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Free Agent Translation: New Workforce, New Workers

Drew Brees did it. So did Derek Jeter and LeBron James. They were “free agents” –  part of the cadre of football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer players who make themselves available to other teams at the end of their contractual obligations - open to new income opportunities, a change of management and a different place to use their talents.

And it’s not just for the sports environment anymore – in fact, free agency crept into the traditional workplace decades ago, and continues to gain focus and purpose. Back in 2001 renowned business guru Peter Drucker said “The corporation as we know it, which is now 120 years old, is not likely to survive the next 25 years.  Legally and financially, yes, but not structurally and economically.”  That same year, Daniel Pink debuted his book “Free Agent Nation” and tied the bow on this concept, by corralling some of the ways and reasons our workplace was quickly becoming more open to hiring different kinds of workers, including those who move from project to project; sometimes for months, sometimes for days.  

Since the first farmers brought in their crops, relying on extra workers during seasonal or cyclical peaks, the concept of “on demand” workers made good sense. Many companies are shifting to a more flexible workforce to augment their traditional one, more frequently using temps, contingent employees, consultants, contractors, part-timers, and freelancers; bringing the percentage of independent workers in the US to 30%, according to The Freelancers Union. And on the global front, business is vigorous at Manpower, which supplies temporary workers to companies worldwide.  Says Juan Carlos Cruz, Manpower's director of communications: "Economic uncertainty remains and…companies are focused on maintaining financial flexibility and, therefore, more flexibility in their workforce."  

The trend is relaxing the connection between businesses and employees, as it bypasses the provision of benefits like unemployment and insurance. Some workers were delivered into free agency after the recession changed or eliminated their jobs, and they found that they could stitch together the work and income they needed with more than one employer. Others actively seek the flexibility, and even security, in such arrangements, adopting a free-agent approach because they don’t want to rely on just one company’s economic health for their futures.  And there’s another group, too – that some workforce experts term the “eccentrics, geniuses, upstarts and rebels” – the talented types who don’t thrive within a traditional organization, but can start and run their own companies or align with a traditional company for a project or two, adding valuable skills and perspective without  impacting the internal environment.  

Free agency adds up to a lot of creativity for workers and corporations. Consider the company that hires employees for three-year stints with limited benefits, or the call center that lets work-at-home operators choose their time slots according to projected volumes, or the ad firm that draws most of its workforce from freelancers around the world. With a portion of your staffing needs met by free agents, what should your rewards and comp/benefit programs look like? And what does contingent staffing mean to the mobility industry? 

For organizations – and for workers - the message is clear. It’s a new day out there, with a range of combinations and possibilities to build the workforce that best fits our companies … and as individuals, the career that best fits our skills and needs.

Move over, Drew, Derek and LeBron:  make room on the free agent circuit for the new workforce!


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