A growing number of Americans are ditching full-time employment in favor of short-term projects and side jobs, where they can pursue their passions, determine their own schedules and essentially be their own bosses. Contingent workers now total 53 million, making up 34 percent of the American workforce.
With this so-called "gig economy" showing no signs of slowing, human resource pros are starting to think about how to embrace this burgeoning pool of talent – and how to keep their own full-time employees fulfilled as the appeal of a "long job" fades.
"The freelancing trend isn’t going anywhere, so HR departments need to evolve," says Sharon Steiner, vice president of Human Resources at Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance services.
While the idea of finding talent beyond full-time employees certainly goes against the grain of traditional HR, a short-term gig doesn't necessarily translate to a lack of long-term value. By integrating freelancers into your company culture and offering your employees exposure to outside knowledge, you can strengthen your business' bottom line. Below are three key strategies to broadening your talent pool and embracing the "gig economy":
1. Go mobile
Instituting a mobile-friendly workplace is increasingly important for full-time employees, but it’s crucial when working with freelancers who are often remote or work odd hours. "You need to be where the talent is," says Steiner. "The gig marketplace is almost all digital and it’s becoming increasingly reliant on mobile. When you work with freelancers, you need to make sure your channels of communication are open."
With mobile applications maturing beyond simple administrative tasks, accomplishing real work – and even conducting full projects – is entirely possible from the palm of someone’s hand. IBM recently launched enterprise apps that bring IBM’s big data and analytics capabilities to iPhone and iPad users in the enterprise, so employees can tackle complex projects on their phones/tablets. And last month, the cover of the New Yorker was completed entirely on an iPad.
2. Recruit retirees
The gig economy is not just a community of independent Millennials – it includes professionals at every age, and Baby Boomers actually take the lead. Recruiting retirees for short-term projects is the perfect opportunity to assist in their transition while sourcing senior expertise, as recent studies show nearly two-thirds of workers ages 16 to 64 prefer a gradual transition to retirement.
"In mature industries, like energy or utility, the senior management and technical engineering folks are often heading toward retirement years, but the pipeline of young talent is not yet available," says Steve Boese, co-chair of the HR Technology Conference and host of the HR Happy Hour Show and Podcast. Employees who had a good relationship with their workplace, he adds, would likely love the opportunity to continue working for the company or industry in some capacity after they leave full-time.
3. Support side gigs
While it may seem counter-intuitive, offering your own employees "gigs" or opportunities to work on projects outside of their job (and likewise sourcing short-term talent from other companies) is another way to refresh creativity and expand your company’s skill set.
"It’s a huge value proposition to tell current or prospective employees that your ’career concept’ isn’t limited by your industry," says John Boudreau, professor and research director at USC’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations. "There are people who don’t work for you, but may want to work on a specific project for you. On the other hand, there are employees who want to work for you, but you can’t give them everything they need or want to learn."
A few years ago, Siemens and Walt Disney formed an alliance aligned with this theory. Expanding beyond their internal team, Siemens borrowed Walt Disney employees to help develop a marketing campaign for their new hearing aid for kids. In the same vein, companies have created programs that allow employees to work on their own side projects, such as Microsoft Garage.
No matter how you do it, finding ways to integrate short-term projects into your company can bring in high-quality expertise and offer current employees an expanded work experience. Boudreau finds the prospect of looking for talent beyond employment limitless: "What if we saw career development as boundary-less?" he asks, "And what if we saw the talent we need as existing everywhere?"
