Learning and the Flexible Workforce

When it comes to remote workers, CLOs have a challenge on their hands.

co_0117_feature2_302Any learning leader will tell you that developing and implementing the best learning and development programs while making the necessary learning tools easily accessible to an entire workforce is tough work. Worse, the learning leaders’ job appears to be getting more difficult, or a bit more unclear.

Today’s consumers and producers are showing extreme interest in the “gig” economy, one in which businesses are transitioning from part-time and full-time employees to a flexible workforce comprised of independent contractors, or gig workers.

Gary Browning, chief executive officer for U.K.-based Penna PLC, an interim management, coaching and HR services company, said this popular economy is characterized by “people working on temporary assignments and moving transiently around the workforce, selling their project skills on a project-by-project basis.”

While this sort of flexible economy has gained strong momentum in recent years, Browning said it’s not new. “It goes back — particularly in areas such as IT and contracting — to the 1980s/1990s,” he explained. In the past five or six years, however, he said technology, millennials, the VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous — work world and globalization have caused the flexible economy to really take off.

CLOs have a challenge on their hands. This workforce is remote, determines its own hours, and requires unique learning and training opportunities, all of which make a learning leader’s job more difficult.

Who Are the Flexible Workers?

The flexible economy — or the on-demand economy, the gig economy, collaborative consumption or the sharing economy — has kicked the idea of establishing and maintaining a career to the curb. Instead, jobs are defined by “a patchwork of temporary projects and assignments, with the help of apps and platforms with perky names,” according to “Goodbye Jobs, Hello ‘Gigs’: How One Word Sums Up A New Economic Reality,” an NPR article by Geoff Nunberg.

The perky names that Nunberg refers to describe companies like ride sharing company Uber and global homestay network Airbnb. While Uber and Airbnb lay at the extreme end of the gig economy spectrum, these types of companies are gaining popularity and inspiring workers to ditch their conventional 9-to-5 job for one that lets them pick the hours.

The list of goods and services available from companies in the gig economy seems endless. Unfortunately, so is the list of questions that many learning leaders face when dealing with this contingent workforce. The first of which is, who exactly is in the flexible workforce?

There is a strong misconception that the entire flexible workforce is composed of millennials with a unique opinion regarding work. But Morne Swart, vice president of global product strategy and transformation at SumTotal Systems, said this is not the case. “We’re seeing more generations in the workplace than ever before, with nontraditional expectations for the employment relationship that include a greater value on experiences, development opportunities and nonlinear professional growth.”

Essentially, the flexible workforce is comprised of a diverse group of workers who are prepared to give up security and consistent earnings for the ability to gain more flexibility, freedom, control, autonomy, variety and the option to pursue only their key interests. That agility in work translates to a similar desire in learning opportunities — regardless of their age.

Using a flexible workforce in conjunction with a traditional workforce allows employers access to a larger, more diverse talent pool, but Patricia R. Hume, chief commercial officer for global mobile connectivity company iPass Inc., said it’s important for employers to balance employee desires with business needs. That’s where learning leaders come in. They help to create a culture that fosters flexibility in learning and new skill application while still delivering results.

Becoming a Gig-Friendly Organization  

As the flexible workforce gains momentum, learning leaders have to adjust their strategies to work cohesively with the gig economy. Organizations — whether it’s a large company like Google or a small, local business — must develop a culture and brand that appeals to gig workers, Browning said. Development is important. He said members of the flexible workforce have a strong desire and need to invest in themselves. They want to be able to provide their services or products better than their competition, so they will be attracted to companies who provide them with learning opportunities that increase their professional worth.

Essentially, by investing in contract workers, companies are investing in themselves. Those contract workers might only work at an organization for six or nine months, but Browning said they could come back to work for them in the future. Providing them with valuable training each time helps them hone and develop useful skills and establishes that company as a desirable, learning-centric employer brand.

However, because these workers are filling temporary or flexible roles, the type of training they need is different than what traditional workers require. Learning and development initiatives will need to be more specific, on-demand, bite-sized and focused around the specific job or task at hand. “The sort of softer training we saw around communication skills or personality building — there will be a tradeoff of those for much more job specific training and development,” Browning said.

Further, as learning leaders shape their organization’s learning and development strategies, they will impact more than just the flexible workforce. Swart said learning leaders are taking on a new role, strategizing to fill the balance of skills needed across the entire workforce. “That includes determining which capabilities you grow and invest in through employee development programs and determining when you tap into valuable external experience.” It is crucial for learning leaders to coordinate their full-time employees’ development with their contract workers’ development so that all employees can work seamlessly together.

Lastly, learning leaders should not forget the power of technology. Technology can enable scalable, customized content creation to meet the demands of both traditional and gig workers. “There’s already some really interesting gamification products out there, real-time, online delivery products, where people can get skills,” Browning said. CLOs need to do their research to determine which tools will best promote learning for their independent contractors. The best tools allow learners to access content on their own time, in their own way.

Read more: Flexible Security?

“Technology impacts the entire experience — from condensing the time-to-hire, to delivering a pre-boarding experience before day one, to mobile and curated learning programs that meet the precise needs of each worker,” Swart said.

In a continuously changing economy with an equally changeable workforce, learning leaders need to increase their organization’s agility, adopt more job-specific learning strategies and use technology to the make sure contingent workers have access to resources. The future of the workforce is uncertain, but the flexible economy is not likely to go away anytime soon. “It’s no surprise that the gig concept is gaining momentum,” Browning said. “Things are moving and changing, and organizations — the ones that will survive — are the ones that are flexible and agile.”

AnnMarie Kuzel is a former Chief Learning Officer editorial associate. Comment below, or email editor@clomedia.com.