From care workers to delivery drivers, the external workforce has played a vital role in getting us all through the pandemic. As employers consider the talent their organisation needs to survive (and hopefully thrive) in these challenging times, they would be wise not to overlook the potential of leveraging contingent workers.
Take a moment to think about the nurse pulling a double shift, working tirelessly for those most in need and lending comfort, albeit remotely, to a worried family, all the while potentially living away from his or her family to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 due to heightened exposure. Or consider the delivery driver, braving the journey to deliver fresh produce to supermarkets and communities.
These are just a couple examples of essential critical infrastructure workers who are the everyday heroes getting us all through the COVID-19 pandemic. They sustain us not only with our basic needs, but with the hope of an eventual return to less anxious times, particularly as we see shops across the country begin to open their doors again. But that isn’t all they have in common. Very often, these vital workers form part of the external workforce.
While the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly unique in modern history, the phenomenon of flexible workforce composition in the wake of disruption is not.
The growing importance of the external workforce
Historically, the external workforce, also known as the contingent workforce – freelancers, independent contractors, consultants or other outsourced and non-permanent workers who are hired on a per-project basis – has provided organisations with the flexibility and responsiveness they need to meet the changing demands of their business.
Prior to the emergence of Covid-19, external workers accounted for 42 percent of organisations’ overall workforce spend. Since then, the need for workforce flexibility has grown more acute as businesses seek to ensure continuity and deliver on the promises they’ve made to customers.
Particularly in healthcare, logistics, food preparation and other areas of critical infrastructure, we’ve seen a surge in demand for external workers. However, this demand isn’t typically consistent and fluctuates according to wider societal and macro-economic demands and pressures, and demand may be higher in some regions or industries than others.
Leveraging technology to access talent
To manage these kinds of fluctuations, a digital marketplace for external talent can help fill shifting industry-sector or regional demands. For example, it can match workers with transferable skills from other industries as roles become available. It can tap into talent pools in other markets that organisations would otherwise lack access to. A digital platform equips employers with the precise visibility they need to maintain continuity, demonstrate resilience and extend competitive advantage.
The value of this visibility has been reinforced with the different challenges we have seen emerge over the past few months, including travel restrictions and quarantines. Sourcing workers from afar has been prohibitive, particularly when a commute or relocation is necessary, so we’re seeing that need become more localised. This is requiring businesses to look beyond traditional categories and consider creative solutions to their workforce needs.
Suppliers and managed service providers are also turning to talent from industries where there have been deep furloughs or shuttered businesses, as well as to retirees in some cases. These workers are entering the talent supply chain for industries where demand has spiked. In certain retail and delivery sectors, for example, suppliers are turning to workers formerly employed in hospitality or manufacturing, where certain skill sets may be complementary.
Of course, nimbleness has always been the friend of resourceful businesses in getting through tough times — and, in many instances, thriving afterward. While the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly unique in modern history, the phenomenon of flexible workforce composition in the wake of disruption is not.
Following the recession in 2008, we saw an increase in freelance and contract work as firms hesitated to hire amid the economic uncertainty. Then as now, we see an influx of newly available (and often highly skilled) workers willing to consider flexible arrangements – and companies equally eager to put them to work.
Don't ignore this vital talent pool
In times of prosperity and adversity alike, all businesses have the same goal: they want to run at their best. They want to run efficiently, adapt to challenges, deliver for customers and manage their spend judiciously.
Embracing the external workforce – and the digital tools that empower companies to manage it effectively – can go a long way in ensuring business continuity, delivering favourable outcomes and positioning organisations to ultimately emerge from this pandemic stronger than before.
About the author
Perry Timms is the Founder & Chief Energy Officer of PTHR, with 30+ yrs experience in people, learning, technology, organisation change & transformation. His personal mission is to see more people flourish through their work, and help shift organizations as a force for societal good (not just profit machines). PTHR's mission is defined as "Better Business for a Better World". In October 2017, his first book, Transformational HR - was published by Kogan Page and the Energized Workplace published in August 2020. He was an extremely proud new entrant to the list of HR Most Influential Thinkers for 2017 and again in 2018 + 2019 (in the top 10 both years).