2018: The Year of the Flexible Workforce

Flexible work schedules have been around for decades, at least since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking data for them in 1985. However, 2018 may be the year that the topic of workplace flexibility finally crosses into mainstream awareness.

In the last 12–18 months, there has been a definite uptick in attention given by the media and employers to the desire of workers to have more flexibility around their work hours, work remotely, or employment status. New industry research supports the need for workplace flexibility, too.

This heightened focus on flexibility may be based on employers having to cope with candidates and employees who have more negotiating power due to the low unemployment rate or the ongoing shortage of skilled workers. This emerging trend reflects a larger shift in the way businesses hire and workers earn a living.

A recent special series on National Public Radio (NPR) entitled “The Rise of the Contract Workers” highlighted new realities surrounding the American workforce. One interesting observation from the week-long series includes NPR/Marist poll results that indicate one in five jobs in America is held by a contract worker.

Add to this an increasing number of “free agent” workers who work independently for themselves rather than for a single employer, including self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors and temporary workers. In 2016, according to industry reports, 50 million free agents comprised 33 percent of the country’s workforce, up from 31 percent in 2015. In a CNN Money May 2017 article, Intuit CEO Brad Smith expects that number to grow to 43 percent by 2020.

While Millennials are generally regarded as the primary driver of this shift toward free agent working, the trend spans all generations, including Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who are later in their careers or at retirement age.

Several factors affect this growing number of contract or free agent workers. First, they want better work-life balance with a key component being the ability to work remotely. Mobile and videoconferencing technology coupled with generally abundant 4G WiFi networks means that telecommuting has become much more reliable. Also, it’s never been easier to find a job. Sites like FlexJobs specialize in helping people find remote, part-time or freelance positions, and even distribute an annual list of companies with the highest number of part-time or remote openings to help job seekers find flexible work.

Second, some workers want a full-time position, but on their schedule. A recent study from Orem‑based Jive Communications found that 37 percent of millennials said having a job with flexible hours is “essential,” and a quarter of those polled have been unhappy—and even quit a job—because they did not have the option for a flexible work schedule. Furthermore, nearly one-third (32 percent) of millennials indicated they would be put off if a company did not allow or enable effective remote working.

Third, for those workers who value their time or bill it at a premium hourly rate, they can increase their earning potential by working as a free agent. Related to this are employees who “stitch together” multiple free agent jobs to reach full-time or higher equivalent pay. From the NPR/Marist poll, 30 percent of Americans do something else for pay in addition to their full-time jobs.

The rise in workers’ desire for flexibility will shape how organizations and their hiring managers plan for and carry out their talent acquisition in two critical areas: recruitment and culture.

Regarding recruitment, employers will need to address if and how they incorporate flexible work schedules and telecommuting into their workplace or risk losing candidates and possibly current workers for whom these accommodations are a requirement. Implementing a telecommuting policy will have implications on workplace culture and job function as well as entail technology upgrades and support. If handled properly, though, it can have a very positive impact on employee morale and building a strong workplace culture. With both recruitment and culture, a third-party human resources consultant may help the process.

Employers must balance the offering of flexible work schedules with the day-to-day operations of their business. For some companies, it may not be an option. For many others, though, it can be a true differentiator in recruiting or retaining talent. Workplace flexibility builds trust with employees, strengthens productivity and promotes wellness. A study of more than 19,000 employees at nine companies by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College showed that stress and burnout were lower among workers who had workplace flexibility.

Workplace flexibility is here to stay, and this is the year that many organizations will revisit their hiring practices to ensure they integrate contract or free agent workers into their employment mix and provide flexible work hours. Ultimately, those organizations that embrace this shift will be the market winners in recruiting and retaining top talent.

Susan Hornbuckle is the Utah territory vice president for Kelly Services. She oversees the staffing and business solutions operations for Kelly throughout the state, with a focus on staffing for accounting and finance, administrative, aerospace and defense, education, engineering, information technology, light industrial and manufacturing, and more. Connect with Susan at


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