The way work gets done is changing drastically. While many companies use outsourcing, temporary workers and agency partners to extend in-house capabilities and ramp up support during high-demand times, the majority of business operations continue to be handled by a core group of full- and part-time permanent workers. While this may have sufficed in the past, HR and business leaders need to rethink and redesign their legacy employment models to ensure business sustainability.
What should the workforce of the future look like? Unlike today’s model, it will be made up of three distinct types of “workers”: traditional (full- and part-time), agile (gig, contract, project-based) and artificial intelligence (automation technology).
I believe, within the next few years, about 40% of a business’s workforce should consist of a mix of agile and AI workers. These two segments are rapidly growing as a percentage of the overall workforce, driven in part by employee preference as well as the heightened need for businesses to pivot at a moment’s notice. And, yes, you read correctly — AI may not technically constitute a real, human employee, but it should be considered as a stand-alone type of worker.
Moving Toward Agile Work
Though it won’t happen overnight, work is slowly moving from purely fixed roles to a more fluid ecosystem in which workers are utilized based on need. This often begins by introducing a mix of permanent and contingent employees, who are organized around project work, based on real-time talent needs and skill sets. It’s a critical step in the development of more agile employment models, creating the necessary space to begin bringing together permanent, temporary, contract, consultant and freelance workers in different configurations.
The agile model, where outside workers will be brought in through freelance labor platforms and talent pools to help fulfill specific initiatives alongside internal project leads, is in many ways a progression in contingent workforce management and overall workforce planning models. But it requires a new approach to management and oversight. Previously the contingent workforce model was the responsibility of HR and procurement; now, the C-suite and project and department leads must also prioritize the agile workforce, as it deeply impacts operations, finance and customer delivery. HR and business leadership will need to invest in programs, systems and strategies to foster expertise, decision making and collaboration among these different types of workers.
However, there are ongoing functions a business needs to run that don’t lend themselves well to workers at all. Namely, repetitive tasks within your day-to-day business operations — billing, accounting, onboarding customers and other administrative tasks, for example — represent opportunities for AI as a true employee segment to come into play.
Tapping AI To Handle Ongoing Operational Tasks
Companies should expect more benefits from AI than minor improvements in efficiency. Instead, they should leverage AI as a scalable means of handling entire tasks and interactions. Leading organizations are already applying robotic process automation (RPA) to take over entire workflows that are administration-heavy.
To figure out where AI fits, companies need to take a hard look at their highest-volume tasks — those that aren’t value-adding, but take up time people could otherwise spend on higher-level work. This is the impetus for insurance companies to automate claims process, software companies to reimagine customer data entry, airlines to devise chatbots for cancellation or refund requests and HR departments to find new approaches to employee record-keeping. The bottom line is that automating repetitive tasks — and eliminating reliance on permanent workers for back-office operations — helps organizations become more efficient and adaptable and enables human employees to focus on more engaging work that requires a higher level of thought and interaction.
Modeling Your Ideal Workforce Mix
Workforce planning has never been easy. For one, it’s difficult to predict the resources needed to meet revenue objectives. And there are other factors to consider: skill gaps, leadership deficiencies, backfills to support new or existing roles, organizational changes, seasonal needs and more. From a management standpoint, these initiatives need to have buy-in from operations, finance and HR.
With the introduction of agile and AI worker segments, traditional approaches to workforce modeling and planning are being disrupted. New factors must be considered — for instance, which functions or upcoming initiatives are prime for agile workers? Which core functions can be supported through AI? And what does the cost-benefit analysis look like?
Only from there can you model what your ideal workforce makeup looks like, and how hard you should lean into each of these segments. But companies that test early and iterate often will see clear competitive advantages. They’ll benefit from contracting with the right talent for the task at hand and up-leveling people to more strategic work. And they’ll be more aligned with worker preferences, too.
This future — in which agile and AI “workers” can be deployed (and redeployed) to meet specific goals — isn’t as far off as it seems, and incorporating alternative options into your workforce model now is a critical first step.
By Jim Link
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