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A great number of professionals are performing agile work in the technology, engineering and other business sectors around the world. It gives these talented people more control over their careers and lives while they continue to sharpen their skills. Some independent contractors, gig workers or freelancers earn more than they would be paid for working in a permanent role. They also thrive in the agile world of work as they enjoy the challenge of working across a range of clients.

Agile work and agile talent is a growing phenomenon around the world, with leading Human Resources experts stating the “movement” or “freelance revolution” is at the centre of the Future of Work. Statistics indicate that the 41 million people in the United States who are involved in agile work are generating 1,3 trillion US dollars in the economy every year, and forecasts say that almost half of the workforce here will be involved in agile work by 2020.  Agile work is also fast expanding in Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, the prevalence of an agile workforce in South Africa is evident from the multitude of co-working spaces which have sprung up in major cities and the significant number of people who are self-employed.

Interestingly, the growing economic importance of the alternative workforce is also evident from major global acquisitions. Google took over Kaggle to gain one of the world’s largest networks of data science professionals which offers freelance or contract-based technical talent to organisations. The transaction took place in 2017.

The reason why the agile workforce is rising, is because companies need talent and individuals want to deliver it.  While the talent market is tight, the agile workforce movement makes it possible for companies to work with talented people that they could not afford to hire as full-time employees.

The agile workforce provides an ideal solution, as it enables businesses to respond to real-time business challenges in a dynamic way. For example, companies don’t have to wait weeks to fill a project-based role, but can hire people fairly quickly when they need additional capacity or specific expertise for new business. On the other hand, agile professionals want to be more autonomous and independent and do the work they are really interested in.

Importantly, the nature of “freelancing” or working independently is also changing: individuals are now building relationships with a portfolio of companies, with agile professionals working across six to twelve companies in a year. They want recurring work with these organisations that is relationship-based in the sense that the businesses get to know them and the independent professional gets to know the companies they work with.

“Independent professionals are building careers while they do agile work,” says a human resources expert. “This way of working also benefits organisations as they have access to high-quality talent, without having to go to market.”

Enabling technology

What makes this flexible way of working possible, is not only the basic digital devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones, but also technology tools like chat functions, document management systems and video conferencing, which make collaboration among virtual teams possible. Platforms like knool, Linkdpro (local), Upwork, Fiverr and are instrumental in expanding the agile marketplace as they help to connect skilled professionals with employers.

Work is indeed no longer a place to go to, but a place to which the growing agile workforce connects. And since technology is disconnecting work from set hours and specific locations, people are able to increase their income, work part-time, rejoin the workforce or assume new roles. New talent pools such as parents and athletes are also entering the workforce.

According to Jon Younger, Human Resources thought leader and author of Agile Talent (Harvard 2016), organisations generally take three different approaches when it comes to accessing the deep skills of agile talent. The first approach is to access the external market for talent when they need it, while the preference is to own and work with full-time talent. But this approach is increasingly being adopted by a smaller part of the community.

The second approach is to bring in external talent to augment company resources. Apple, for example, has a core group of designers, but also works with individual designers and design companies which augment and supplement its core team. Finally, the third approach is taken by companies who believe that they don’t need many, if any, full-time people and set out to make projects work with a combination of project and technical people.

Marc Khan, global head of Organisational Development and Human Resources at Investec, has said that he envisages a workplace where companies are comprised of ‘giggers’: “In the future world of the gig economy, people will cluster together in sensible ways and then uncluster and reconnect in various gigs to deliver a very agile value chain which is loosely co-ordinated by a leadership function that tries to coordinate it without too much management control, but enough to manage the risk in a very, very fluid environment.”

He believes that to be the most attractive gigger, you need to see yourself as a little company that offers a range of capabilities and gain exposure to very diverse challenges.

Where does the talent come from?” asks Younger. “Not from traditional means like full-time employment. It’s coming from new avenues which I generally call the freelance revolution.”