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Why a flexible talent strategy could be your competitive advantage

Almost every conversation I’ve had recently with clients and members of the Future Work/Life community has included a discussion about recruitment. 

In a time of post-Covid phrases like ‘the new normal’, ‘hybrid working’, and if you’re in Germany, ‘coronaspeck’, (which literally translates as ‘corona bacon’, and refers to, you’ve guessed it, lockdown weight gain), it seems compulsory to give this trend a name. Hence the ‘Great Resignation’. 

Others have dubbed it the ‘Great Attrition’, the ‘Great Flourishing’, and the ‘Great Reassessment’, but semantics aside, something significant is happening, and there are various issues at play – some of which are more obvious to employers than others. 

According to McKinsey, the most important factors for employees include being valued by a manager and organisation, a sense of belonging, the potential for advancement, and having a flexible work schedule. However, the best talent isn’t just jumping from one employer to another. An increasing number is deciding to leave full-time employment entirely and ‘go it alone’. 

While the idea of hiring consultants and freelancers is nothing new, the difference this time is the scale at which the ‘contingent workforce’ is growing.

Why’s this happening? 

The obvious place to start is flexibility. You don’t have to wait for your employer to create an enlightened work policy when you work for yourself. Aside from pressing client meetings, you’re in charge of what time you get out of bed in the morning, how frequently you exercise, and whether you take that lunchtime nap.

Flexibility in when and how you work isn’t the only thing at play, though. A desire for more autonomy applies just as much to choosing which clients you work for and the type of work you do for them. 

And, of course, financial considerations are significant. The chance to maximise your value by going direct to clients and creating a platform for long-term security is enough for many people to offset the risk of sometimes patchy revenue initially.

What does this mean for businesses?

None of this would be possible if there wasn’t sufficient demand for contingent workers. 

In a knowledge economy, you differentiate through the quality of your talent. Much as the principal promise of a remote-first strategy is access to the best talent anywhere in the world, a more fluid workforce increases flexibility for organisations while reducing the more burdensome administrative and logistical requirements of full-time employees. Crucially, you can also quickly scale teams up and down, allowing you to select the right people for the right job. 

For a services business, like a marketing agency, for example, that might mean rapidly deploying expert teams in response to a client brief. The alternative would either be an often lengthy recruitment process followed by a long notice period, or upskilling an existing employee. By the time you’ve done all of this, the urgent need, and the opportunity, may have passed.

The finances can work out for both parties too. While an individual can leverage their unique experience and expertise to increase their earnings potential, businesses can access high-calibre, specialised talent on a needs-only basis. Day rates or retainer fees may, at first glance, look expensive compared to a salary, but relative to the time required to deliver the goods, the picture often looks very different.

What does this mean for the future?

In the future – which is, metaphorically at least, approaching much more quickly as a result of COVID – organisational structures will change, becoming far more fluid, both in the ways employees work – through flexible time and location – and in the make-up of the workforce.

Previously, the consensus was that the ‘knowledge economy’ is not suited to a decentralised model for a few key reasons, often related to cultural concerns and performance assessment (some organisations struggle to adapt internal metrics to an outsourced resource).

However, over the coming years, a general acceptance of ‘knowledge workers’ bringing their unique skills and expertise to multiple companies will emerge – in some cases, one project and client at a time, but in others, concurrently. Rather than see other clients competing for their time, we’ll reframe this as a chance to capitalise on the unique knowledge and insights they’ve gained in solving business problems across diverse categories and countries.

Now, I’m not necessarily advocating creating a team made up entirely of contingent workers, although there may be occasions on which this is the right approach. Instead, I’m highlighting the significant opportunity for businesses that act pragmatically and proactively to incorporate every type of worker into their talent pool – permanent, contingent, office-based, and remote. 

We should judge each case on its merits – what’s the perfect mix of skills, expertise, availability, and cost to achieve the company’s objectives at any given moment? 