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Genuine Ways to Connect With People Remotely
With the stress of being newly remote comes a focus on logistics: How do I get my webcam to work? What does it mean if someone isn’t responding to my email? What if my internet goes out in the middle of a big presentation? But moving past all that, zero in on why you’re trying to connect remotely in the first place—and how you can accomplish that goal. Without the ability to read body language, have discussions without lag time and quickly catch up on the fly, the human element of work can get lost. Remember that a big reason people love (or don’t love) their jobs is their connection to their colleagues. So as we adapt to a remote world, let’s refocus on that. Engaging Informally Telecommuting technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years as more and more people work from home, connect during business trips and set up remote offices. Zoom, WebEx, Google Hangouts—they were all invented so that we could have meetings and collaborate effectively on work projects when we’re not face-to-face. The technology is great for that, but it can—and should—serve another central purpose: building and keeping our human connections with colleagues. Think about everything you’re able to do informally when you’re in an office environment that you’re unable to do now. I’ll start the list for you: Stop by someone’s desk to ask a quick question Catch up on personal lives in the break room or at the elevator Debrief a meeting after it’s officially over on your way out the door Invite nearby colleagues to join you on a trip to find some coffee Hear your coworkers getting excited about something and ask what’s going on Organize a standing happy hour There’s a lot there, right? And we don’t want to lose all those opportunities to connect with people. So, the question becomes: how can we simulate them within the confines of a remote experience? Creating this type of intimate, collegial environment requires two things—culture and planning. Ways to Build Culture Online With quick access communication tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Workplace Chat, people can virtually "stop by someone’s desk" to catch up or talk about non-work things, but most need a precedent for it. Oftentimes, we think (consciously or unconsciously) that these workplace communication tools should be used exclusively for work. But building or maintaining relationships with coworkers is an important part of work, so use them for personal connections as well. Send a Slack question whenever it pops into your mind (and try to respond quickly and graciously when someone reaches out to you!) Make it a habit to ask your teammates how their day is going, if they did anything fun over the weekend and whether they caught the latest episode of that TV show you both watch. Reach out to a colleague or two after a meeting to share how you thought it went, anything you’re excited or unsure about or any ideas you didn’t get a chance to share. Post your excitement about topics that colleagues might find relevant or interesting on a Slack channel. Encourage others to do all of the above! Plan With Purpose Accidentally blurring the line between work and socializing isn’t exactly possible when you’re remote—you have to deliberately cross it. Schedule time for all of the things you’d normally do ad hoc, such as: Virtual coffee. It sounds corny, but have you ever done it? It can be really wonderful. Talk about whatever you want—work, life—but if you talk about work, don’t talk about projects or action items. Focus more on feelings, things you’re excited about, frustrated about, etc. to provide a sense of connection. Pad your online interactions with time for informal chat. Start 1:1s with some "how are you/what’s new?" talk and make sure you share and set the tone for real connection. Plan group hangouts. Get the team together and have everyone bring a beverage or snack of choice. Play an online game (my office is exploring the Jackbox suite of games you play through your phone and computer). Remember when you were a teenager and you would sit on the phone with someone for hours and sometimes not even talk? You’d just be doing your homework or something, but they were there? Try this with work. Maybe both you and a colleague have a deep-think project to work on and could use the occasional outside perspective. Schedule time to be online together doing your separate work, with the ability to ask for feedback or suggestions whenever the moment strikes. At the end of the day, logistics are important. If you can’t hear or see someone, it will obviously be hard to communicate with them. But don’t stop at that surface level. Focusing on building human connection with your colleagues through culture and planning will help you develop and maintain the relationships that are the lifeblood of successful work. Rae Feshbach is the Head of Content Engagement at Cornerstone.
Beam to Work: 6 Remote Jobs of the Future
Telecommuting allows employees to work away from the mothership, but we’ve just scratched the surface when it comes to remote jobs. As part of an effort to educate children and parents about future career opportunities, Martha Turner and her colleagues at CST Consultants predicted jobs that will exist in 2030. Among them: robot counselor and agile supply chain manager. "Technology is a big component of the jobs of 2030, and that’s largely because it really fuels the opportunities for growth in the marketplace through innovation," says Turner, vice president at CST. Employees already are beaming into the office via robots and telepresence technology. Here are six jobs that will take remote working to the next level. 1. Tele-surgeon For people living in rural areas, access to healthcare — particularly skilled surgeons — remains limited. "We can leverage robotic tools to operate on patients in remote locations," Turner says. Tele-surgery involves a combination of robotic surgery tools, scanning and sensing technologies and high-speed networks. Tele-surgeons will need an understanding of robotic technologies and video systems in addition to steady hands. 2. Drone-operating farmer "Drones may feel like science fiction to us today, but in fact they already have some small commercial applications today," Turner says. Agricultural use will make up 80 percent of the commercial market for drones, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Farmers "are going to be able to see things and monitor their crops in ways they never have before. In the next 10 years almost every farm will be using it," Kevin Price, executive vice president of applied research and technology development at RoboFlight, tells USA Today. Drones will help farmers identify insect problems and watering issues, assess crop yields and track down wandering cattle, to name a few use cases. 3. Healthcare coordinator Doctors are gaining more access to real-time patient data through connected devices while machines are increasingly automating parts of routine doctor visits. This means that at least some healthcare professionals will take on overseer roles, says Matthew Holt, cofounder of Health 2.0, a conference focused on new forms of medicine. "The trend towards team-based care for most patients plus the growth of video consults ... will see the emergence of a mission control function for medical professionals," Holt says. "More doctors will devote at least some of their day to managing teams who are managing patients," he says, adding that doctors will be more location independent. 4. Telecommuting teacher In California, A.P. history students at Redlands East Valley and Orangewood High School tune into class at Citrus Valley High, where their teacher instructs via telepresence. We’ll see more examples of teachers who connect remotely to students, making more classes available and adaptable to students’ schedules. Teachers will use additional tools to extend learning beyond the classroom. Fifth-graders in Houston recently took a virtual field trip to Mars, with a lesson from experts at NASA using Google Hangouts. 5. Landlocked ship captain You’ve heard of — or maybe even seen — driverless cars, but what about captainless ships? Rolls Royce and a handful of other organizations are designing ships that captains would operate from a virtual bridge on dry land. These automated vessels would have little to no crew on board during deep sea legs of their journeys. Drone ships would be safer, cheaper and less polluting for the shipping industry, and they could be navigating the Baltic Sea within the next decade, according to Rolls Royce. 6. Connected grid directors Sensors are being embedded in infrastructure from highways to water treatment plants, collecting data on traffic patterns, energy use and all kinds of indicators critical to how we run cities. A regional grid director — a title coined by CST researchers — would use this data to determine how resources are best distributed across city grids and among different regions. For any type of remote work, employees will need to hone in on communication skills, Turner says. "There’s more of a need for you to be able to get along with diverse groups of people. You need to be able to work through different cultures and preferences for work styles," she says. "Your ability to go and not just have that technical knowledge, or specialized knowledge in your field, but be able to communicate and sell it is going to be very, very important."
