Whilst it wasn’t COVID that started the fire, it certainly poured a whole load of fuel on to companies relationships with their people. The great resignation, quiet quitting, quiet firing, failing productivity, dire states of employee engagement, companies struggling to hire, retain or encourage people to even turn up to work are all symptoms of a significant shift in how people see their relationship to work and to their employers.
The power-dynamic is tipping. Away from a relationship where we have ‘bosses’ who tell people what to do, when and how, to one of mutual respect, more autonomy and working cultures which aim to support people doing their best work.
It’s a good shift — from the ‘repeatable units of human resource’ of the industrial revolution driven by factory models, to a world where we recognise that people are an essential and valuable part of the system, and taking care of people leads to better work, better productivity, better profits. And the smartest businesses are recognising the value of investing in supporting their people, not least 5:1 ROI on things like mental health, for example.
But it’s not just engagement which is shifting — we’re about to see a step away from the notions of ownership of employees. A step away from the idea that you have to have people on-staff who are exclusively committed to your business, the idea that you have finite resources you can call upon at any time, ready and waiting to do the work needed to be done (and indeed the obligation it creates upon you generating the work for those people to do).
A step away from owned employees towards fluid talent.
Fluid talent is when you no longer have a finite number of employees, but rather access to an infinite number of people from across a mix of people who are closer and deeply connected to your business such as employees; independent associates who work with your business on a regular basis who you’ve built trusted relationships with that know your way or working; and on-demand talent for discrete and specialists tasks that happen irregularly.
The simplest analogue is the difference between purchasing a ticket to fly to another country for your holiday, rather than buying and owning the plane and pilot. You still need to ensure you are flying with a reputable company, that the pilots are well trained and know how to get you where you’re going. You’ve got a range of choices from Ryanair to Emirates. But you aren’t saddled with the overheads of an Airbus sat on the tarmac, worrying about how to fill the flight each day, when all you really needed was to get to your destination on time.
But it offers so much more than just travelling from A to B. To stretch the metaphor further, it’s about being able to travel to any possible country, by exploring the wealth of different airlines and routes.
Imagine having an infinite pool of deep experience and specialisms to call upon to do the best possible job, rather than only the people you have available.
Imagine being able to draft in a domain specialist to add deep insight and knowledge to kickstart a project. You don’t need them on-staff all year round, but a short burst of intense focus to get moving quickly.
Imagine being able to collaborate with the leading voice in a new category or behaviour, so you can write a proposal with confidence.
Imagine being able to spend time with someone with lived experience who acts as a voice of the customer to inform and lead product design.
Imagine trialling a new position in your team without the risk of a long-term investment into a capability you’ve never managed before.
Imagine having the wisdom of a veteran CSO or CMO for a day a month.
It’s not as simple as a little black book of freelancers who you call upon when needed, but rather a strategic approach to how teams are built, how objectives are reached, how projects are designed, and what opportunities your business is able to go after.
Fluid talent requires a change in mindset and a change in processes, it’s not something you can implement overnight, and you need to continue to develop reasons why people would want to work with you — but the reasons to work with you will be relationship based and mutual value, not just ping pong tables and free lunches.
Fluid talent is far from the end of employment — a consistent core will always be required, but it will be a revolutionary shift away from “talent acquisition” and “talent retention” towards more dynamic capability and relationship building, and away from ‘employees’ and towards networks and communities that require new skillsets, approaches, mindsets and roles to build, engage and manage.