pandemic. Read more on how companies harness this on-demand workforce's full potential.
Future of work

If you spend dinner nights with your extended family members trying your best to explain what you do for a living and still receive poker-face reactions, chances are you are a freelancer in India.

Your relatives may not know much about freelancing, but that doesn’t change the fact that this independent model of work is growing faster than wildfire. Freelancers are the ‘on-demand’ workforce that is brought in to obtain a fresh set of expertise and creativity to the table.

“A few leading companies are rethinking their entire approach to finding and using talent. They are embracing more flexible, blended workforce models, where they can expand or contract their access to specialised, highly skilled workers, as and when needed,” states the Building The On-Demand Workforce report.

The study, conducted by BCG Henderson Institute and Harvard Business School, is an outcome of surveying around 700 senior business leaders from US firms as well as in-depth interviews with talent platform representatives and companies that use them.

From the rapid surge in the number of freelancers to companies transforming their approach to leverage the best of this on-demand workforce, the report provides quantitative backing to the way the workforce has transformed. 

Flexible, yet impactful work 

The freelancing revolution took the world by storm in the past two years and the US is leading the charts with more than one-third of its workforce being freelancers as of September 2020.

Until 2019 and to some extent even today, the impression of freelancing has been either about the kind of work people do as a side-hustle or a one-time project. Today, that mindset is challenged as we look at another survey conducted by Upwork in June-July 2020, which had 6000 participants who were working adults in the US. It says:

  • 50% are already considering freelancing as a long-term career choice.
  • 60% say they will not take up a traditional job offer no matter how attractive the stipend would be.

Although freelancing equally has the potential to be a highly lucrative career option, it doesn’t seem to be the primary influence on people’s choices. Rather, it is the freedom to work from anywhere, design your own schedule, work on projects of your choice, and have better work-life balance that influence that decision.

Why freelancing can be empowering for certain people

The report also highlights how the advent of freelancing is a boon for people like single parents, those with care responsibilities, and the disabled population. Due to physical, geographical, and time restrictions, these groups often find it challenging to keep themselves employed in a traditional job environment. Freelancing dismisses all of these boundaries and makes it possible for them to offer their expertise and find a stable source of income.

The outbreak of freelancers has also been a blessing for those companies who experience a supply crunch due to not being located in or around popular urban hubs. This also includes small businesses yet to make it to the list of preferred or known employers that tends to attract top talent. 

As more people step into freelancing, the question of geographical limitation is eradicated, and these organizations get more options for creative and efficient individuals ready to work on a contract basis. 

However, when it comes to hiring freelancers, there is no discrimination today that only a certain type or level of companies collaborate with them. From startups to Fortune 500s, all prefer to shake hands with freelancers, and this has been majorly possible due to a mindset shift toward normalizing remote work.

“Pre-COVID-19, remote work was viewed with suspicion. Post COVID-19, it’s the norm,” the BCG report rightly highlights.

The pursuit of making remote work successful forced companies into two things that later turned out in their favor:

1. To embrace technology faster and befriend automation wherever possible.

2. To let go of the hesitation to work with outsiders.

The latter accelerated the freelancing movement in the industry and helped companies develop stronger muscle for sudden management, talent supply, and work crises like the one the global pandemic introduced.

A change in how digital talent platforms are viewed 

With the growth of freelancing, it was inevitable that freelancers’ go-to digital talent platforms would also observe a spike. The research explicitly studies platforms like Freelancer, InnoCentive, Toptal, Upwork, and such to understand how companies approach them. It turns out there weren’t any great strategies articulated by businesses for these platforms earlier, and they were just a quick source for companies to hire freelancers on short notice.

But as the pandemic hit, it became more evident that freelancers shouldn’t just be a last-minute resort, but can be a great medium of creative expertise. 

  • 40% of users of these platforms admit to having experienced improved speed to market, a boost in productivity, and increased innovation.
  • 60% say they would increase the strength of freelancers and prefer to share talent with other companies.
  • 90% of business leaders think using talent platforms would be somewhat or very important for leveraging competitive advantage.

Working towards harnessing the true potential of this on-demand workforce, businesses are moving beyond the trial and error method and developing an integrated strategy for hiring freelancers through such digital platforms. 

To create a perfect blend of the full-time and freelance workforce, here are five strategic transitions suggested in the BCG report that companies need to incorporate:

  • Redefining the culture of organization.
  • Rethinking the employee value proposition (EVP).
  • Restructuring work into components.
  • Reassessing capabilities within the organization.
  • Rewiring organizational processes and policies.

Once companies plan and execute these transitions, they can take the first step towards implementing a strategic recruitment process for hiring freelancers by:

1. Deploying micro-experiments

The report shares an example of how Unilever experimented with sourcing talent through various digital portals like:

  • Marketplace for premium talent
  • Digital freelancing marketplaces
  • Crowdsourcing innovation platforms
  • Internal talent platforms

This omnichannel approach helped them understand which platform provided them with the most strategic value. 

“Micro-experiments can become stepping stones to building confidence in the value of a blended workforce model for senior management and frontline managers as well as for full-time employees,” the report states.

This approach’s philosophy is to help you test different waters before diving deep into one. It also helps you not become over-reliant on a single source and pivot to different mediums when needed.

2. Identifying the champions of change

This step assesses and describes the responsibilities companies would like to hand over to the on-demand workforce.

Two questions the report suggests that can lead to an output:

  • What is the minimum set of activities that full-time employees should conduct within the organization? 
  • Which tasks or business objectives could benefit from being performed by external or part-time employees?

Once the employer notes their expectations from freelancers, they can set themselves onto the next crucial part — designing processes and strategies to make their collaboration a success.

How would they do that? By choosing the right leader to guide the movement. A leader who is a reflection of the capabilities and values the company expects to see in its future workforce. 

Investing in the future

Companies collaborating with freelancers are not merely making just another hire. They are:

  • Outsourcing special skills that they don’t have internally.
  • Exploring avenues to discover multiple streams of growth. 
  • Strengthening the company’s ability to complete critical projects.
  • Tapping into an on-demand workforce to enable them to take on new projects.

This is how companies can make the best of the disruption of digital talent platforms. And while they’re at it, they are expected to learn, unlearn and invest. 

“Accessing sought-after talent will require the development of new skills in human resources and project management. It will require moving away from practices designed in an era when companies relied on full-time employees to get work done and when they had no access to digital talent platforms,” the report says.

Again, this is an investment that will feel like a cost at the moment. But if companies are not willing to bear this expense today, the price they’ll have to pay in the long run for it will be much higher.

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