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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2020-01-07 18:45

Cathryn Barnard



The continuous evolution of commercial markets has inevitable consequences for the labour market, to the extent that we cannot afford to continue to approach...


Last month I presented to a community of local SME-owners, on the topic of staff recruitment and retention, an area of increasing frustration for business leaders in 2019.   Multiple disruptive and convergent events across the last decade irrevocably altered the nature of work. Our previous blogs touch on these. 

My presentation highlighted the primary factors that have already transformed the nature of the UK labour market in the last ten years. I then explored a few of the ways in which the labour market will continue to evolve, based on our analysis of emergent work trends.

Advances in technology innovation, including the Internet, have created dynamic, fast-paced marketplaces, to the extent that ’business as usual’ no longer exists. Forward-thinking business owners accept that customer-centric continuous innovation is now key to organisational survival.

The continuous evolution of commercial markets has inevitable consequences for the labour market, to the extent that we cannot afford to continue to approach recruitment and retention using the same hiring and employment models that we’ve used historically. For 21st Century organisational success, we need to think very differently.

The 21st Century talent eco-system is more complex than traditional staffing models. However, when designed and optimised well, it brings myriad benefit to the modern business, not least that of organisational agility. By virtue of size, the SME CEO is superbly placed to leverage early adopter advantage.

The 21st Century talent eco-system consists of an array of components - something Deloitte refers to as ’the Alternative Workforce’.

1] Permanent staff

Traditionally a primary metric of organisational growth, the hiring of permanent staff is usually coupled with increasing turnover and profitability.

In complex and dynamic markets however, organisations increasingly need to demonstrate agility.

Future success will depend on an organisation’s ability to be ’lean’. The quest for lean and agile organisational structures, alongside the growing popularity of self-employment, drives the prediction that by 2030, permanent employment will have become far less mainstream. In The End of Competitive Advantage, Columbia Business School Professor Rita Gunther McGrath writes:

’In a world of transient advantage, the only employees a company will keep are those its leaders believe to be indispensable to its future.’

So how else will a 21st Century business skill up?

2] Temporary staff

Temporary staff, or contractors, have been pivotal in the technology industry for decades. Indeed, none of the mobile phone networks that exist internationally today would have launched without the support of teams of impermanent technical engineers. When managed well, utilising impermanent teams is a highly effective way of delivering new product and service innovation.

Success depends, however, on world-class communication to drive worker engagement, and a comprehensive approach towards knowledge management and retention.

3] Consultancy staff

From time to time, your organisation will benefit from specialist expertise from a third-party consulting partner. Outsider perspective can be invaluable when addressing ’wicked’ problems

Again, with the right approach to communication, connection and knowledge transfer, staff from such partners can easily be temporarily integrated into your operations for optimal results.

4] Freelancers

People often conflate temporary staff and freelancers. For us, we think about freelancers as those with specialist talents, brought in to deliver something very specific. Their services aren’t usually required for long periods of time, and their payments will more likely be tied to tightly defined deliverables.

However, when the quality of work and the relationship is good, freelancers are a fantastic resource to leverage for managing the ebbs and flows of project demand. Let’s not forget that a freelancer’s workload can be irregular, and most prefer a portfolio of return customers, where optimum value can be delivered as the commercial relationship deepens.

5] Supplier staff 

Certain business deliverables may come with an optional number of on-site support days, available ’on-demand’. ’Borrowing’ expertise from within your supply chain can be another great way of managing the peaks and troughs of business workload, without assuming the longer-term overheads that permanent employment necessitates. 

6] Gig platform workers

The 2010s saw an explosion of global freelancing platforms. Examples include Fiverr, Upwork, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Freelancers register with these websites to gain access to project-based work. These are usually one-off tasks, and freelancers will bid for the work, enabling the client to tightly manage costs. Quality of deliverables can be highly variable however - our advice would be to always create a super-tightly defined scope of work.

7] Process automation

Any business task that is routine and repetitive is likely be automated within the next decade. Someone, somewhere, will design software to perform that same task far more accurately, efficiently and cost-effectively. Just look at what the likes of Xero and Quick Books have already done to simplify accounting, reducing the need for traditional book-keeping services.

Process automation is a key element of digital transformation, and any organisation committed to future-proofing will need a strategic technologist in the leadership suite, to advise on emergent technology adoption for optimal organisational efficiency.


There have never been more staffing options available to ambitious businesses looking to grow. Hiring in the 21st Century IS harder than ever, as is retaining the best people to help grow your business, once you’ve found them.

There are key ingredients however that substantially improve recruitment and retention outcomes. Next month, we’ll explore these in more detail.


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Recruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.

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