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Blend Your Workforce: An 8-Step Plan

Freelancers and full-time employees working side by side … it’s the future. Your prep work starts now. 

By Jon Younger and Michael Kearns

For most companies, finding talented workers isn’t an obstacle. It’s a competitive crisis. In a survey by PwC, 70 percent of CEOs said talent gaps are a significant impediment to growth and performance. Whether it’s finding individuals with the right skills, the ability to scale teams quickly, or the desire for a more flexible workforce as demand ebbs and flows, managing an organization’s need for talent is a bigger challenge than ever.

An article in Forbes highlighted the blended workforce as one of the top recent workplace trends, noting that “more freelancers and full-time workers will need to work together.”

Companies that successfully blend their workforce have a strategic advantage in the war for talent. Rather than invest months to hire full-time staff with hard-to-find technical skills and experience, a project leader can scale teams quickly as needs change.

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Assistance is on the way from two different directions. As highly skilled workers take advantage of new opportunities for variety and growth without making a long-term commitment to an employer, freelance platforms are growing in prominence and scale to match them with companies that need them.

At the same time, technological advances allow team members to collaborate from around the world, while a cultural shift toward self-reliance and independent work means that more of the world’s most sought-after professionals now choose freelance careers.

Through our interviews with business executives, HR partners, freelancers, and talent-platform startups, we’ve learned that a sustainably blended workforce requires taking eight key steps.

Step #1: Communicate a Clear Version of the Blended Workforce You’re Creating

Your strategy should be the result of careful consideration by your leadership team. We see three different options:

Incremental. This strategy relies on a strong preference for a full-time, permanent workforce, while adding external help when necessary, based on relationships with trusted colleagues. 

Strategic. While incrementalists use external expertise reluctantly, the strategic approach depends at a structural level on the regular use of agile talent to augment its workforce.

Transformational. In this third level, the organization is the network, and integrates the blended workforce throughout all operations. As important as it is to articulate your vision of a blended workforce, it won’t work without regular discussion across your organization. Expect a lot of questions and confusion, and even some resistance from full-time employees who worry that their jobs are threatened. 

Step #2: Enact the Blended Workforce as a Competitive Advantage

To be successful, the blended workforce must be understood not simply as a tactic, but as a strategic capability. It should reflect and align with the organization’s overall vision and be a critical part of its business systems.

How can you establish it as a core competitive advantage? It starts with an understanding of what you want to achieve with it, identifying key current and future resource gaps, and deciding which of the three options listed above best aligns with your business strategy.

Organizations that view the blended workforce as a strategic capability develop deep partnerships with trusted talent platforms; have strong organizational processes to support the discovery, onboarding, management, and measurement of agile talent; and develop an overall culture that’s naturally collaborative and welcomes external expertise.

Step #3: Establish a Compelling Employer Brand

As more of the very best finance professionals, scientists, software developers, creatives, and even operational leaders move to independent careers, it’s important to understand what they want: interesting work, fair pay, conditions (location, hours, tech) that fit their needs, a chance to work with talented colleagues, and an opportunity to maintain their professional edge.

To be clear, we aren’t talking about people between jobs or with lower-end skills. If you want to attract the very best freelance talent, you need to provide a value proposition that gets them excited about working in your organization. 

Step #4: Focus on Outcomes and Performance Management

To succeed, you must define what you’re trying to accomplish and align it to your overall business goals. Then, determine how you’ll measure success. You can’t just assess individual performance; you need to measure teams and partners as well, looking at four levels:

  • At the organizational level, how well are blended teams and agile talent leveraged?
  • At the project level, how well are outcomes delivered?
  • At the partner level, how well are your talent providers doing?
  • At the individual level, how well is each freelancer performing? 

It’s standard practice today to make price-based buying decisions for both freelancers and vendors. But to build a blended workforce that’s truly effective, you must select talent and measure performance based not on price, but on value—output divided by cost.

Step #5: Develop a Strong Network of Partnerships

Outsourcing firms, consulting partners, or talent providers all have their place in your organization, and each reflects a unique value proposition. The partners you choose, the ways you use them, and your ability to manage each will all have significant effects on your success. Don’t leave it to individual managers to guess which partners perform best. 

Step #6: Build Organizational Readiness and Alignment

It’s not enough that organizations want to establish a blended workforce. Nor is it sufficient to define and communicate a strong vision of blending, or to build relationships with sources of top external talent. Leaders must ensure the organization is ready for that talent. That means converting their vision into a clear and practical plan of execution, then fine-tuning work systems and administrative practices to establish a high level of organizational readiness. 

Step #7: Invest in Strong and Aligned Leadership Skills

Building and managing a blended team is different. So is building and leading an organization of blended teams.

Someone needs to invent a training curriculum for project managers who work closely with agile talents. The skills may be the same, but the context is different. Agile talents are independent workers and expect to be treated as colleagues rather than subordinates.

At the same time, we know that all workers, external or internal, want to be valued and treated with respect. They’re eager to engage in planning the work, want to feel like part of the team, seek regular feedback on their performance, and want to continue to develop and improve their skills.

Higher up the ladder, many of the core capabilities required for success are the same as those you need in a traditional organization: empathy, coaching skills, effective performance management, communication, and engagement.

Step #8: Ensure Human Resources Takes a Leadership Role

At a Society for Human Resource Management annual conference, the organization’s president, Henry Jackson, noted the rise of freelance workers as a top employment trend. Clearly, this is an area where the talent-management chops of HR should contribute prominently.

So it’s curious that HR leaders and professionals appear only marginally invested in the blended workforce. In a review with HR executives in the San Francisco area, only 15 percent described themselves as actively monitoring and engaged in freelance hires. Instead, they remained focused primarily on the planning, recruitment, and management of full-time employees. 

Agile talent and a blended workforce shouldn’t be seen as competition to HR and to employees, but as a complement that allows HR leaders to meet the strategic needs of the business, while also helping core employees succeed.

As the workforce blends, making it possible for individuals to collaborate in real time across time zones, it’s important that leaders understand what it takes to effectively manage blended teams. Companies that turn this understanding into action will win the new and vastly more interesting war for talent. 

Jon Younger is the founder of the Agile Talent Collaborative, coauthor of Agile Talent, and a leader and consultant in talent strategy and human resources transformation. 

Michael Kearns is vice president of strategy for Toptal, a global staffing platform that offers companies access to top freelance talent in technology and finance.