The future of work arrived in a hurry in 2020 when most businesses became remote-only in a matter of days. Some companies were more prepared than others, and some have fared better than others. The shift, and the issues surrounding eventual returns to offices, also accelerated conversations about flexible workforces. Whipped by economic winds, companies were scaling back and scaling up in real-time.
What is a Flexible Workforce
A flexible workforce is one that can grow and shrink based on demand for products and services. A good analogy is cloud computing. Businesses used to have to buy, house, and maintain large data centers, and they had to build them for the peak expected demand because it would take too much time to install new servers during a traffic spike.
For example, an e-commerce site would have to build a data center big enough to handle Black Friday traffic, but that extra capacity would be unused the rest of the year. With cloud computing, businesses can scale up computing capacity with a few mouse clicks and scale back down just as quickly when the time is right.
The flexible workforce does the same with labor.
The concept of a flexible workforce is not entirely new.
- Brick and mortar retailers have hired extra staff for holiday seasons for decades.
- Agriculture businesses hire workers for the harvest.
- Vacation destinations employ seasonal workers.
These are in-person roles. As with computing capacity, it would not make sense to maintain your peak labor capacity year-round when you only need that number of workers for a few weeks or a few months.
Other models of on-demand staffing have also been around for decades:
- Temporary agencies
- Contract worker agencies
- Independent freelancers
- Part-time workers
What is new is that thanks to the internet, cloud software, and online staffing businesses, this kind of model applies to a lot more roles and companies. You can give anyone access to your tools and network, and they can do the work from anywhere. Typical services and skills for flexible work include:
- Website development
- Software coding
- Graphic design
- Accounting and bookkeeping
- Executive and personal assistance
There are several types of businesses that enable these services to be done remotely:
- Gig marketplaces—you know the drill. Upwork and Fiverr offer all kinds of freelancers through their websites. Businesses turn to these resources for one-off or occasional projects like web development and graphic design. Tasks that are not ongoing.
- Temporary agencies for off-site contractors—these have been around for a long time. They have adapted to offer remote and onsite independent contractors. Agencies can be great for longer-term projects that still have a defined finish line, like technical documentation or a large web build.
- Remote freelancers—you can also find independent freelancers on job boards like Craigslist or Indeed. Freelancers offer a hybrid between a marketplace and a contractor. Most freelancers will take on short-term and long-term projects.
- Remotely managed service providers—a remotely managed service provider hires, trains, supervises employees and places them with businesses. The idea is that you gain skills when you need them but do not add any management or HR overhead. Some call this model remote staff augmentation because you are adding remote workers to your team. It is typically a long-term solution to add talent that is unavailable locally or that a business needs but does not have the experience or resources to qualify, hire, and manage. Software companies use this model because developers are hard to find in many markets. Companies also use this model for virtual assistants, as many businesses do not have an executive assistant manager.
What are the Benefits of a Flexible Workforce
There are two parties in the flexible workforce—the employer and the employee. Many of the benefits of these staffing models apply to both.
Companies have access to more talent
Workers have access to more opportunities
Companies get access to new skills
Workers learn new skills by working with different firms
Other benefits for companies are:
Cost savings by paying for skills and services only when you need them.
Cost savings through reduced office space.
A more diverse workforce, especially if the workers are offshore.
In the managed service model, companies add no payroll or HR overhead.
Additional benefits for workers include:
They can work from anywhere—at home or on the road.
They can work when they want to.
For offshore workers, access to better pay than is available locally.
What are the Risks of a Flexible Workforce
There are risks involved with a scalable workforce—on both sides of the relationship.
Employers might not find the right skills are available when they need them.
Workers might find that there is no work when they want it.
IT security risks giving remote workers access to networks and workers using personal networks and computers.
Not getting paid—a threat that independent freelancers often experience.
The Future of the Flexible Workforce
Most argue that, after the pandemic, the flexible workforce is here to stay. Even permanent employees want the freedom to work wherever they want. A fully flexible workforce is 100 percent distributed, and some businesses adopted this model.
The pandemic also exposed some of the risks, especially for workers. Remote and contract workers are often the first to be cut in a fiscal crisis. A 2021 study by McKinsey found that "contract, freelance, and temporary workers would overwhelmingly prefer permanent employment." No surprise given that these workers faced the worst of the monetary impact of the pandemic and, for example, "were nearly twice as likely as others to say that they could not afford health insurance."
Is a flexible workforce suitable for you? The answer depends on many factors—the business you are in and the skills that you need.
Prialto offers a managed virtual assistant service, hiring, training, and managing offshore virtual assistants and placing them with U.S. businesses that cannot find or do not want to manage executive admins. For more information about working with Prialto, download our guide.
About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.