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HR’s balancing act: tips for mixing agile and traditional workers

Feeling agile? Crystal ball gazers are predicting more employers soon will answer that question with a robust “yes.” According to a new study from staffing firm Randstad US, both employers and employees see the world of work turning to “agile” work—scenarios in which traditional full-time permanent workers increasingly share duties with contractors, consultants, temporary, and freelance workers. 

In December, Randstad released its study titled “Workplace 2025,” which found that 70 percent of the workers and 68 percent of the employers surveyed expect that a majority of the workforce will be employed in an agile capacity by the year 2025. The company surveyed more than 3,100 workers and 1,500 human resources and c-suite executives across the United States to compile its findings.

Thirty-nine percent of the workers in the study say they are likely to consider moving to agile work arrangements in the next two to three years. What makes the nontraditional model of work so appealing? “More workers have changed their perceptions of non-permanent employment, choosing to pursue agile work because it offers them greater control, growth, and even job security,” says Jim Link, chief human resources officer at Randstad North America.

Agile versus traditional work
While not exactly contradictory, the Randstad research stands in contrast to a November report from the Career Advisory Board, a group established by DeVry University. The Career Advisory Board studied what workers see as the most ideal job characteristics, the most appealing type of work style, and the values most prized in work.

In the Career Advisory Board research, 91 percent of millennials and 81 percent of workers overall say they would like to work at a single full-time job, not in an agile capacity. That study also found that less than 1 percent of respondents preferred benefits such as onsite food, wellness perks, and daycare over benefits such as medical/dental plans, paid time off, and retirement benefits.

Regardless of whether workers and employers are as enamored with agile work arrangements as many researchers predict, flexible work performed by nonemployees is likely on the rise.

“It’s evident that the traditional employment model and environment is evolving, driving home the message that companies must begin to prepare for eventualities,” the executive summary of the Randstad report states. “They must equip their businesses for what’s to come – operationally, culturally and strategically.”

Determining when to go agile
So the question for human resources is: How can an employer utilize agile work arrangements in the most effective way? Human resources consultant Mary Anne Kennedy says employers should explore using contract, temporary, or freelance workers for specific short-term assignments requiring a unique skillset not readily available within the full-time workforce, work that doesn’t require a full-time headcount, backfill during a leave of absence, and for internships.

Kennedy says a workforce analysis is the tool an employer needs to figure out where nontraditional staffing can be advantageous. Typically, the steps in such an analysis include:

  • Determining the goals and objectives of the organization and making the organizational structure match.
  • Looking at the demand and asking if the organization has the right people in the right positions for the future.
  • Assessing current staff for future needs.
  • Developing a strategic staffing plan to recruit to fill gaps.

Data from such an analysis will enable employers to determine where nontraditional staffing can fill the organization’s needs.

Overcoming challenges
Of course, reliance on a lot of nontraditional workers can present management challenges, Kennedy says. Loyalty and commitment may be lacking in temporary and freelance workers. Plus the agile workers may be less interested in the strategic objectives of the organization than traditional, permanent employees.

That doesn’t mean the nontraditional workers won’t work hard and dedicate themselves, Kennedy says, “but those who are on a contingent basis are typically well-networked, and a better opportunity may be right around the corner.”

So employers need to explore how to retain their nontraditional workers. “That answer lies in what motivates the worker, such as flexible hours, a culture/environment that is fulfilling/rewarding,” Kennedy says. She suggests challenging outsourcing vendors to demonstrate success with other organizations seeking similar work. “Get references. Research, research, research. Don’t blindly go with the first bid without the due diligence,” she says.

Employers also need to be prepared to deal with nontraditional workers when things go wrong and expectations aren’t met. “It doesn’t matter if someone is full time, part time, consultant, contractor, any of the terms used for nontraditional staff,” Kennedy says. “All must be measured by goals and expectations.”

Kennedy advises employers to make clear from the beginning of an assignment or contract what is expected and the consequences for a lack of results. “This does not mean immediate termination of the contract” when something goes wrong, she says, but all parties need to be held to the same level of performance and accountability no matter the employment status.