From Workplace to Workspace: Managing the Extended Workforce

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

I recently moderated/lead a panel discussion on the challenges of managing an extended workforce. The discussion followed several presentations which addressed the mechanics of the extended workforce, and an assortment of “enabling” technologies that allow workers and organizations to match talent to task, without geographical encumbrances. But the session I was enlisted to lead primarily spoke to the “collateral” issues:

  • In the podcast I co-host (Workspan), we often talk about company culture — whether it’s a CEO, a film director on set, or a musician leading a recording session, we speak about the importance of building an esprit de corps that produces the best work and best outcomes. Will an increasingly extended workforce, where work is mostly transactional, make company culture less important? If it is still held to be important, how is it maintained across multiple time zones and personal work zones? (A shortcoming inherent in most conventional talent assessment models is their overly narrow focus on the required skills for minimal performance on the job. This may attract people who, on the surface, would appear to be good candidates and well‐suited to the position. But how many temp or gig hires who appear well-suited “on paper” don’t pan out owing to a variety of “cultural” and work style issues even if they work remotely? As someone who’s worked with numerous companies as an “outsider,” each company does have a distinct culture, even if it’s not something they explicitly express, and you do have to make the appropriate adjustments to assure a smooth, positive relationship.)
  • An extended workforce implies that you’re on a perpetual hiring footing, which can be expensive, resource-intensive, time-consuming in that you’re continually needing to onboard and train, and it doesn’t always produce reliable results. If not carefully managed, the flexibility that “just in time” hiring offers can become a source of instability and uncertainty.
  • How do you promote engagement and retention when the employer-employee relationship is task-oriented and inherently transactional? How do you retain a top performer, particularly as newer, shinier, and better-paying opportunities continuously beckon, and as one of the allures of gig work is the ability to go from company to company, gig to gig?
  • As the extended workforce moves upstream, where even C-level people may be “provisional,” how will this affect leadership and other things that flow from leadership, such as motivation, recognition, etc.?
  • HR tracks metrics like engagement and retention and Procurement KPIs focus on cost and risk. How do organizations reconcile this in working toward their common goal: filling skill gaps with high-quality workers in the most cost-effective manner?

Thanks to technology advancements, and thanks to the pandemic that provided “proof of concept,” companies are able to cast a global net to find and hire talent, and seamlessly integrate them into the team for specific projects over the life of that project. It’s also a boon for people who like the flexibility and variety these arrangements offer. But a flexible employment model is, by nature, highly complex and will cause management challenges across the organization as employment models shift and evolve. The vendors, analysts, and influencers who participated in the panel discussion I alluded to up top offered a variety of solutions and perspectives, and while it’s too early to know the answers to the questions I’ve posed, it’s not too soon to ask, as the very notion of the workplace — or workspace — changes before our very eyes, and a great deal rides on them.

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