A future where companies have more freelancers than permanent staff has long been predicted by folks like Forbes contributor Jon Younger, Ph.D., a writer and advisor to HR tech startups. In fact, companies like Google are already there, he says. In his work, Jon helps envision how workforce changes will affect employees and the human-resources function once companies scale. I had the opportunity to chat with Jon recently about the emerging implications of this new paradigm for businesses and employees. Here are a few of the top takeaways from that conversation.
1. The employee base will look very different when companies begin to scale.
Imagine an organization staffed almost entirely by freelancers. A few years ago, Accenture predicted that, other than the C-suite, a Fortune 500 company would be entirely staffed by freelancers. Whether or not that scenario is realized, many organizations are drawing closer; Google, for example, now has more freelancers than full-time employees. So does Apple. In a recent Forbes article, I described outstanding businesses that had few or no full-time employees.
2. For employees, keeping skills up to date is key.
Instead of getting nervous or fearful about it, understand that it is happening and prepare. And, of course, keep your own skills up. I recently wrote about how employees can skill-proof their careers the way that top freelancers do. We know from research that the “half-life” of expertise is shrinking. For example, the half-life for engineers is 2.5 to 3 years. Freelancers get it. They have to go out there every day and sell themselves and do the work, so they are more attuned to the need to keep their skills up to date. Employees typically are less focused on remaining technically up to date for several reasons: for many, their career ambition turns from technical to managerial, so they shift their focus away from remaining technically strong. But that’s a mistake. In the final analysis, whether you’re full-time corporate or not, technical or not, you must anticipate a future that is different from today and requires change in your skill set—quantitatively and qualitatively—and plan accordingly.
3. Worker rights and classification issues aren’t going away.
This is a thorny and important issue. No one should feel comfortable accepting the exploitation of gigsters by companies hiding behind a false “contractor” status. But it’s also important to differentiate between freelancers and gigsters. Freelancers are independent professionals or experts doing specialized work and generally not looking for the protections of full-time work; they’ve chosen to be independent. It would be a mistake to paint both groups with the same brush.
Gigsters are folks who don’t have the protection of a skill set or the credentials that freelancers do. A gigster is a person who has multiple side hustles, like the Uber driver, who may also be doing two or three other things. I am very worried for gigsters because we have not done what we need to do to protect them, including paying them enough to earn a living wage or save for retirement or a rainy day.
4. Companies can create enlightened blended workplaces.
We’re seeing so much experimentation these days, along with a good deal of churn around how to incorporate freelancers into what some of us describe as the “flexible, blended workforce.” Some companies are really embedding freelancers into the fabric of their organizations and treating them well. For example, I was the half-time chief talent and learning officer for a top-10 US bank, and I was included in the bonus and stock-option programs. Other organizations are still hesitant to engage with freelancers for fear of liability, which in some cases is kind of ridiculous. HR is working this out, but I look forward to more companies truly welcoming freelancers. After all, they are performing important work.
5. Respect, inclusivity and communication are paramount, as always.
Employees need to know that freelancers aren’t their enemies or secretly competing for their full-time job. Openly address the big concerns: Is my job at risk? Can we work together? Can I trust my freelance colleagues to support me when I need their help? The future workforce blends internal and external professionals working together as part of a flexible whole. The best way to incent and reinforce the commitment of internal employees is, in the final analysis, to do what we know we should do: Pay people fairly, provide them with opportunity for growth and development, manage them respectfully and inclusively, communicate honestly, and direct the organization to contribute positively and ethically. These fundamentals haven’t changed.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Forbes.