Is New Workplace Technology Making Us All Consultants?

Josh Spilker

Stop me if you’ve heard this before–workers are more transient, the economy is more reliant on contingent or contract workers than ever before and CEOs want to flatten their organizations.

One thing the trend pieces won’t tell you is what to do about it. They like to mention that’s happening, but how do you cope with it? As a CEO or a division head or a mid-level manager, is there anything you can really do?

Here are your options:

Ignore It. Yeah, sure not everyone will want to work this way and your company has succeeded without it. The problem is, it’s not just millennials that want to work from home–it’s baby boomers and GenX too. What this means is that if your competitors allow flex-time or remote options, you’ll be left behind from getting the most talented workforce.

Embrace It. The next option is to go all-in with a distributed workforce. Many companies are doing this successfully, even if their workforce is spread out across the globe. In reality, this doesn’t sound like too wild of an idea–large corporations have huge offices across the world. The only difference may be in the day-to-day. Usually those offices aren’t working directly for long periods of time with their counterparts a thousand miles away. But to move a company to all-remote team requires a lot of effort and patience and the development of new habits.

Blend It. An obvious answer may be to hire some remote employees and some local employees. This is how the team at Workzone is composed. It takes a lot of intentionality and the embrace of modern tools to make it happen. One thing that has helped in this regard is that Workzone has a generous work-at-home policy, meaning that local employees are only in the office a few days a week anyway. It’s almost like we’re all remote. Then we intentionally host gatherings every few months to bring everyone together.

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The Software Makes It Possible

A major advance in the last five to ten years is that with more cloud-based technologies, the software has become faster and more usable. The watercooler and cubicle banter have been replaced with instant conversations in Slack and HipChat, with just more GIFs. Contractors and remote workers can log and track their time, managers can see the number of hours work and quickly review their work or deliverables in a project management system like Basecamp or Workzone. Sales teams can use their CRM to file updates and activity reports on the latest phone conversations, and video conferencing via the large teleconference systems or Google Hangouts. Peering through the office door to see who is doing what is outdated, impossible and ultimately unnecessary, especially if the results speak (positively or negatively) for themselves.

Everyone Becomes A Consultant

However, the question may no longer be about working for a company from home or in the office–but whether you want to work for a company at all. We could all become consultants. Not everyone wants this dream or lifestyle, and prefer the comfort of knowing where your next paycheck will come from each month. But the evolution of this trend is not only for Lyft drivers, AirBnB mavens or TaskRabbits. Consulting is a nebulous term, at once referred to some of the largest management companies in the U.S. (who often work away from home and their home office, by the way), but with services like Upwork, it’s connecting freelancers and contractors to a larger pool of employers. The trend very well could extend to the fields that we take for granted, especially as we become even more friendly and knowledgeable about our competition.

We already know that the big social media companies are angling for talent and are watching these employees jump from one to another, especially as the companies go public and the stock options are gone. There’s no reason why that trend won’t continue to trickle down.

Relationships over Non-Competes

One sticking point to everyone becoming a consultant are the non-competes and the non-disclosure agreements. These are great in theory, as they protect the company’s intellectual property and interests with contractors. But if you sign a non-compete with a company and your main supervisor happens to also be a contractor, there will be nothing stopping either of you from giving each other work at the next company one of you happens to work for.

In contract and consultant work, the relationships will bear fruit over a long period of time, and will often be more reliable and faithful than any company has the capacity to be.

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What Does All This Mean?

In a sense, that entrepreneurial / consultant model built on relationships coupled with valuable skills seems like a quaint return to the past, where business was done with a handshake and a couple of drinks. The only difference now is that you may be physically separated from those people, but that doesn’t make the relationship any less valuable.

 Let’s take a step back and think about how company leadership has to deal with these changes. If you have consultants with specific skills bouncing in and out of your workflow, then your processes and projects will have to be sharper than ever before. Project management is even more important, because the details and specifics will matter even more.

New consultants won’t quickly be integrated into company culture or be able to ask their colleague, because each person will be just as new and fresh to the company as the next one. No longer can a manager hire an employee and hope they’ll be absorbed into the daily office life. No colleagues can give the the real scoop. They’ll be just as clueless.

Routines, tasks and deliverables will need to be listed more specifically, so just about anyone with the right knowledge and skills can jump in and complete them

That seems counterintuitive at first–after all, you are hiring a talented and knowledgeable consultant to complete work that you don’t know how to do or have time to do. But they will still need onboarding and specific project reporting to make it happen.

As your organization becomes more fluid with talent, your culture and structure will have to be more rigid in the way it directs guidelines, goals and processes through its project management and communication.