The Coming Age of the Agile Workforce

First, an apology. Like all good terms, that of “Agile Workforce” is already used and, I’m sure, already abused. What I’m going to talk about is how the modern environment means that the time is right for a new way of working which is actually a very old one – what might once have been called “jobbing” workers.

So why opt for the term “agile worker”? A jobbing worker is someone who does not work for someone on a regular basis but does particular jobs when they are asked to (it says here). An agile worker, in my definition, is someone who forms a part of a company’s workforce, probably has access to internal systems, email, phone system etc, but works as needed on a mutual trust basis. He does not take a steady paycheque, instead getting paid for time spent on company business. He’s self-employed, has all the equipment needed to perform his work (aside from specialist kit), and can work anywhere and for anyone.

It either sounds like Nirvana or Hell, depending upon how you view life, but increasingly companies – particularly large ones – are organising themselves somewhat like this. Employees work on a project basis, and may work on multiple projects simultaneously. In other words, they can have multiple masters. It works well when the worker is well motivated, a good communicator, and works within an environment of good information flow. In other words, knows what is expected and is able and confident to quickly flag any issues. The difference between this and the agile worker is that the employee gets paid as usual regardless of what work he does.

Can what works with employees work well with workers who are not employees? The yardstick for the agile workforce is consultancy, often regarded as smart alecs who come in, fail to understand all the issues, give some obvious advice in return for a large cheque, and then bugger off again. Not a great yardstick. But the agile worker is a different animal. What he’s providing is essentially consultancy, but on a more intimate basis. He is a part, if possibly a slightly removed part, of the organisation and works, if rather part-time, on a potentially very long-term basis. The agile worker need not be made redundant due to lack of work, or changing financial conditions, he will merely not get as much or any jobs for a while until things change.

The benefit to the employer is clear – using an agile workforce can increase the expertise base massively. Far more skills are available, on demand, than can be possible to even the largest and most affluent companies with a fixed workforce. Workers will not be paid over the odds, as they will be paid according to work done and subject to market forces. Anyone who doesn’t deliver the goods won’t get repeat offers of work. Up front investment by the employer is minimal – no outlay on computing hardware or deskspace, no recruiting fees. Why? Because there is no recruiting – workers are on an open market and actively seeking work, using tools such as LinkedIn and other social networking. I would suggest that if/when there is demand, there will pretty quickly be a web tool to enable workers and those in need of them to find each other.

The benefit to the worker is also pretty clear, as he becomes in control of his destiny. He can choose – carefully – what work to accept and what work to decline. He can work more or less hours depending upon need or work/life ambitions. The downside is equally clear. If business is bad, the work will dry up. There is no guaranteed paycheque each month. But work is not guaranteed to any employee either – employment gives only a sense of financial comfort, as many have found in the last couple of years. With a diverse range of “employers” offering work, perhaps the agile worker is better able to ride a financial storm. Provided, of course, that he’s up to the job.

Perhaps the biggest concern is confidentiality. How do you stop your agile workers also working for your competitors? Well… Do you really want to? IPR protection is a matter of trust, and pertains to employees as much as to agile workers. Enforcement is a matter of law, and the same principle applies. Corporate IPR does not equal expertise – expertise is the personal IPR of every worker, employee or otherwise, and perhaps access to this is the key to enhancing the potential for corporate IPR.

If this all sounds idealistic, a quick web search offers up plenty of support. For instance, Career Innovation, an R&D organisation focused on workplace innovation, have this article on their site from 2006. Amongst other things, the study found that “…employers need: the ability to scale up and down (scalability), the ability to re-train or gain access to new skills (versatility), and the ability to vary the location and time of work (flexibility).” An agile workforce delivers on all counts.

The agile workforce concept isn’t about using contractors, and it isn’t about hiring short-term consultants. It’s about making people who are external to your formal employee base a virtual part of your organisation, giving them the communications and systems tools to operate as an employee, legally contracting key terms such as payment and confidentiality, and flexing up and down the task distribution according to need.

The reason why the time is right NOW for agile working is because the network age is finally giving us the right tools. As unified communications and collaboration systems become more commonplace, many types of worker can be located anywhere yet still communicate with colleagues fluently. In fact the downsides of an office environment – too many meetings, office chatter, time wasted in travel – mean that UC&C and social networking tools, and remote working, can actually improve communication across the board, help get the right information to the right people at the right time, and result in greater efficiency.

When will the revolution hit? Perhaps not immediately, but the writing is on the wall for the traditional employee.


About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

One Response to The Coming Age of the Agile Workforce

  1. Pingback: Self-organisation and Social Networking « Mike Barnes' Blog

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