The flexible workforce
May 2021—it’s been a year since COVID-19 began to show its teeth and slowed the world economy to a labored crawl. Business people are turning their attention to the thorny issue of getting their organizations back to a new normal after successive lockdowns and economic disruptions. Key to business agility has become a flexible workforce. But what does that look like? And how do you achieve it?
Conversations abound on remote working and the new hybrid workforce. For sure, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the amount of gig working and contracting happening over the past few years. Some might argue, regardless of the impact of a global pandemic, the gradual mover from full-time workforces to something more flexible was going to happen someday anyway. The fact is, the pandemic has accelerated transitions in the global economy that were already on the cards, such as the move to banking via mobile apps, cashless payments, a shift to buying food online, deliver to your door takeouts, and remote working via social office digital platforms to name just a few.
Some market changes are permanent—and the need for a flexible workforce is one of them
The major structural changes we’ve seen in how workforces work is noteworthy, simply because it feels like it’s permanent.
Successive large employers have stated their intentions never to go back to how things worked before—Fujitsu, Facebook, JP Morgan, Box, Upwork, Shopify, Cisco, IBM, Google, SalesForce.com, Microsoft, and HSBC—the UK operations of HSBC is moving 1,200 of its 1,800 UK-based contact centre staff to permanent home-working contracts and reducing its office space by 40%. All of these companies have stated their intentions to re-design their workforce, and to re-think their workplace strategies.
The flexible workforce that combines full-time contracted employees with a blend of consultants, contractors, freelancers, gig-workers—describe them as you will—is set to become the new reality of workforce design. The question this article seeks to answer is, “How can technology help to source and manage this new workforce model?”
Naming conventions aren’t keeping up
One of the challenges suppliers and buyers alike are struggling with in this segment of enterprise software is precisely what to call flexible workforce software platforms used to manage what is essentially a new paradigm of workforce structure. These platforms don’t simply automate processes and workflows, they create a new form of market-place. Search for flexible workforce software and you’re unlikely to dscover very much. The talent industry fixated on Vendor Management Systems (VMS) some years ago, and that lable has stuck.
Over the past year, the industry has struggled to keep up with its naming conventions for notable solutions. We’ve encountered a number of descriptions for software that falls into this subject-matter area. They include talent portals, vendor management systems, freelancing platforms, online marketplaces (for general overarching systems), and added to this are a variety of very pointy software-as-a-service functional apps that perform very specific tasks.
This absence of an accurate ‘label’ to describe flexible workforce software platforms and solutions makes it hard for sellers to find buyers. In the absence of anything else, for the rest of this article, let’s call this software ‘flexible workforce management portals.’
Flexible workforce technology serves a variety of stakeholders
At one time, enterprise software (used by businesses to automate processes and capture data into a system of record) was built for employees to use. Then, companies like Amazon, LinkedIn and Facebook changed all that. Today, most companies are thinking in terms of ‘ecosystems’ to serve their communities of interest. In modern cloud-based systems, a ‘USER’ can be a customer, supplier or contractor who logs into a common IT environment to find information, enter it, or act on it.
The talent industry—and the subject of flexible workforce management—is no different.
What makes flexible workforce software different to what’s come before is their overarching objectivity to serve all the stakeholders of a new market made up of work givers, intermediaries and deliverers. Whether you’re a buyer, supplier, contractor, or intermediary, there’s something for everyone in this new generation of flexible workforce management portals.
Highly dexterous flexible workforce software should do more than displace spreadsheets
Such a broad scope of capability results in a technology platform that needs to offer a great many features. Gone are the days of IT systems that did little more than offer a better alternative to a spreadsheet to manage data.
These days, software is intelligent. It means platforms are giving advice, helping workers to find the sort of roles that suit their skills and interests. The scope of modern IT goes beyond data management.
Yes, flexible workforce software make applications processes simpler, and always accessible online through mobile devices—but, today, they have stepped beyond this fundamental data processing role.
The factors that up the value of tech platforms from good to great
The new generation of flexible workforce software make it easier for users to find interesting things, embrace artificial intelligence, employ data analytics and visualizations, pay attention to user motivations, support mobile working, work harder to respond to what enquirers want, and create a marketplace for their audience.
Making it easier to find interesting things has always been a function of IT systems. Advances in use of tags, likes, search algorithms, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and chatbots are just a few examples of tooling used to make it easier than ever for users to find the content on sites that’s interesting to them.
Systems driven by artificial intelligence learn and interpret how to spot trends, validate behaviors, check when things don’t happen in the system as they should, and improve results by constantly learning and iterating approaches.
Meanwhile, rich data analytics supplemented by powerful data visualisation tooling make market rates transparent, and performance data accessible in real-time.
Ease of use and the motivations of users are yet more qualities found in new systems. Thoughtful screen designs and carefully crafted workflows have made user manuals redundant, with every user activity rewarded with in-app progress updates and notifications. App designers are doing everything they can to motivate users to user their apps and keep using their apps.
Mobility is an important dynamic of successful apps. Remarkably, 96% of Generation Z already has a smartphone, while 21% of millennials open up a mobile app as many as 50 times a day. Hardly surprising to learn then that Internet usage on mobile has been rising as desktop internet usage has stalled. People tend to hunt for jobs (and apply for them) when they are on the hoof. That means, platforms that don’t fully support mobile apps to view, analyze and publish data are far less effective.
Intent is the latest buzzword in the app design industry thanks to the growing popularity of chatbots. Like or loathe them chatbots are here to stay because they offer customers (and job applicants too) the ability to have their questions answered. The only challenge is how to train chatbots to know what enquirers are trying to do. This is where the science of intent comes in. Business leaders and scientists alike are today grappling to develop smarter ways of interpreting what enquirers to their website or mobile apps want so they can serve them better (and reduce service costs in the same breath).
The most significant and noticeable transformation is that flexible workforce software solutions have transitioned from being ‘apps’ to become’communities and market-places’. Providers are working hard to encourage users to join platforms every morning and switch off every evening, becoming the virtual workplace of choice—at least when it comes to managing the ‘administration of flexible work’ such as recording time worked, jobs, bookings, interviews, work bids, contracts and communications.