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How to Capitalize on Talent With a Distributed Workforce

Michael Mueller
Michael Mueller

Many companies are rethinking how they approach remote working. Here's what you need to know to acquire, lead and retain talent in today's shifting landscape.

  • A company's performance used to be determined by fixed assets, but now it's driven by talent.
  • A competitive labor market coupled with increasing globalization and emerging technologies has created a new possibility: a distributed workforce.
  • This approach is a dynamic database of labor resources that includes employees (e.g., full time, part time, and temporary) and nonemployees (e.g., partners, consultants, retirees, alumni, freelancers, and software).
  • To capitalize on the future of employment, leaders need to brave the new approach, clarify what needs to be done, and coordinate existing and potential talent.

Traditional organizations create staff positions to get work done. The management style of the Industrial Revolution was "command and control" with an emphasis on compliance and consistent manufacturing. Consider Ford Motor Co.: Its assembly line was a fine-tuned process that reduced tasks to their most basic forms. To thrive, businesses needed a structured approach to work.

But to be successful today, leaders need to consider nonobvious strategies. For many companies, performance is driven by strategic thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, innovation, and creativity. These abilities provide value – in other words, talent. Meta skills (or talents) can't be coerced, because the employee chooses when and how much to contribute.

In the knowledge area, we need to prioritize talent and think creatively to draw out employee talent. We've been studying this shift toward distributed workforces, and COVID-19 has only sped up the timeline. Here's what you need to know to acquire, lead and retain talent in today's shifting landscape.

When talent is paramount

High performers are up to eight times more productive than average workers, according to McKinsey & Co. These survey findings are based on a study of 600,000 people across multiple industries. The more complex the jobs, the greater the gap. In highly complex roles such as software development and management, talented workers outperformed average employees by 800%.

Yet even when business leaders recognize talent is a valuable and limited resource, they find it hard to acquire and retain. The same study found that 82% of companies don't think they're recruiting highly talented people and that only 7% think they're capable of keeping the talent they have.

Strategic leaders honor the important role employees play and invest in them and the organization's culture. More and more companies spend resources on the professional development of their employees. In fact, 61% of employees trust their companies to prepare them for the future of work, according to Mercer's Global Talent Trends 2020 report.

Management must adapt to attract and foster relationships with people who can make the most powerful contributions to the company.

Capitalizing on talent with a distributed workforce

This adaptation means rethinking how you approach your workforce. A more competitive labor market, increasing globalization, emerging technologies, and an ongoing pandemic have created a new equilibrium. In this environment, a distributed workforce – wherein a company keeps a database of talent – is the best option for companies.

This pool may include partners, consultants, retirees, alumni and freelancers. Just because work needs to be done doesn't mean that a job must be created. Companies can reduce work to tasks and assign them to the most appropriate labor resource (a particular person who can complete the work).

For example, companies that need articles written or photos taken could rely on freelancers. Companies like Bloomberg and Nintendo work with a variety of specialized talent. But be warned: Don't disguise a full-time job as only a few tasks. In 2019, Epicurious, which is owned by Condé Nast, found itself in hot water after it promoted on Twitter a job opportunity that featured a 40-hour workweek with zero benefits.

The takeaway: Try outsourcing small and medium tasks to a pool of talent, and be forthright about the scope of the work. To capitalize on talent and embrace a more distributed workforce in the COVID-19 era, leaders need to do the following.

Be courageous.

Change can be scary, especially with your business on the line. If it feels like you're risking everything, consider flipping your thinking: It might be time to disrupt yourself before you are disrupted. It doesn't mean you have to take a drastic leap – that won't work for all companies. Instead, try incremental steps to improve your company's performance and profitability.

Choose a pilot program where you experiment with distributed labor. If you're not sure where to start, consider external marketing and communications. In these areas, individuals need a specialized skill set and an established network.

Even Fortune 50 companies partner with other organizations that have specialized skills. VMware, for example, employs technical staff but works with outsourced marketing teams to help craft and execute marketing campaigns. And the Chick-fil-A "Eat Mor Chikin" campaign was not developed by the fast-food chain – it was created by The Richards Group.

Cultivate clarity.

Before you act, be completely clear about what work needs to be done and in what sequence. It's impossible to effectively delegate a task you can't break down and articulate.

Start by breaking down every level of your business. Examine how each task fits into the bigger picture and distill your work into discrete microtasks. Look for opportunities to outsource talent, such as potential skills gaps or people who are overloaded with too many responsibilities. The goal is to gain an accurate understanding of what each person does so you can maximize your resources to find better solutions.

Cultivating clarity ensures that when you work with an outside labor resource, you're able to communicate precisely what you need. Don't wait until you have an outside partnership or contributor to figure out how to explain your responsibilities, messaging and vision.

Coordinate talent.

In general, coordinating tasks among in-house employees is relatively easy. When employees share space or work hours, people fall into a natural rhythm. But now that many of us are working remotely, leaders have been forced to figure out new options.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, an Upwork report indicated that more than 50% of managers wanted to embrace a distributed workforce but that their businesses didn't have remote work policies. Now, 42% more people are working from home, according to a CNBC survey. A new future of employment is upon us.

As a leader, you need to define the new rhythms with distributed work: How often will you communicate with one another? What platform will you use? How will you track progress? How do people ask questions if something comes up? You need a new structure.

As you progress, circumstances will change and unforeseen obstacles will arise. Staying flexible while centered on your vision is the key to solving problems and staying on track. Once you know what tasks need to be done, be flexible about the who, how and when.

The benefits of a distributed workforce

Under a distributed workforce, the number of people you employ aligns with your talent needs. For instance, you might hire an international team of software developers to automate your operations. Or you could partner with a company who already developed the automation software.

When leaders genuinely embrace the concept of a distributed workforce and look outside the company for talent, they yield dynamic results. Some people may resist change, especially those who have been doing work the same way for decades and don’t see a problem with it. But if you lead with confidence, your enthusiasm will spread. An enthusiastic team will be more engaged, inevitably leading to better brainstorms, easily evaluated action steps, and accelerated success.

Forward-thinking businesses are already shifting to a distributed workforce. If this model is new in your industry (or just new to you), there’s no need to revamp your entire organization right away. Start small, be courageous, and cultivate clarity and coordination.

Image Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images
Michael Mueller
Michael Mueller Member
Michael Mueller is the vice president of Aperio Consulting Group, a firm that utilizes workplace analytics and implements research-based strategies to build high-performance cultures. Michael holds a degree in biochemistry and an MBA, and he works at the intersection of neuroscience research and leadership development to translate the latest insights into tools for leaders.