What Remote Work Data Can Teach Us About Employee Productivity
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the shift to remote work inevitable for non-essential businesses. For employees, the challenges are well-documented—from balancing work with child care to engaging without colleagues nearby. For employers, meanwhile, a key area of concern has been productivity. A few months in, many bosses remain unsure that their teams work as effectively outside the office. Some have gone so far as to track employee hours via a variety of methods ranging from practical to controversial. But while employers debate the practicality and longevity of remote work, workers are thriving. According to a survey from Azurite Consulting, 72% of managers said they were at least as efficient working from home, while 68% of employees felt the same. Other data sources about remote work are yielding some interesting insights that can help shape workforce policy in the future. The consensus? The pre-COVID-19 definition of productivity no longer applies. Increasingly, productivity will have to be measured by projects completed and goals met, not hours worked. But more importantly, worker productivity won’t be unlocked through surveillance or monitoring. Rather, employers must empower their teams with data so that they can drive their own productivity. Employees Are Most Productive When They’re in Control Even amidst the disruption of COVID-19, workers across industries have somehow been able to maintain quality of performance. Why? They’re no longer tied to a set number of hours in the office. Instead, people work during times when they’re most productive on an individual level. MyRoofingPal, a company that up until recently adhered to a traditional five-day work week, has switched over to a four day week after noticing key patterns in employee performance on Fridays. "Prior to moving to four-day weeks, we noticed both the quantity and quality of work decreased later in the week. We also received more requests for PTO on Fridays than any other day of the week. By going to four, 10-hour days, we improved productivity. Since the change, we receive fewer PTO requests overall, too," Jesse Silkoff, the company’s co-founder says. Simply put, identifying times during the day when they’re most productive helps employees work better. Responsibility is empowering, freeing, and energizing, says Michael Gordon, founder of CareerCloud. "When no one is watching over my shoulder of how I spend my time, I'm better at time-boxing, and getting more done per hour. There is this self-reinforcing cycle: I'm getting work done, I feel good about it so I don't feel bad about working out mid-day, or even taking an extra half-day off to play with my kids, then I feel refreshed and rejuvenated and like my life is in balance," he explains. But how can employees get a better sense of when they work best? Though mandatory surveillance and other monitoring can feel invasive, encouraging workers to voluntarily time-keep for their own benefit could pay off. "Employees who track their time will likely be more in-tune with their peak productivity hours, which will help them better schedule their day's tasks. Employers, on the other hand, can use this data for a bigger picture with insight into organizational time-sucks, top-performing employees, the company's most profitable endeavors, and more," Miguel Guardo, customer satisfaction lead at BeeBole, a timesheet provider, says. For Peak Productivity, Work Must Fall Into Two Buckets While data suggests that employees are finding ways to be efficient and effective in a remote environment, experts agree office environments play an important role in productivity. For creative jobs especially, collaborative, in-person interactions (brainstorms, impromptu discussions) are critical to success. With uncertainty still looming around COVID-19, it’s likely that even as restrictions ease, many workers will have to work remotely at least some of the time. But the challenges of remote work won’t go away—there are distractions, there’s limited collaboration and burnout can happen. Cameron Powell, CEO of High Performance Story and co-founder of Humancentric Labs, leads an effort rising out of Silicon Valley to study employee work habits in the "new normal." Along with the London School of Economics and Collabworks, Humancentric Labs is conducting an ongoing poll evaluating the changes COVID-19 has wrought in offices and work style. Preliminary findings suggest that a mix of work from home and engagement with colleagues is best, according to Humancentric Lab. "Businesses will need to divide work into two basic buckets: collaborative work, which is most productive face to face, and deep focus work, which can be done at home, a co-working space, or at a coffee shop," Powell says. Employers looking for immediate insights about their employees can also make some simple changes. Conduct a Pulse survey to assess how employees are feeling about their workloads, how they’re coping with change and whether they’re in a positive mental state. Act on the results by offering resources to help, like learning materials that strengthen adaptability or information on your company’s wellness program. And above all else, empower employees with access to their own data. Whether it’s insight into patterns on their timesheets, or a view of how much time they’re spending with your organization’s LMS, information is power. It can set them up for success and help your business thrive, too.