Independent Talent Trends in the Time of COVID-19

Independent Talent Trends in the Time of Covid-19: Tip of ink pen pointing at bar charts on a piece of paper

Workforces throughout the U.S. are engaging independent talent more than ever before, and likely will continue to do so when COVID-19 is behind us.

There’s been a tectonic shift in how we collaborate on a daily basis as companies have pivoted organizational structures and systems in ways that once seemed unimaginable. While perhaps a catalyst none of us would have anticipated, the global pandemic is transforming the traditional workforce—and expediting adoption of a rapidly growing independent talent market.

Here’s a look at the state of the independent workforce in the time of COVID-19 and the emerging trends that are upending the way organizations hire, engage, and collaborate with independent workers:

Skilled workers are choosing independent work in droves

Upwork’s Freelance Forward 2020 report, the most comprehensive measure of the independent workforce in the U.S., found that 59 millions Americans freelanced this year amid the COVID-19 public health crisis. That’s 36% of our total workforce, and an 8% increase from 2019. Of those who freelanced:

  • 75% of those who left an employer to freelance say they make the same or more income than they did in their traditional job
  • 58% of traditional workers who began working remotely during the pandemic are now considering working independently moving forward
  • Freelancers surveyed reported lower rates of negative impact of COVID-19 on their overall wellbeing and financial health than those in the traditional workforce

The report found that even throughout a global recession, the independent workforce has remained a pillar of the U.S. economy, with independent workers contributing $1.2 trillion dollars to the U.S. economy in annual earnings—a 22% increase since 2019.

Adoption of the open talent economy is growing, and no longer taboo

In large part due to the pandemic, remote work is now more commonplace than it has ever been before. A shift in focus from location to skills when hiring workers has opened the door for on-demand talent platforms to become a central part of talent management strategy.

According to SIA’s The Gig Economy and Talent Platform Landscape report, nearly two-thirds (65%) of large firms either already use online staffing platforms or plan to at least seriously explore them within two years. Although this percentage was the same as in 2019, the share of enterprises that already have online staffing in place today has expanded from 14% to 18% over the past year.

Every indication is that the independent workforce will not only continue to grow, but will become increasingly central to enterprise strategy as more skilled professionals choose to work on their own:

  • According to the Freelance Forward report, 73% of hiring managers plan to continue or increase their usage of independent professionals in the next three months, and 47% of hiring managers said they are more likely to engage independent professionals in the future due to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • According to Deloitte, two years from now, about 70 percent of the executives they surveyed expect to use more temporary workers and contractors onsite at their companies than they did before the crisis.
  • Citrix’s Work 2035 study found that 86% of business leaders say the pandemic will impact the make-up of their workforce, with 54% expecting that they will move to a model of fewer permanent employees and more contractors.

The independent talent market is driving novel organizational change

As companies accelerated the integration of independent workers into their organizations during the pandemic, the need to adapt organizational culture to this hybrid way of working has become clear.

Our structures are changing:

Will the workforce of the future consist of one small team that engages help from a robust human could of talent? According to Gartner, in many organizations, leaders are beginning to replace the traditional team structure with an approach that more closely resembles an ecosystem. In a world post-COVID-19, companies will be more focused on critical skills and projects than critical roles and traditional jobs.

Additionally, COVID-19 has prompted a shift in designing for efficiency to designing for resilience. Prior to the pandemic, 55% of organizational redesigns were focused on streamlining workflows, supply chains, and roles to increase efficiency. This path has “created fragile systems, prompting organizations to prioritize resilience as equally important as efficiency,” Gartner says.

Gartner also predicts that these new operating models will initially result in an increase in organizational complexity, prompting a need for HR leaders to help teams establish a systematic way of engaging on-demand talent by developing internal policies and procedures.

Our workforce engagement efforts are changing:

From changing the terminology used internally as a means to remove the stigma of freelancing to eradicating rigid work models, research indicates that how we engage our workforce may never be the same.

