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Sadie Sharp

Sharp Transformations Limited

Transformation Consultant

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Onboarding in the flexible labour force era: is HR missing a trick?


Onboarding new employees into an organisation is now common practice. But what about the ever-growing flexible labour force? How do we ensure our approach enables these atypical workers to succeed? A new era of onboarding has arrived, and HR needs to adapt…

The Cambridge dictionary defines onboarding as “the process in which new employees gain the knowledge and skills they need to become effective members of an organisation.” This seems clear enough on first glance, but there’s one big problem with this definition…

…our organisations are no longer wholly reliant upon EMPLOYEES as the sole source of their labour force.

In today’s economy, our organisations are ever more reliant upon a ‘flexible’ labour force. Exactly who constitutes an ‘employee’ is no longer crystal clear (nor, some would say, as critically important).

Those who may not be an employee are still making a critical contribution to our organisations, so exactly who should we be onboarding, and how can we ensure our practices keep up with the impact that these ‘atypical workers’ are having on our organisations?

VUCA and the flexible labour force

Most of us will probably have heard of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous) landscape that organisations are having to respond to these days. And we seem to be responding well, with the Department for Innovation, Business & Skills Employment Status Review saying that “the UK labour market is one of the most flexible in the world”.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey in February 2017 stated that there were around 32 million people in the UK labour force, with just over 26 million considering themselves to be ‘employees’ and the rest ‘self-employed’.

The atypical workforce is growing

However, the use of ‘atypical’ working arrangements is rapidly expanding and blurring the line between these different forms of labour.

Our early adoption of part time working has diversified into a myriad of practices including flexible contracts, zero hours working, fixed term contracts, agency and casual labour, interim, freelancers, contractors, consultants and the more recent inclusion of the gig economy workers, to name but a few.

Without onboarding our expanding flexible labour force, we run the risk of our competitive (people) advantage becoming something akin to herding cats.

It’s impossible to provide an exact measure of how many people fall into these categories due to the continually evolving legal definitions of employee, worker and self-employed status. But the ONS Trends in Self Employment 2015 report indicates that if you put these arrangements at either end of a spectrum, with ‘typical’ / employee status at one end, and ‘atypical’ / self-employed at the other end, the marker is moving ever closer towards the ‘atypical’ working arrangements end of the spectrum.

Onboarding today

Onboarding is widely accepted as having benefits in a number of different areas, including increased employee engagement, improved retention, and greater cultural and behavioural alignment. It is also said to reduce the time it takes for someone to reach competence when starting with a new organisation.

Yet the concept of onboarding is predicated on the assumption that once you’re onboarded, that’s it… you’re in… your engagement with the organisation from that point onwards will be regular and structured. And thus the onboarding is usually a one-time, front-loaded activity.

Labour force alignment: a widening gap

So if our labour force practices are becoming ever more flexible (regardless of legal status), yet our onboarding activities are still focused on ‘traditional’ employment arrangements, this means that there is a widening gap in our labour force alignment.

Those people that are enabling our organisations to be more adaptable and keep up with continually shifting requirements are potentially doing so in a way that isn’t benchmarked against ‘what good looks like’ for our organisations.

In essence, without onboarding our expanding flexible labour force, we run the risk of our competitive (people) advantage becoming something akin to herding cats.

The new age of onboarding

Onboarding, in its traditional form, is still valid for the majority of people that work within our organisations. However, the era of the flexible labour force is requiring our onboarding practices to evolve to close the gap in workforce alignment, so here are my 3 top tips for the new age of onboarding:

1. Contractor or customer?

If you want to use the most highly skilled people, they will be in demand. We need to recognise that when ‘atypical’ or extended workers have a choice of who they work with, the ‘employment’ relationship becomes a truly two-way process.

Flexible labour will prioritise working for companies and people that they like working for, so focus your onboarding activities on building a relationship with them and getting to know them… but don’t stop there!

It’s time we unlearnt what we think we know about best practice HR and start re-imagining new ways of working.

If they only ever hear from you when you want something, they won’t have any reason to prioritise your request above any others. So make them feel like part of the team by using ‘keeping in touch’ methods such as newsletters, networking events and relationship management activities that build loyalty to your brand, just like you would with a customer.

Know what motivates them and build your contract around that – it’s time we extended the concept of ‘employer of choice’ to ‘contract of choice’ and include retention and engagement practices for our extended workforce.

2. Onboarding to ‘forever-boarding’

Looking at onboarding as a front-loaded, one-time activity can work well with more traditional employment arrangements. But with the pace of organisational change ever increasing, and the flexible labour force model essentially disengaging and then re-engaging when needed at a later date, there is a need to ensure that expectations are still being met.

With employees, we would continually be talking about performance, but this area is commonly avoided with flexible labour in fear of it blurring the employment status.

However, when you are part of the flexible labour force, you are overly conscious that ‘you are only as good as your last gig’, and the opportunity to receive feedback and stretch is mutually beneficial. So consider evolving your onboarding activities to more of a ‘forever-boarding’ approach where you are regularly having conversations about standards, expectations and performance.

After all – you don’t need to have an employment contract to be motivated by positive feedback.

3. Tiered onboarding

If an employee leaves, and then comes back after a period of time out of the workplace, most organisations would re-onboard them by re-running induction or probation activities with them.

With your flexible labour force switching on and off as needed, there is a distinct possibility that some time may well pass between their periods of engagement with you, and things within the organisation will have changed.

However, it’s unlikely that you will need to revisit everything, so consider organising your onboarding points into ‘tiers’, where the organisation basics like culture, style and expectations etc are covered up front, but will probably remain unchanged at a later date, and thus are not revisited.

Whereas more transactional factors such as systems, templates or people contacts will probably need updating regularly, so try and systemise these updates so that you can be easily communicated with and avoid logistical issues that can damage your reciprocal working relationship.

With the range of flexible labour force practices continually widening, and our reliance upon non-standard employment relationships increasing, it’s time we unlearnt what we think we know about best practice HR and start re-imagining new ways of working with the people that deliver our source of competitive advantage.

Author Profile Picture
Sadie Sharp

Transformation Consultant

Read more from Sadie Sharp

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