We may be well into the new year, but 2020’s central theme—uncertainty—continues to drive corporate strategy. And out of the dizzying array of strategic pivots, a new theme has emerged: opportunity. It’s clear that now is the time to plot growth and seize competitive share. To streamline operations and achieve greater agility. To innovate. And innovate. And innovate some more.
Perhaps that’s why 77% of employers say their current talent strategies are more focused on workforce agility than ever before, according to the 2021 Talent Trends Report from Randstad Sourceright. However, with the accelerating need for emerging skills and the increasing scarcity of talent, this might seem easier said than done. That’s why now is also the time to make independent talent a core part of your resource strategy.
Everyone (who’s savvy) is doing it
When the pandemic began, many businesses saw their timelines for distant plans become drastically abbreviated and their skills gaps widen due to the sudden need for virtual everything and on-demand anything.
Companies that already had remote work infrastructure in place were the fastest to rebound and reorient to these previously unimaginable challenges. For many of those, independent talent was already part of their strategy, allowing them to move quickly and develop new solutions while others struggled to adapt, let alone thrive.
During that time, we at Business Talent Group (BTG) found that 95 percent of our independent talent’s ongoing projects continued seamlessly into remote work arrangements. This wasn’t surprising, as our consultants have considerable experience when it comes to navigating complex challenges. Shifting to remote work is just another adjustment they’re able to make on the fly. It’s one reason why nearly half of all hiring managers surveyed by Upwork in its 2020 Future Workforce Report said they are more likely to engage independent talent in the future due to Covid-19.
A recent report by Harvard Business School concurred: “Covid-19 has only accelerated the move away from traditional, pre-digital-era talent models toward on-demand workforce models,” and nearly 90% of business leaders who responded to its survey indicated that talent platforms will be “somewhat or very important to their organization’s future competitive advantage.”
Optionality and agility have become essential elements of current talent strategies because, at this point, volatility is the new norm. Businesses have put long-range planning on hold and instead apply strategies on a case-by-case basis. This has led to a seismic shift in how key functions are redefined. The companies that are fortunate to be growing are growing fast, and as they scale, functions are becoming more complex. Increasingly, they’re bringing in independent consultants to bridge the gap and get them to the next level with less cost and reduced risk.
For example, a company that wants to take advantage of current market conditions might need to choose between raising additional capital or going public. Such a decision would benefit from the guidance of a CFO who has gone down both paths before—experience that’s likely to be lacking in most small and mid-sized businesses. Rather than risking a poor decision, the organization could bring in an independent consultant to advise and help strategize.
In other cases, a renewed focus on wellness has led to major organizational changes in human resources. HR has to prepare for whatever comes next while also dealing with what’s happening now, which puts a significant strain on existing resources. When one of our clients wanted to build out a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) function, they were able to accelerate implementation by engaging an HR consultant who was able to rapidly define the function and then hand over the reins.
Rapid delivery of in-demand skills
In what appears to be a K-shaped economic recovery, some companies are riding a rocket ship of growth and seeking to rapidly capitalize on unforeseen opportunities. Meanwhile, others—those whose business models have been challenged at the core by the Covid pandemic—are reinvesting in and recentering their businesses in order to facilitate a return to growth. For both, speed has never mattered more.
Yet the fact is, few possess the expertise necessary to address the business needs that are emerging right now. While tangential skills might bridge the gap for a while, the ever-more-rapid evolution of products and solutions requires a higher level of experience and a dedicated application of niche skills.
Upwork found that 30 percent of hiring managers don’t believe their current teams have adequate skills to support changing business needs over the next 3-5 years, and three out of four “aren’t fully convinced that retraining employees is more efficient than engaging independent talent.”
Even if employees were constantly retrained, the demand for new skills will continue to accelerate, and eventually those employees’ roles would expand past their capacity. That’s likely why HR Executive predicts that, in 2021, companies will “shift their investment away from [building internal capabilities] and focus more on buying and renting talent than they have ever before.”
Right now, the glaring reality of growing talent scarcity—across virtually all sectors—is somewhat obscured by high unemployment rates. It might seem as if an organization is lacking resources due to Covid-related layoffs, but when it comes time to rehire for certain roles, HR may struggle to find qualified candidates.
Hiring project-specific talent on an on-demand basis not only allows existing teams to remain focused on their work; it also allows the organization to ramp up or down as needed. As projects change and clarify, independent consultants with specific areas of expertise can be brought in to help define next steps, shape strategy, and address concerns.
As the Harvard Business School study found, “An adaptable approach to talent can be a dynamic force that improves [a business’s] competitive strategy.” When speed matters as much as it does right now, being able to quickly ramp up or down is a critical advantage.
Agility is certainly among the most compelling reasons to engage independent talent right now, but innovation is right up there. Remote work arrangements allow companies to cast a wider geographic net, attracting the best talent with the most in-demand skills without being limited to their immediate area.
It’s also becoming more common for highly skilled professionals to choose freelance work over salaried positions, further enriching the on-demand talent pool. Upwork found that, “64 percent of professionals at the top of their industry are increasingly choosing to work independently.” These are former executives and high-end consulting firm alums with subject matter expertise that can only be gained through years of experience.
At BTG alone, our curated independent talent network includes thousands of the world’s best independent business professionals. More than ten thousand of them are subject matter experts, and two-thirds have both consulting and operations experience. Another 3,300+ have skills in emerging categories such as AI, machine learning, data security, advanced analytics, and Agile methodology.
By augmenting existing teams with these on-demand experts, businesses are realizing immediate, enterprise-wide gains. The Harvard Business School found that, “40 percent of users reported that accessing highly skilled workers through new digital talent platforms helped improve speed to market, boost productivity, and increase innovation.”
Skilled independents are also strongly committed to continuous improvement. They seek out opportunities to sharpen their skills and tend to engage more deeply with complex challenges in order to gain greater insight. A 2019 Edelman Intelligence report found that 65 percent of skilled freelancers have participated in training in the last six months, compared with just 40 percent of non-freelancers.
What’s more, this influx of expertise appears to have the added benefit of raising the bar for existing employees: Upwork found that “61 percent of hiring managers say working with external talent helps keep current employees up to date.” So, hiring independent talent not only helps the company innovate more efficiently and effectively, it also helps outside talent gain new experience while exposing internal talent to new ideas and methodologies. Sounds like a win-win-win.
Lower overhead, higher potential
Cost management is always a priority, but the pressure to control costs is even greater in the wake of the pandemic—particularly for businesses on the bottom leg of the “K”. Investment in infrastructure has shifted to the digital realm, and it’s unlikely to go back. As organizations begin to rehire, many are reevaluating the necessity of a physical footprint altogether. Others are planning for early retirements and other workforce cuts.
Whether reducing costs or resources—or helping to strategize both—these are areas where independents shine. Not only can they help evaluate cost considerations and identify the best path forward, independent consultants also deliver greater value themselves. Our Consulting Costs and Value Analysis found that using high-end independent consulting talent instead of a traditional consulting firm saves companies as much as 63 percent.
Offering superior speed, expertise and value, on-demand consultants will be top companies’ competitive advantage through 2021 and beyond. Opportunity abounds for those who embrace independents as part of their talent strategy right now.
Whether you’re looking for an independent project manager to streamline your enterprise data processes, a corporate development consultant to evaluate new markets, or virtually anything in between—we can help. Get in Touch
About the AuthorMore Content by Emily Slayton