In the time of COVID-19, flexibility is king. An estimated 2.7 billion people—or more than four out of five workers in the global workforce—have been affected by lockdowns and stay-at-home measures. Asynchronous, remote, and flexible work arrangements have become commonplace, and may be central to employee engagement moving forward as companies strive to engage and retain skilled workers who face an array of opportunities.

At the same time, companies will need to rethink how they measure workforce engagement moving forward, as companies have traditionally excluded part-time and external workers from engagement studies. According to ADP, one in six workers in organizations is non-employee talent, and in many cases, the number is even higher. In about 40% of companies, one in four workers is an independent worker. For accurate data, Deloitte suggests, companies need to realize that their full-time employees are a “shrinking percent of their workforce” and must begin to include their on-demand workforce in their studies.

Our workforce priorities are changing:

After the pandemic, we will see a focus on workplace health, hygiene, wellness, and safety like we never have before. A McKinsey & Company global survey of 800 executives found that 73% of executives expect to deploy more resources to on-site physical distancing and sanitation, potentially including the use of robotics to clean floors and kill bacteria. Additionally, implementing workplace programs that support workers’ mental health and financial wellness will be critical to helping people adjust to a ‘new normal’. Ensuring these programs are accessible to independent workers will go a long way toward attracting and retaining high-end independent consultants.

Additionally, a shift in focus on skills rather than past experience is prompting more organizations to promote learning and upskilling. According to the Open Assembly Future Workforce Trends 2020 report, companies are increasingly encouraging an internal “freelance” culture that helps formerly siloed divisions tap into existing workers’ potential, increasing worker mobility and organizational collaboration.

The most in-demand skills are shifting

As companies face challenges they never anticipated, they’re filling significant organizational gaps with independent talent who have expertise in skills their internal talent pools lack.

The BTG 2020 Skills Index, BTG’s signature report that draws from proprietary internal data on thousands of projects initiated by Fortune 1000 clients, provides insight into the most in-demand and fastest-growing skills for 2020. The report found:

  • A significant spike in demand for eCommerce and Internet Strategy, Product Development, and Customer Experience and Insights as organizations identify new areas to meet customer needs and shift to serving customers through different—and often contactless—channels
  • A rise in requests for experts in Organizational Transformation as companies adjust to new needs and structures due to the pandemic
  • Increased demand for Financial Controls, Accounting, and Audit to help companies cope with economic disruptions

The study also found increased demand for experts in market landscapes, project management, and transformative process improvements as companies prepare for our new world. Growth in areas such as product launches, clinical operations, and regulatory strategy—as well as cutting-edge disciplines like data science and customer analytics also speak to how companies are leveraging independent consultants as a means to help them achieve their most critical goals and prepare for 2021 and beyond.

The future of work is here today

“The coronavirus, and its economic and social fallout, is a time machine to the future. Changes that many of us predicted would happen over decades are instead taking place in the span of weeks,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, President of the New America Foundation, has said.
The importance of preparing adequately for the future has arguably never been more apparent than it is today. The world of work is undergoing a monumental transformation, and in our new world, independent talent is key to success and maintaining a competitive advantage.

In order to remain competitive in a post-COVID-19 world, implementing a strategic approach to engaging on-demand talent is critical. Designing an infrastructure that supports the integration of independent workers will help your company operate with increased agility and resilience in the future.

BTG has been helping global companies tackle vital projects both remotely and on-site for more than a decade. As your organization shifts from crisis control to pandemic recovery, visit our expert resource library to learn more about how to thrive in this new world and consider engaging expert support.

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About the Author

Sheri Baker

Sheri is a strategic communications leader with more than 15 years of experience writing content for some of the world's leading brands. She is the founder of a Certified B Corporation (beyondcontentstudio.com) that's committed to helping companies achieve their mission by leveraging content as a force for good. She is also a runner, aspiring sommelier, traveler, and mom—usually all at once.

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