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Bringing liquidity to the workforce

No, not long boozy lunches but a new way of project-based working that’s transforming the workplace environment

“Project-based work is ever increasing, especially in areas like technology but in traditional areas like financial services and banking as well.” Photograph: iStock

“Project-based work is ever increasing, especially in areas like technology but in traditional areas like financial services and banking as well.” Photograph: iStock

 

There was a time when a liquid workforce referred to employees enjoying long lunches that extended deep into the afternoon, all in aid of oiling the wheels of commerce, of course. Those days are well behind us and the term has now come to refer to a blend of full-time employees, contractors and freelancers coming together quickly to form teams for particular projects and tasks and breaking up again just as quickly to move onto different projects.

The term was originally coined by Accenture a few years back and the firm’s Learning Academy explains that a liquid workforce blends digital and human capital to facilitate more efficient project management in a process of continual adaptation, where organisations use specialist workers and assistive technology to meet their needs in a more fluid fashion.

“Here in Ireland, we see a future of intense change in the workforce, as our industries embark on their digital transformation journeys, and look to technology to replace functions historically performed by people,” says Mark Jordan, chief technologist with Skillnet Ireland. “As technological transformational becomes increasingly pervasive, more and more tasks will be automated and performed by machines and computers.”

This adoption of technology and development of digital strategies has resulted in companies and employees needing to adapt their skills in order to keep pace with the changing world of work and to stay relevant.

“This transformational change has created the concept of the liquid workforce – an agile workforce with a mix of expert technology skills who can successfully collaborate on specific business initiatives,” Jordan adds. “We see this is as a cultural paradigm shift, as it moves company structures away from the traditional vertically aligned functional model to a distributed resource network model – thereby moving from initiating the output, to focusing on the activities towards success.”

Skillnet Ireland is working with its 68 enterprise partners on the issue. “We are working with industry to ensure Irish companies have these skilled employees in place, and that they also develop the robust lifelong talent strategies to keep employees motivated and retained – especially with regard to the high growth themes of digital literacy, collaboration and ethics.”

‘Flexibility in roles’

It is a feature of the modern workplace environment, according to Andrew Lynch of Mason Alexander recruitment agency. “We are seeing a huge amount of it,” he says. “Generation Z and millennials want variety in what they are doing, and they want flexibility in roles. Project-based work is ever increasing, especially in areas like technology but in traditional areas like financial services and banking as well. We are definitely seeing an appetite for it from employers. It allows for flexibility in the employment model and for projects to be upscaled a lot quicker. Companies are very interested in the flexible model.”

Paul McArdle of recruitment agency The Panel doesn’t think it’s a particularly new phenomenon. “My sense is that it is a fancy term for what is being done already,” he says. “We have just put in a new CRM system. That was outsourced to a provider who used guys in Birmingham and Bristol and Dublin. Most of it was done on the GoToMeeting software package and used the Wrike project management tool.

“We were able to put a message up of what needs to be done for the day and divide the tasks out among team members. That technology is open to SMEs and that’s an example of the liquid workforce in action.”

He believes most employers are open to flexible working arrangements, but trust is a key aspect. “Employers tend to be more flexible about the workforce after a person has been there for a period of time. A lot of employers are very happy with allowing their employees work the way they want. They can see the outputs are there, there is no need for big brother stuff to check on them. Trust is key. The organisational challenges are really more about security of the technology. You also have to make sure people don’t become disengaged from the culture of the company.”

The not-for-profit sector constantly seeks flexible solutions in order to improve efficiency, according to Fergal O’Sullivan of recruiter 2into3. “Not-for-profits require people to be agile, resourceful and get stuck in,” he says. “Cost is always to the forefront of people’s minds. Everyone working for a not-for-profit is a fundraiser at heart and is always on the lookout for ways to raise funds. Flexibility is already there. Not-for-profits are fishing in same talent pool as commercial organisations. While mission and purpose can be attractive, they still need to be able to offer a good salary and flexibility. If remote working can be done effectively, they will allow it.”

Management challenges

The liquid workforce does bring some management challenges, however. “Companies will have to do a lot of work around training and development,” says Andrew Lynch. “It comes down to productivity and talent. Work is task-oriented and results-driven, and you have to give people support to be successful. Companies have to put a lot of work into it, but the results are excellent.”

Jordan agrees. “It can be difficult. How do you get managers to be able to manage virtual teams? Our management development programmes enable managers to provide leadership to virtual teams. The liquid workforce is extremely disruptive as well. Companies are challenged by how to allow it and how to have people on different forms of contract working together.”

Employees have to be supported as well, he adds. “That’s an area we put a lot of emphasis on in our digital skills and digital transformation programmes. Organisations are asking employees to do X today and down the road they will be asking them to do Y. As they move up the value chain, their employees will need to have different skills. Employees need to see the value of transformation. These are the conversations we are having across our networks. There are challenges. We have to change mindsets as well as workforce models.”