November 22, 2023
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Opinion: Pandemic accelerated already rapid rise of the fluid workforce


By Vlad Vaiman

Talent management (TM) has been a key priority for CEOs throughout the world for nearly two decades. Aging populations, shrinking talent pools, expanding skill gaps, shifting workforce mobility, and other critical considerations all contribute to TM remaining a top priority for both large and small organizations.

However, it is difficult to have a serious conversation about the future of TM without contemplating the COVID-19 pandemic’s influence. This epidemic has resulted in unheard-of levels of human pain, death, and devastation.

Vlad Vaiman

If there is a silver lining to this tragedy, it is that the current coronavirus crisis has hastened the arrival of the “future of work.” According to the World Economic Forum, the pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented spread of remote working, rapidly intensifying automation, a global appreciation of the care economy, which includes first responders and other critical employees, and a much greater reliance on freelance (or gig) workers.

A visible growth in so-called “fluid work” is one of the most intriguing outcomes of these and other advances. Many experts claim that when professions are deconstructed and reinvented, permanent employees are offered inside gigs, and labor is highly automated, work within an organization becomes more fluid.

Furthermore, organizational work boundaries become more fluid as new sorts of employees are introduced. These employees are: freelancers/independent contractors (those who supplement an organization’s own workforce and set their own hourly rates); gig workers (freelancers whose work is mediated through an app or platform and are usually paid by the task); paid-crowdsourced workers (hired to accomplish a partial assignment and paid per micro-task); and moonlighters (professionals having a primary permanent job and a flexible employment on the side); as well as workers borrowed from partners.

They’re all what’s known as a “fluid workforce.” Fluid workers, unlike ordinary employees, are not on the company’s payroll, are only employed for a limited time due to the structure of their contract, and receive no or limited benefits. Their jobs are largely unregulated, as rules and regulations are in the process of evolving and differing from country to country.

Organizations use a fluid workforce to address a specific need when it comes to (a) specialized skills (when it is easier to find a skilled talent for a certain project/task than to develop one of your own; this is the fastest way to bridge skill gaps in an organization); (b) cost reduction (there are usually no benefits, no pensions, and no office space); (c) quality (fluid workers are specialized in a specific area of work and become true experts in that area); (d) speed (with deep expertise comes agility); and (e) globalization (can help provide expertise in certain new markets, without exposing the organization to the risks associated with international expansion).

It’s worth noting that, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of companies are relying on the skills of a fluid workforce, in addition to their permanent personnel. Is it possible that this upward trend of fluid employment will go back to “normal”, once the pandemic is over? Many experts agree that is highly unlikely.

On the one hand, the global health crisis has only hastened the shift from traditional, hierarchical organization to a more “fluid ecosystem” driven by agility, adaptability, and flexibility, and — importantly — a limited need for a physical location. McKinsey estimates that up to 25% of the workforce in the developed world and about 10% in the developing will continue working from home even after the pandemic.

In addition, 87% of companies worldwide estimate that they either are already experiencing talent gaps or expect them within the next five years. To address this growing talent gap, these organizations use a mix of actions such as hiring more fluid workers and redeploying existing employees into new roles.

Also, the growth of the freelance economy was already quite significant before the pandemic, and it is likely to continue after it ends. On the other hand, an increasing proportion of the workforce, especially influenced by the influx of both Millennials and Gen-Z’ers, prefer job roles that offer flexibility, variety, and fewer constraints, which are the key features of fluid work.

The fluid workforce is not new, but what is new is that the fluid workforce is now becoming mainstream, with about 80% of organizations worldwide have used it since 2019. In 2020, 73% of organizations surveyed said they think they will be using more fluid workers in the next 12 months, and around 70% agreed that the current crisis will lead them to hire more fluid workers in the future, well beyond the pandemic.

Managing talent of a fluid workforce is, therefore, an important and timely topic to discuss.

The upcoming 6th annual Executive Talent Management Forum at Cal Lutheran on Sept. 16 is dedicated to the emergence and rapid rise of fluid work. Please see for more info.

• Vlad Vaiman is professor and associate dean at the California Lutheran University School of Management.