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What a Global Crisis Shows Us About the Future of Contingent Work

Posted on August 24th, 2020 Read time: 7 minutes

Team wearing protective masks in a conference room setting

As with many aspects of COVID-19, the virus’s effect on the global workforce is still unknown. At the outset of shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, some industries were able to keep operating with minor process changes — others saw more bleak short-term projections.

Between mid-February and mid-March, 870,000 U.S. workers lost their jobs. In April, the retail industry — one of the hardest-hit sectors — lost 2.1 million jobs while prominent retailers like J. Crew filed for bankruptcy. In June, however, unemployment decreased to about 11% as 4.8 million jobs were added back to the workforce, a figure higher than most economists predicted. While a significant portion of that rise can undoubtedly be attributed to reopenings across the country, the number also speaks to another business trend: a spike in creativity.

To compete — or even survive — organizations are thinking outside the box by reimagining their business models, restructuring their workforce, and leveraging technology in new ways to reach customers. For example, one day after Wheelhouse Cycle Club temporarily shut down, it decided to rent out all 115 of its stationary bikes for home use. Using the company’s Instagram page, trainers streamed and saved live rides that members and nonmembers alike could ride along with whenever they chose — an option that could become a permanent fixture of its business model.

This sort of creative thinking is just one example of the actions organizations are taking to survive and even thrive during this pandemic. For companies like Wheelhouse, that might mean pivoting the product. For others, however, it could mean a deeper reorganization and examination of their workforce.

In many cases, adjusting to a new or remote reality will mean relying on a global contingent workforce to step in for full-time employees. Whatever adjustments are necessary, one thing is sure: It’s time to help companies survive the pandemic and come out of the other side more competitive than ever.

 

How the Contingent Workforce Is Helping Businesses Worldwide

Before the pandemic, the contingent worker was largely undervalued. To those unfamiliar with gig workers, many companies saw contract or temp workers as easily replaceable or low-skilled labor. The value of hiring someone to focus on a single task wasn’t always clear, especially if that worker operated remotely — a scenario many businesses weren’t set up to manage effectively at the time.

Amid the changes in the economic landscape, nearly one-third of organizations have hired contingent workers to replace full-time employees, and even more companies have gone at least partially remote. The value of a contingent workforce is now apparent to businesses of all sizes in a variety of industries. For instance, international companies struggling to deal with travel bans and restrictions are turning to remote workers instead of throwing up their hands and giving up or — worse — making employees risk their health for the sake of a business trip.

In many cases, this shift to contract workers is likely permanent. After all, networking methods like conventions and business trips could very well become a thing of the past. There’s a reason Microsoft and Facebook announced they would continue paying hourly and contingent workers even as offices are closed — they recognize how critical these workers are to their long-term success.

Alongside this greater appreciation of contract workers, there has also been a recognition that the existing programs in place to manage this workforce have largely been insufficient. Because of the greater reliance on these workers, companies are finally noticing blind spots, inconsistent reporting, and poor communication. In addressing these issues, many companies have reassessed their entire talent supply chain. By taking global contingent workforce management seriously, these companies are signaling a sea of change that will last long after the pandemic.

 

What the Pandemic Can Teach Us About the Future of Work

Many of the pandemic-induced changes companies are experiencing were already in the cards before the disease spread. Distributed work (i.e., companies that employ multiple people in different physical spaces) was perhaps the most obvious change to come from the pandemic. The practice was incrementally gaining popularity, with companies such as Dell, Automattic, and American Express already either completely distributed or offering a range of remote work opportunities.

The companies that had to implement remote working practices just to stay afloat now are finding that they may never want to return to the way things were. One of the simplest ways to expand profit margins is to reduce or eliminate office space. By implementing and continuing to adapt their workforce to remote capabilities, businesses can keep this high expense at a bare minimum.

In addition, workers have enjoyed the work-life flexibility that working from home provides. Remote work is not going away — it will only expand its reach at an increasing rate. In conjunction with the expansion of remote work, another change is here to stay: the growing role of the contract worker.

Hiring a remote contingent worker to focus on a specific task related to various projects allows a company to engage the talent it needs without having to create a full-time employee relationship. Moreover, these hires remove the artificial barrier of borders. As the economy shifts, companies no longer see a substantive difference between a temp worker who lives nearby and one who lives halfway across the globe.

The only major obstacle to hiring international contingent workers is figuring out how to recruit and compensate them. This is where a partnership with an expert like Innovative Employee Solutions can help businesses leverage talent without the need for a local presence in every country. There’s no reason to believe companies will stop hiring international workers once the world finds its new normal, and partnering with an Employer of Record makes this process easier than ever.

