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A flexible approach to talent: why should it matter to you?

    Over the past 30 years, the number and variety of alternative forms of employment have steadily increased. Today, the majority of employers use flexible workers. Yet, for many of them, this is ad hoc and often related to capacity issues. “When it comes to developing a formal workforce strategy, there is still a lot to be done,” says Jan Laurijssen, Senior Researcher at SD Worx. He calls for a more forward-looking approach to talent management.

      Flexible work: when the exception becomes the rule

      As early as in 2017, SD Worx conducted research across five European countries, together with Antwerp Management School (AMS), on the flexibilisation of the labour market. This showed that 95% of businesses hire independent workers. In most of these organisations, at least 10% of the workforce consists of self-employed workers. And not just for non-core activities. Even critical tasks are increasingly entrusted to flexible talent.


          For Jan Laurijssen, this heavy reliance on a contingent workforce is no surprise. “Rapid technological evolutions have led to changes in the traditional job market. On top of that, Europe faces a structural-demographic decline. In the current economic climate, there is simply not enough labour power. Studies show that a large number of Baby Boomers are now retiring. Of the 100 boomers that leave the job market today, only 82 are replaced. Driven by the tight labour market and its low mobility, employers seek alternative ways to spruce up capacity. By engaging individuals on a temporary basis or via non-standard employment contracts, for example.”

            Changing the way we manage talent

            Although many employers deploy independent workers, the survey found that a little more than 1 in 3 organisations have a formal strategy in place to bring the priorities of this new flexible workforce in line with their business objectives. Jan: “Though they are still a minority in the workforce, a well-thought-out policy on why and how to deploy flexible talent has become a critical issue in HR. Given the current developments and trends on the labour market, that’s what we call future-proof workforce planning.”


                'It’s clear that a great deal of flexibility in the talent pipeline is needed for companies to stay competitive. However, it’s important that employers don’t resort to this approach blindly. Jan: “Our research shows that motives for hiring flexible workers vary. Sometimes employers just want to hire temporary capacity to attract specific skills or talent. Others are confronted with a short-term stop on headcount, causing them to turn towards temps instead. Either way, an ad hoc approach is not sufficient to guarantee success in the long term. It’s all about continuously adapting to change in a well-considered manner."

                  Towards talent supply chain management

                  Given this new reality, it’s high time employers change their view of their need for talent in all parts of the organisation. Jan: “Ultimately, they should ask themselves how they employ people and why? Next, they should examine how these needs can be fulfilled most effectively through specific forms of employment given the labour market context.

                  Together with AMS, we are now looking at talent management from a supply-and-demand perspective, a forward-looking approach first introduced by Professor of Management Peter Cappelli. According to him, the right talent in the right place at the right time follows the same principle as supply chain management. If you know your future demand, you can adapt your supply accordingly. It’s a valuable research domain, where there’s still lots of new ground to cover.”

                    5 tips to navigate from traditional to smart talent management

                    1. Make sure you have the correct figures at your fingertips: frequently take a picture or timelapse of your workforce and talent pipeline and check reliable labour market data and monitor the evolution. Next, match your internal (personnel) and external (labour market) data. Invest in proper tooling to help you with this.

                    2. Assess your environment and take actions accordingly: be aware of what is going on inside your organisation (talent mobility, turnover, absenteeism ...) and what is happening outside your organisation and the impact it could have on your HR (resignation, job destruction, competitive employee value proposition).

                    3. Ask yourself who you are as a company and as an employer: know who works for you and how that compares to other companies in your region and sector.

                    4. Find the right balance between permanent and temporary employment: agree on an overall strategy on hybrid working. For example, when do you appeal to flexible workers and what tasks do you reserve for your fixed team?

                    5. Don't wait for a crisis to come up with creative solutions: staff sharing, for example is a innovative, functional arrangement where two companies share the same employee. The reasons may vary from changing workload, the need for specific expertise or to meet an employee’s demand for a more varied career.

                      Different approach to integrate flexible talent

                      Given the rise of flexible talent within organisations, now is the time for employers to work on an inclusive and flexible talent policy. Yet, there is a lot more to be done. Policy makers and labour-market intermediaries should rethink employment legislation to stimulate more flexibility while at the same time securing sustainable careers for all types of workers. In that sense, the term ‘flexicurity’ is often used. According to the EU, flexicurity is an integrated strategy for enhancing both flexibility and security in the labour market at the same time. It attempts to reconcile employers' need for a flexible workforce with workers' need for security.

                      Jan: “In many European countries, there are legal restrictions on how you treat external workers. On the other hand, literature indicates a clear intention to implement an inclusive policy. To resolve that paradox, We need to reconsider our traditional approaches towards independent professionals. After all, the better you integrate people, the easier it will be to collaborate.”

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                          Jan Laurijssen

                          Project Manager Research & Intelligence