When we talk about the future workplace, so many things come to mind. Remote working, new technologies, professions that don't exist yet, AI, diversity, inclusion and many more. But one phrase is creeping ever further into the lexicon of the future, and that is liquid working. So what is it, where did it come from, and why is it becoming such a hot topic?
The liquid worker is self-employed, choosing contracts and projects that suit their skills and schedules, working mainly in a remote capacity from anywhere in the world. They would, by definition, be working for multiple employers on multiple contracts over their professional lives.
The liquid workforce for employers is a pool of contractors, entities or consultants they can count on, either through referral or prior experience, who are brought in according to the changing and evolving needs of the business. No employment contracts with gym memberships and subsidized coffees, just workers who fit the right needs at the right time.
Perhaps it is all sounding a bit like this:
Yes there is instability in this scenario for workers in particular, but there are opportunities too. Let's take a look at how this scenario came into being and why.
A few years ago the terminology associated with liquid working just didn't exist. However, as we look at the chatter around the workplace, labor regulations, productivity and the working week, it's perhaps not surprising that the phrase has leapt into existence. Jason Fried made a compelling case for why work doesn't actually happen at work, and the virtues of a shorter work week are well documented. An IES report on this in 2016 found that presenteeism represented a substantial cost to the economy. There is a growing demand for flexibility around work; when it's done, and where from. A 2012 case study on Romania found that greater labor flexibility, if done inclusively and fairly, could greatly improve economic resilience. Among organizations and a new generation of workers, there is pressure from both ends to shake things up.
Liquid working, even if it wasn't always called this, is nothing new for companies like Google and Amazon, for whom these workers make up around 40% of their workforce. Some sources actually report that contract workers outnumber employees in Google; keeping their balance sheet leaner for sharp-eyed shareholders and investors. However, the Covid-19 crisis has brought this way of operating to a much broader range of organizations. Universities forced to initiate or accelerate development of their online delivery are now able to explore this as a long term strategy, with professors and technical staff based anywhere in the world. The pandemic showed institutions what happened when workers were forced to stay home, and guess what; the work still got done.
While a partial bounce back in demand for office space is predicted, most observers agree that things have changed for good. A shift towards liquid working is a natural response to global economic instability. Organizations limited in the physical world are finding huge opportunities in the digital environment. This means a natural pathway to diversification as new networks, markets and opportunities unfold; a fluid situation in short. Given that organizations are reacting to short term developments and finding their way ahead on uncertain ground, more episodic working relationships and a "just in time" pool of specialist contractors is a logical development. The impact is clear. Organizations are broadening their horizons in diversifying what they do, where they do it and who they work with.
A liquid workforce for organizations, means having access to an enormous pool of specialist talent. This means being able to have the right person with the right skills at the right time. This approach to resource management is naturally more efficient, and keeps the balance sheet lean. No performance reviews, no investment in training as you are already contracting the niche specialist that fits the project at hand. Even if the pandemic has not totally changed an organizations’ core operations, it might have reduced the timescale in which they have to be done. Add this to the potentially high costs mitigating the effects of the pandemic and you can see why organizations might be reluctant to take on full time employees to keep things running. Though the salaried employee is unlikely to ever disappear, the economic benefits of tapping more into a liquid workforce are patently clear.
At geNEOus (formerly NEO Academy), we have been a liquid team since inception, with a network of professionals working with us around the world. Institutions subcontract our team to support them in reaching their objectives in marketing and admissions and, though we develop long-term relationships with our clients, liquid working is our DNA. Fluid generations - Z and Alpha The jury is officially out on Generation Z and their propensity to become liquid workers. On one hand, a 2017 survey found that nearly half of adult Gen Z'ers had freelanced that year, and most of them by choice (as opposed to the lack of an alternative). On the other hand, research suggests that Generation Z were impacted greatly by the 2008 financial crash and yearn for stability and connection in the workplace.
All eyes are now on their new Alpha counterparts (born 2010-2025). Like Gen Z, they have also grown up connected to the world through technology, and witnessed the huge diversity in non-traditional approaches to work with entrepreneurs and influencers saturating social media feeds. But the effects of the major emotional event in their lives (likely to be the Covid-19 pandemic for those born at the early end) are yet to manifest. Though they may too desire stability, the market may make the decision for them. They are inheriting a fluid world in which adaptability is likely key.
Everything is now converging. Open minds about remote working, a drop in demand for office space, new attitudes towards presenteeism and productivity, and a new generation born into technology and an uncertain world. The stage is set for liquid work to be commonplace as Generation Alpha enter the workplace, and the only question now is whether the world of education is ready to support them.
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