What’s the optimal balance between long-term consistency within the team and short-term requirements for highly specialised individuals?

And suppose you decide you’d like to offer someone a full-time employment contract. How can you design a role that appeals to a broader audience by optimising for autonomy, flexibility, and belonging?

Culturally, there’s no reason why we should distinguish between the way we communicate with and motivate team members to deliver their best possible work simply because they don’t have a full-time contract. Yes, the onboarding process for someone on a three-month contract may differ from a new employee but feeling like part of the team and clearly understanding what constitutes a job well done is essential whoever you are.

Where do we find the right talent for our organisation?

The final piece for businesses to consider is where and how to find this growing pool of talent. As you’d expect, there’s incredible innovation taking place in this space, with thousands of companies addressing the need for the frictionless sourcing and verification of contingent workers. 

To enable a proactive approach to their talent acquisition strategy, I’d advise every business to undertake a full market review. To get you started, I’ve summarised a few trends and categories to look out for:

Digital platforms that aggregate highly-skilled workers

The perfect balance of value for an organisation offers a combination of the competitive fees available from solo consultants with the low transaction costs associated with working with a larger firm. Hence the growth of digital platforms that aggregate highly-skilled workers in specific industries or by expertise. What’s appealing for businesses using this model is that the individuals’ credentials have typically been validated as experts either by the platforms themselves or by specialist verification partners. You can either search for talent by skills, availability or cost, all of which are transparent, or use the platforms similarly to how you’d run a classic RFP process – create a brief; experts respond; you select those you believe are the best fit for the role. 

Some examples include:

  • Braintrust has created an innovative business model, which is user-owned and, through tokenisation, aims to redistribute value to both exceptional technical talent and the organisations recruiting them. 
  • Talmix matches your requirements with business talent globally at every seniority, in roles as varied as junior consultants, project managers, and experienced C-Suite leaders.
  • Traktion helps fast-growing businesses source freelance digital marketing talent who have a verified track record of their professional experience and are evaluated continuously throughout their time on Traktion to ensure they deliver optimal campaign performance.

Distributed outsourced teams

Distributed outsourced teams have become a standard route to speedily spin up software development and engineering teams, often ‘near’ or ‘offshored’. In some cases, the team works in the same office. However, increasingly the individuals are distributed, benefitting from those same advantages of lower costs and a wider pool from which to recruit talent. The benefit of using an outsourced partner is their experience in building specialist teams, and it needn’t just be in technical roles. I’ve also worked with collectives that put together a bespoke team of digital campaign managers, C-Suite marketers, and senior strategy consultants. 

Employers of record (EOR)

Employers of record are a go-to option for businesses looking to avoid the hassle and cost of setting up a new entity overseas. Whether it’s a strategic decision to broaden the scope of your talent acquisition strategy or address the more tactical need to facilitate the continued employment of someone who decided to permanently relocate during lockdown, EORs serves as the employer of an individual worker for tax purposes. While the EOR is the legal employer, providing back-office services like payroll and HR, your company controls hiring and termination decisions and manages the individual’s day-to-day roles and responsibilities. Importantly, you’re in control of all hiring decisions.

The opportunity that lies ahead

People remain the most critical part of your business, and attracting and keeping the best talent determines whether and how fast you grow. While the changing dynamics of the workforce appear complex, they also present tremendous possibilities for businesses and individuals alike. As technology has created an unprecedented opportunity for organisations to build more diverse and highly skilled workforces, location and employment status are becoming less and less important – a competitive advantage exists for those organisations that recognise the opportunity and choose to embrace it.


Ollie Henderson

Ollie Henderson

Ollie is our Subject Specialist on the Future of Work. He partners with our portfolio companies to reimagine how, when, and where we work. He's an experienced founder and CEO who has led multiple tech-enabled businesses through periods of rapid growth (as well as more challenging times). He enjoys drawing on that experience to advise companies on how to mitigate the risks of rapid technological advances and take advantage of the opportunities these present.
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