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Jan 27, 2022

Your employees are emerging from the pandemic with no desire to return to their work life the way it used to be. They are looking for greater choice, more engaging work, and a better balance between work and their personal lives.

Employees have also grown accustomed to greater flexibility. They’re unlikely to return to their pre-pandemic habits and schedules. Change isn’t coming. It’s here.   

Now is the time for companies that want to attract and retain the best talent to allow their employees the freedom to customize their careers in two ways: 

  1. Allow employees to enjoy a better work/life balance by having greater flexibility and choice over their schedules and the pace of their careers. 
  2. Implement an internal gig economy; that means dividing work into projects and then enabling employees to opt-in to them on a part-time basis, even just a few hours a week.  

A Flexible Approach That Improves Work/Life Balance

What does flexibility mean? It might mean an employee working where they want, or at a reduced schedule. It might mean working a customized schedule outside of the traditional consecutive hours, five days per week approach. It might mean a ramping-up period after taking an extended leave (e.g., due to illness). 

Tata Communications shows how flexibility can work. Tata inaugurated the Flexibility at Work and Life Event Assistance Program (LEAP) to support working parents. The company offers six months of paid leave for the primary caregiver of a newborn (irrespective of the employee’s gender). The secondary caregiver is also provided two weeks of paid leave. Tata’s approach allows the individual to integrate themselves with their work as opposed to having only a binary choice between work and family.

The concept of customizing the schedule and pace of career development to attract and retain high-level talent is nothing new. Companies such as Deloitte Consulting LLP, Ernst & Young, and SAS have discovered the value of allowing all employees to craft their own deal. Employees are empowered to make tradeoffs in terms of hours worked, pace of advancement, travel requirements, telecommuting, and type of role.

Creating an Internal Project Marketplace

Flexibility involves not just how you work but what work you do. Thus, some companies are creating an internal market that allows employees to work on projects outside of their typical roles and responsibilities. This internal gig approach provides your people with opportunities to learn, grow, and advance with the company. 

An internal gig marketplace also builds business acumen across functions and levels. As individuals work in different areas of the organization, they gain a broader perspective on the business. And that improves decision-making and outcomes. 

In addition to its LEAP program, Tata Communications has also implemented a project marketplace through which employees can engage in short-term projects. If an employee on leave wanted to do some work to stay engaged, they can do so through this marketplace. It is their choice. 

Tata’s project marketplace also provides a way for employees to transition back to a full-time role more slowly by taking on projects, rather than coming back to their job directly after an extended leave. 

The Internal Gig Economy: A Project-Based World

In the past decade we have seen a huge rise in freelance — or gig — workers. Today almost 60 million people work as freelancers. Research tells us that individuals engage in gig work because, among other positives, it provides them with flexibility, diversity and choice in the work that they do. Similarly, internal gigs create learning opportunities for employees and build more resilient careers.

This trend toward a project-based gig economy reflects the reality that our traditional job structures were born out of the industrial era when tasks were steady and predictable. Today, most of our work is knowledge work, and this type of work is naturally organized into projects. 

By disaggregating work into a series of projects and allowing employees to opt in to them, internal gigs improve the employee’s experience because they offer one or all of the following benefits:

  • They allow employees to use skills they have but don’t use in their usual job.
  • They enable them to work on projects that speak to their passions or interests. 
  • The employee is curious and wants to grow and learn in a new part of the business. 

Internal Gigs: How Do They Work?

Internal gigs are typically short-term, well-defined projects that may occupy between 5% and 10% percent, but not more than 20%, of an employee’s time. An inside gig does not mean leaving one’s usual job to take on another. It means giving some hours per week to a project where employees can learn, grow, and use a talent that engages them. 

Some companies offer internal gigs as a developmental experience on top of one’s day job. A more advanced idea in the same vein is to allow employees to work with managers to think about their work as a series of projects. Then, managers and the employee can work together to determine if some projects (or meetings) no longer add value and can be eliminated; or if a project might make a great development opportunity for someone else; or if a project is a source of job dissatisfaction because it is not the employee’s strength.  

With this lens, a manager can help shift projects around so that employees are operating at their maximum value to the organization. The measurable dimension here is time: optimizing the time each employee spends and the type of work they engage in to produce the maximum possible value.

Where to Start

The first step is to create an opportunity and a space for managers to post projects where they need talent and can leverage it within the company. Given that there is a talent shortage, recruiters might not be able to fill full-time roles quickly. If they’re able to break the roles into projects, offered to people who already work for your company, critical projects can move forward.

Then, allow employees who are struggling with work-life balance issues to customize their experience by ramping up or down. Leverage the internal talent marketplace you have created to allow more flexibility at work.

In practice, an internal gig approach might start as a voluntary, pilot program where individuals can opt in to a new project that interests them. No one has to take on a project, but those who are interested may.

These steps are just a start toward creating a more agile environment that allows individuals to work in ways that meet their personal and professional needs.

Flexible, Customizable Roles Are Here For Good

Sixty-nine percent of U.S. companies don’t have the talent they need to execute on their business strategy. Unfortunately, these talent shortages are here to stay. It’s going to become much more difficult to hire your way out of the skill gaps you have. 

The wiser solution, then, is to build internal capability and to retain existing talent by customizing the employee experience. With this strategy, you improve performance, upskill the existing workforce, while playing into employees’ desire to learn and grow. 

Coming out of the pandemic, greater career flexibility is what employees are going to not only want, but increasingly demand. Since talent shortages make it a seller’s market, now is the time to shift your mental models and then act. Because that “new normal” you’ve heard about? It’s already here.  

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