Supertemps: Why It Pays to Get Smart About Nontraditional Talent

November 21, 2018 Leah Hoffmann

supertemps - stacked coins

When big companies want to move quickly, they need to re-examine internal practices, not just look at the market. It’s an argument we’ve been making for years—one we’re pleased to see gaining traction as corporate leaders look for new ways to power organizational agility. According to McKinsey, companies that proactively realign their best talent to their highest-value initiatives are 2.2 times more likely to outperform their competitors on total returns to shareholders. But how can you realign your best talent when, thanks to tightening labor markets, those workers aren’t widely available?

The answer, according to a new study from The Conference Board, is to look at a different labor pool: the highly skilled independent consultants and executives, or supertemps. It is critical, say the study’s authors, that Chief Human Resource Officers, or CHROs, spend as much time attracting the best freelancers—not to mention recruiting, engaging, and retaining them—as they do on traditional hires.

Supertemps get to work

The Conference Board surveyed CHROs and human capital executives at 95 different organizations. What those executives revealed is that, thanks to the increased focus on building an agile workforce, nearly 60% of global companies have increased their usage of nontraditional workers over the past three years. The top three reasons for the shift included:

  • A need for extra workers to handle short-term projects or seasonal business needs
  • A desire for increased flexibility around workforce planning needs
  • The search for specific skills not found in current company’s workforce

What’s more, 80% of global CHROs predicted that their deployment of nontraditional workers will increase in the coming years.

Yet several challenges remain. The biggest concern that CHROs voiced about nontraditional workers was engagement and retention: because supertemps are taking on ever more critical roles, companies need to work harder to keep them motivated, happy, and productive. What to do? Here’s advice written by the study’s authors:

Understanding the value non-traditional workers are seeking can help. From the perspective of the highly skilled workers, these nontraditional arrangements provide them the flexibility to choose work that is of interest to them and diversifies their work portfolio by contracting with multiple companies. For example, “supertemps” … may pursue careers built around revolving projects rather than one firm. Responsibilities that would have previously been allocated to permanent employees are now passed onto “supertemps.” In some instances, these relationships serve as a win-win for both parties: companies have access to a specialized and diverse set of skills in light of an ambiguous business climate, while workers are able to exercise autonomy to balance their workload and produce quality work.

Beyond the productivity play

Nontraditional workers were once regarded as an efficiency play: low cost, low commitment labor. Now, companies are waking up to the fact that freelance knowledge workers can serve as rocket fuel for growth, helping them steer complex, strategic initiatives and move quickly in fast-changing markets.

In fact, according to Kelly Services, companies who are innovators in strategic use of gig workers are 25 times more likely to experience significantly higher performance.

Unfortunately, the best supertemps aren’t going to wait around for the laggards to get smart. They’re going to go where their contributions are valued—and where they’re making a difference.

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About the Author

Leah Hoffmann

Leah Hoffmann is a former journalist who has worked for and The Economist. She is passionate about clear thinking, sharp writing, and strong points of view.

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