Businesses looking forward to a post-pandemic reset will need to plan not only for the disruption of right now but also for the permanent changes that are surely on the horizon. Doing so will require new approaches to employee engagement, company culture, customer relationships, and talent recruitment.

 

Develop a Strong and Productive Post-Pandemic Workforce

The pandemic has affected every industry differently. Going remote isn’t a viable option for restaurants or gyms, for instance, and technology isn’t capable of addressing every problem that might emerge during these turbulent times. However, nearly every organization has one thing in common: To survive, leaders are going to have to think outside the box and consider every tool they have at their disposal.

When it comes to managing a remote workforce and hiring contingent workers, the faster you can let go of the pre-pandemic routine, the more energy and attention you can give to this moment.

Right now, your workers need you. Right now, your clients need you. Here’s how you can best serve them both:

 

Be proactive in shaping a remote culture. 

Company culture is a reflection of the way things get done. Your remote work culture won’t be the same as your in-office culture, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shape it the same way you did in the office. The key is to work to create interdepartmental connections and a spirit of collaboration that mirrors what was in place before COVID-19.

Get ahead of process changes by mapping them out yourself. Don’t rely on your team to tell you how they’re doing things; think a few steps ahead and then share those new processes with your team. You should also mention how you’ll monitor their progress and support their success. Find vendors that specialize in remote productivity data and metric measurement to ensure accuracy. With a proactive approach, you can come out of this pandemic with a stronger company culture than before.

 

Leverage remote technology internally and externally. 

While setting up remote workers for success is essential, it’s far from the only step involved in bringing a remote strategy into focus. Companies can leverage technology in multiple ways to increase remote engagement internally and externally. In healthcare, for instance, that means setting up a robust and intuitive telemedicine system. For banks and securities, that could involve more digital features and a further shift to online banking.

It’s up to each organization to determine what type of technology it needs to best support and increase engagement. Think about what solutions your company uses to increase worker engagement and how you can connect your team members while everyone is remote.

This is where the creative use of technology is key. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Slack are all excellent programs designed to connect your teams; meanwhile, back-end data can help managers coach employees and ensure productivity. Figure out which metrics are essential for productivity and then find the technology that can help you gather that data and apply it to your contingent workforce.

 

Redefine your recruitment process.

With a remote workforce, finding people who thrive independently is quite different from looking for candidates who thrive in a team environment. As your company begins to engage workers in nontraditional ways, you’ll need to redefine your recruitment process. If your organization has frozen hiring altogether, then this might be a perfect time to scrap your hiring techniques and start from scratch.

The qualifying information, interview questions, and recruiting process you use to source candidates will have to adjust to include new priorities. You’ll want to know about the technologies candidates are familiar with as well as the remote communication tools they’ve used in the past. This becomes increasingly valuable when hiring and training a fully remote worker.

 

Invest in HR. 

Your HR team will, in many ways, be your heroes throughout these changes. Not only will HR consider the well-being of your workers, but it will also oversee much of the documentation behind everything. If HR leaders don’t already have a seat at the leadership table, now is the time to give them a permanent one. You simply cannot lead through this pandemic without the thoughtful support and guidance of HR management.

Getting your teams to embrace remote work isn’t as simple as supplying everyone with a laptop, however. HR will have to stay on top of state-specific requirements as well as other considerations. Do you need to provide compensation for internet and phone service, for instance? How are you tracking any equipment sent to workers’ homes? Are you providing video training for ergonomics at home and DIY desk setups? What other accommodations do you need to make to ensure your workers continue to have a healthy work-life balance?

As your organization continues to navigate COVID-19, new challenges will require you to be agile and move quickly. Hasty decisions related to labor can result in costly mistakes. This is another reason why HR leaders need to be an integral part of your strategic leadership team.

For businesses trying to ride the stormy waves of COVID-19, one thing should be clear: Even when the waters are calm again, everything won’t just go back to the way it was.

This is not a phase — it’s a historical moment of change that will reshape our economy and workforce. What you do during this time will define your company in the aftermath of COVID-19. It’s time to either embrace change or risk getting lost in the storm.

 

The pandemic is changing the workforce landscape before our eyes. As a result, contingent workers are playing a more significant role than ever before. Download the IES whitepaper “How to Manage Your Contingent Workforce Effectively Through a Crisis” and learn how you can emerge from this crisis stronger — and with strategies for potential future disruptions.

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