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Will the Rise of the Contingent Workforce Make us Dumber?

I have to admit that I love the days and weeks before a new year begins, as we’re compelled to look back, take stock (and produce a flood of ‘Top 10’ lists), as well as look ahead, making predictions about the unknowable year in front of us. HR predictions (like most predictions) are always a dodgy business, but I think that there are a few safe bets- trends that we can all agree are already coming to pass. One of these that will have significant and lasting repercussions for HR, organizations, and the economy as whole, is the rise of the contingent workforce. Already a demonstrable trend, arguably accelerated by the recession and the ensuing tepid recovery, this change has the potential to significantly impact virtually every aspect of HR (and in many cases has already done so). Could the traditional employee become an endangered species in the years to come?

The Rise of the Contingent Workforce

The increase in the proportion of contingent workers in the labour force occurs at a time that remote and virtual workers are becoming increasingly common, and BYOD policies are, often by necessity, being adopted by a larger number of organizations. All of these factors (amongst others, notably the desire of some employees for increased flexibility), seem poised to fuel a much more transient, mobile, and virtually itinerant future workforce. Books could be written about the many consequences this will have for workers and organizations, but one effect that a recent Neuroleadership seminar brought to mind is related to collective talent and the intelligence of teams.

The “Intelligence of Teams”

“Collective talent” is a concept that intuitively makes sense- that the ‘talent’ displayed by a group or organization is more than a sum of its parts. Many of us will have worked in environments filled with brilliant high-performers that nonetheless managed to fail or under-perform. Collective talent can emerge through effective collaboration over time. Research discussed by David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute supports this concept- as it turns out, there is evidence that the ‘intelligence of teams’ exists- and that an individual member of a high-performing team who is considered to be ‘top talent’ may take 3-5 years to return to peak performance upon moving to a new organization, unless they move with their whole team (a largely unrealistic notion for most organizations).

This begs two obvious questions:

1. Will a mostly contingent, and thus transient, workforce reduce the ability of our organizations to nurture and develop collective talent and intelligence? That is, will our organizations get dumber?

2. If ‘top performers’ performance is negatively impacted when they are removed from a high-performing team, then how do we shorten the 3 – 5 year period it might take these top performers to reach their full potential once more? All the more necessary when relying upon an increasingly contingent workforce.

Staying Smart

I’m not much for making predictions of my own, but I do wonder if the increase in contingent workers continues apace, whether pragmatic organizations will begin to focus more heavily on modern knowledge management strategies, and on encouraging and supporting the growth of networks and communities of practice to mitigate any loss of the intelligence of their teams by blurring their very boundaries. Or perhaps the best organizations will draw the line at the proportion of contingent workers they employ, to ensure that strategically integral roles or teams are kept together for long enough to capitalize on their collective talent and intelligence.

What do you think about the future of contingent workers? Will we all be contractors of a sort some day? Will this be primarily good or bad for employees and organizations?

Image via Vinoth Chandar: Flickr Creative Commons

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jonny Gifford #

    Good questions! Employers seem to have been more careful this recession to look at alternative ways of cutting costs than just redundancies. The general assumption has been that this is driven by a desire to hold on to talented individuals & avoid recruitment costs. But maybe there’s also an implicit recognition that good TEAMS take time to build.
    It’s also worth considering things from employees’ point of view. I know a number of people who have opted for / been pushed into redundancy, but having found plenty of work as independent consultants, wouldn’t now consider a return to employment. Basically, having taken the leap into self employment, they’ve found it easier and more stable than they expected, as well as being paid at better rates. Could this contribute further to the rise of transient teams?

    December 31, 2012
  2. Jonny, I totally agree that in many cases employees are also contributing to the rise of transient teams. My sense is that many people either want the flexibility of contract work, or as you rightly point out, they’ve discovered that being a consultant has certain benefits over ‘permanent’ employment by someone else. Given that pressures are coming from both sides (employer and employee) it’s hard to imagine a future in which the contingent workforce does not become a bigger proportion of all employees…thanks for reading!

    January 1, 2013

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