“What doesn’t bend breaks” – Ani DiFranco, Buildings & Bridges
The days of every employee being full-time, in the office daily are gone. Today’s layered workforce brings together full-time, part-time, and contract employees in the real-world and in virtual spaces across every level of experience. It’s difficult to manage the needs, desires, concerns, and tensions of a single human being—let alone such a varied team. But, I am going to share with you the ways embracing the new layered workforce model helped me find opportunities for my business.
In 2010, after nearly two decades working in agency public relations, I started my own company. My vision was that we would focus on securing and working on “passion projects”—meaning, if we didn’t have a team member who wanted to champion the account, we would simply pass. That may sound idealistic but it worked.
The client POV: A transparently-layered team
Using passion as our criteria for partnership also set us up for something I would recommend everyone work for as they lead their layered team to success—transparency. Starting out our client relationships with clarity on who they’d work with—from a full-time senior manager and a whip-smart newcomer to the industry to key remote contractors and part-time staff that would supplement the team’s work—allowed us to both set the stage that: a) we staffed all accounts with layered teams and b) the team may evolve over time but we would always do it with the same information, transparency, and honesty as we did up front. And that we would always lead with passion for their project.
The Team POV: Work on what you love
Beyond being great for setting expectations, this approach led to a happier team. People knew they would primarily work on projects they loved. That knowledge sparked their natural drive to win and transformed them into evangelists of the companies they serviced—both within our team and out in the world at large. Ensuring that everyone in your layered workforce—whether a long-term hire, full-time team member, or a new specialist contractor—loves what they do is essential to the success of your business. This inevitably leads to happy employees, satisfied customers, a culture of commitment, and a wonderful place for the professionals in your orbit to grow and learn.
Why clients crave seniority, and how to articulate the value of layers instead
It’s common for an executive to say they want the most senior person on the case at all times. And for the executive to want their senior contact to never change.
It’s your job to explain, from the initial contract stage, why this isn’t how you work, and why the layered workforce approach makes more sense. Giving our client insight into the specific roles of the various levels of people on the team made them see that part of our strategic value was finding the right resource, to do the right thing, at the right price. This was best for the client and best for us as we grew our company. The fact is that many agencies were doing this kind of layered approach behind the scenes, as though it were something to keep from the client. When we transparently instituted the structure that moved beyond the hierarchy of old, we championed more of an apprentice model to develop a new generation.
Motivating the next generation
Ambitious staff members are often eager to jump quickly from level to level but you do them and their careers a disservice if you don’t ensure that they are mentored by fellow team members with various levels of seniority. Integrating knowledge and skills building goals into their first year, particularly, will result in a stronger and happier team member. Look to the person just beyond them in seniority to jump into the trenches and get hands-on by showing them how to do key tactics of the job. Jump another level and get that team member to help them understand early how their role may evolve as their career grows. And, finally, jump one more level and let them listen in on calls to get some perspective on how a confident professional at that level sounds. Meanwhile, figure out what skills or aptitudes they bring to the table that they can share with their team members at every seniority level.
Taking an active role in setting newcomers on the path for a successful career creates value to your team, increases their likelihood of tenure with your company, and helps your company build a reputation as a place with strong career growth where stars are made.
Dodging the Great Resignation
That reputation will bring you the talent options that will be critical to success in a post-COVID world. You’ll need to recruit full-time and have an arsenal of proven contractors at the ready. The era of the part-time office worker is coming on fast. While part-time workers have historically not been the norm in corporate office settings, COVID talent shortages will come with companies trying new structures and employees demanding that their work life needs to fit into their personal life, not the other way around.
Take the time to think about how this new, variable workforce can work best for your company and build a place where your team is stoked to work, regardless of tax status or hours worked. Build a dream team vision board—how might the ideal scenario look? How will it not only help your business survive but allow for individual and organizational growth? Once you have sketched out your vision, look at it from the other side. What risks does your approach pose to how you do business? Can you think of any negatives from your customers’ perspectives? Don’t let these red flags stop you, just consider how you can mitigate the risks you’ve identified.
How remote work fits in this model
The most prominent trend associated with the new layered workforce is the drive toward remote work. In the next decade, we’ll see employee preferences (and expectations) range from fully remote to fully in-office, depending on what fits with their life and career-stage.
In my last chief marketing officer role, I led a fully-remote team—in fact, during the year and a half I worked with them, I only met one of my three core team members in person. The advances in online meeting and remote work technologies made it easy to get to know one another to the point where we felt super close, like people who had worked in the same physical space forever (in fact, we’d have dreams that involved each other and laugh the next day about not even being sure how tall someone really is).
Technology tools can’t do all the heavy lifting
Technology and connectivity provide the tools, but you need to ensure your team will do the work at every level. This ranges from leadership taking an active interest in the real-world stresses impacting the team to creating programs that strengthen personal connections. For example, we set up a Slack-bot to do virtual matchmaking across the company to prompt short chats between people who may have worked together for years but never connected. Something as simple as setting up a Zoom trivia night or sending a small, physical gift to an employee can break that technology wall and remind us all that we’re genuinely connected.
The layered workforce is here to stay and we’ll all be dealing with more nuance and, yes, complexity, as future generations build workplaces that work for them. Building genuine connections with your team, customers, and community will help you create the type of company in which people feel ownership. And that ownership will bring them to the table to help you evolve as the world continues to do the same around you.
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