Adaptable workforce strategies: the new norm

I came across an interesting post last week on Fistful of Talent that talks about how employers are hedging their bets on hiring. Specifically, the post talks about two companies that have taken different approaches to hiring talent--but not as full-time employees.

In one case, BMW is hiring 500 production workers as contract workers through a staffing agency. In another, a real estate brokerage firm is converting all of its 900 California-based agents from employees to independent contractors.

I think there's likely several reactions you could have to these two examples:

    • What's happening to America? Are we all going to have to become freelance workers, temps, and independent contractors? Are there going to be no real employees left?

    • Well, at least someone is hiring ... sort of.

    • Is this yet another step in California's path to eventual succession and re-birth as a collection of independent city-states?

I work in staffing, so I have to admit, I like BMW's approach for selfish reasons as much as I believe it's probably a good idea right now. I think the independent contractor is fraught with danger, especially in the traditionally litigious state of California (see my posts on FedEx (Parts One and Two) for the reasons why).

But I think the proper response is to realize that we need to think differently about how we structure and engage our workforce. And we need to not only hedge our bets, but perhaps place some different bets in the future.

I applaud BMW's efforts to be clear from the start. It appears to be a very intentional strategy that is probably very low risk and offers flexibility and more importantly, adaptability.

For years, companies have talked about adaptable business plans, adaptable technology, adaptable marketing strategies, etc. It's time we took workforce management into this arena and starting talking about contingent staffing and independent contractor usage as adaptable workforce strategies - not just a hedge or short-term fix.

If this recession has taught us anything, it's that talent can be a fragile thing, and that no matter the circumstances, you have to engage your workforce and be knowledgeable about all the various segments of your workforce.

Many companies found out first-time how many temporaries they had ... when they had to let them go. And now, they are thinking about temporaries as a hedge to hiring full-time employees. But in both cases, it's still very short-term thinking.

The new norm should be integrating non-employee populations into your workforce in a managed and intentional way. Finding out where they are and why they are being used is a good start, but then it's a matter of deciding how they can provide the adaptability you need for your business.

In BMW's case, maybe this is a start up, or a specialized production line, or a pilot program. By using contingent labor, they can not only adapt to the original circumstance, whatever it may be, but they can now also adapt to the path forward. Maybe they become employees. Maybe they move on to another production line or facility. Maybe they simply move on to another assignment.

The point is that the world has changed. What might seem like a hedge today is probably the first experiments in a better, more adaptive workforce strategy. I, for one, think it's about time.


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