Workforce Visibility

3 Lessons on How to Prepare for a More Fluid Work Environment

(Excerpted from chapter three, “Real-World Trends Lead to a New Workforce Perspective,” in AGS’ The Universal Workforce Model: An Outcome-First Guide to Getting Work Done)

What’s behind the need for a Universal Workforce Model™? As I wrote in my October 2020 blog, it is the irreversible evolu­tion toward fluid work and workers.

You can see this fluidity in the emerging imperatives of work automation, inclusion, the skills-based labor market and more. The phrase “fluid work” captures how work has melted, released from the confines of a regular full-time job, just like water released from melted ice. Workers and work are more “fluid” and won’t refreeze into the old shape.

The COVID-19 crisis provided great examples of how remark­ably workers apply “hidden” capabilities their organizations never used before, shifting quickly to their most pivotal con­tributions. The most prominent examples involve knowledge workers adjusting to remote work, but an even more inter­esting pattern can be seen among workers in manufacturing, retail and other on-site venues.

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Deere & Company, the Iowa farm and construction equipment maker, pivoted to making at least 225,000 face shields. Maine-based company Flowfold, which ordinarily makes outdoor gear, also pivoted to producing face shields. These moves required new workflows, materials and training, as well as getting product design ideas directly from frontline healthcare workers.

Some organizations gained agility by tapping new sources of workers. Stan Jewell, president and CEO of Renfro Corporation, a sock-making company, pivoted to making one million face masks per week. The “hard part” was finding 550 temporary workers to assemble and package the masks in seven locations. He solved it by attracting 16- to 20-year-olds, those not yet even in the labor market.

This newfound work agility also “melts” traditional corporate boundaries as work and workers flow between organizations. For example, the Kroger supermarket company temporarily borrowed furloughed employees for 30 days from Sysco Corporation, a wholesale food distributor. Manufacturer of outdoor lifestyle products Winnebago joined a coalition of manufacturers coordinated by a 3-D printer company to print visor parts for clear acrylic face masks.

These examples show how work that was previously held in stable jobs is now “melting” into something more fluid.

Workers, previously conceived as jobholders, are melting into more fluid talent, who are ready to shift skills, apply non-job skills or move across boundaries between organizations.

Some describe this as work becoming “gigs.” Yet, something new is afoot. National Public Radio noted that the pandemic has “suddenly transformed millions into virtual workers,” and the Upwork freelance platform reports that two million Americans started freelancing between August 2019 and August 2020. In addition, a McKinsey Global Institute survey of 800 executives found that 70% expect to use more tempo­rary and freelance workers for on-site work post-crisis.

The term “gig work” is misleading, typically conjuring up images of Uber, Lyft and DoorDash. That perception obscures the fundamental reality of pervasive fluid work, supported by a growing array of alternative work options both inside and beyond a single employer.

These alternative work options are increasingly supported by new work systems, like the arrangements that enable orga­nizations to borrow talent, the calls to action that find and deploy workers who volunteer for new tasks, or the systems that allow managers to retrain manufacturing workers.

Yet, these new systems and initiatives are currently ad hoc, haphazard and not integrated into systems that leaders, workers, managers and policymakers can use to make better decisions that truly optimize fluid work.

These benefits will not be forgotten post-crisis, now that workers, managers and leaders have experienced fluid work. What lessons can these stakeholders use to prepare for more fluid work?


Lesson 1: Fluid Work Rests on Platforms

The traditional gig economy rests on “platforms” that find and match those who want to work with compatible work assignments. G2, a software marketing website, provides a searchable listing and rating of freelance platforms, including Upwork, offering a wide variety of capabilities, including engi­neers, software developers, marketing designers, consultants, project managers, writers and college student interns. A 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that online talent platforms could increase global employment by 2.4% by 2025. They could help more than 230 million workers globally reduce their job search time, decreasing unemploy­ment and introducing new opportunities.

Many organizations are experimenting with “internal talent marketplaces,” for work projects sometimes called “inside gigs.” These platforms are available only to an organiza­tion’s regular employees, matching melted jobs (tasks or projects) with melted jobholders (skills and capabilities). The internal talent marketplace, underpinned by an “inside gig” approach, is key to the operationalization of the Universal Workforce Model.

Unilever calls their platform “FLEX Experiences.” “By access­ing the platform, Unilever employees can work on projects for a small or large proportion of time, increase the depth of their expertise in a current skill or build new skills and experiences. Through the power of AI, people are suggested opportunities that match their profile and aspirations, and at the same time, given full visibility to all opportunities available globally across all areas of the business, ultimately democratizing and giving transparency to the way the company develops talent.”

A Universal Workforce Model that integrates an increasing array of internal and external platforms is key to optimally tapping them.


Lesson 2: Uncertainty Is a Constant and Can be a Good Thing

In a September 2021 Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) survey of over 1,000 HR leaders, only 30% of those in organizations with more than 1,000 employees believe they currently have the skills necessary to advance their strategy over the next one to three years. Only 15% indicated they were “very highly effective” or “highly effective” at analyzing the gap between the organization’s future workforce require­ments, and current workforce skills and capabilities. Some find these results “sobering,” suggesting an HR profession that is woefully unprepared for the future.

I think this is realistic, exhilarating and a good thing.

For too long, HR has operated as if HR planning must make a prediction and then “stick to it,” developing HR programs to support that prediction and updating it only in the next formal planning cycle.

Uncertainty does NOT prevent strategic planning nor good decisions, but the frameworks to support good decisions under uncertainty are very different from those for decisions when you know the future.

HR leaders might diversify, building several unique talent and organization capabilities, each suited to a particular possible future, and then “divest” those that turn out not to be needed. HR leaders might hedge by preparing to “day trade” talent, acquiring it as soon as the need arises and then divesting it as soon as the need subsides, perhaps by using freelancers or contractors in areas that are particularly uncertain.

Such strategies require a Universal Workforce Model that can tap into a broader ecosystem of talent sources and engage­ments, many of which can be more short-term, renewable and make such strategies work.


Lesson 3: Fluid Work Requires Work Deconstruction

Optimizing alternative work arrangements requires freeing leaders from the traditional work operating system focused exclusively on jobs and jobholders. Seldom does an alter­native work arrangement simply substitute a new type of work arrangement for the regular employee in an intact job. Rather, the optimal solutions require deconstructing the jobs into their component tasks/activities and deconstructing the workers into their component skills/capabilities. Then, each deconstructed element can be examined for its com­patibility with alternative work arrangements, and the work can be reinvented and reconstructed to reflect the most optimal combinations.

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(Editor’s Note: Source details for all referenced content in this article may be found by downloading the guide.)

    Written by John Boudreau
    John W. Boudreau is recognized as a leading global visionary on the future of work and organization. He has produced over 200 publications, including more than 10 books, and his research has been featured in Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Business Week. His research studies and field research address the future of work and the global HR profession, work automation, HR measurement and analytics, decision-based HR, executive mobility, HR information systems, and organizational staffing and development. Boudreau is a professor emeritus of management and organization and a senior research scientist with the Center for Effective Organizations at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. Learn more about John by visiting his website: