Remote Work

Talent is the customer: Employment in the remote era

by Karen Amundson | July 16, 2020

Everything has changed. The way our kids get their education. The way we eat at restaurants. The way we travel. The way we work. Here’s the thing though—it’s not all bad. At the risk of coming off a bit too glass-half-full, companies are turning to remote work, which opens up new opportunities for all—opportunities that Apiary Digital has been honing for the past 5 years. 

During this time, we’ve uncovered major gaps in how companies utilize talent and technology. Not to mention, underlying assumptions shaping the culture of work that do a disservice to many teams.  It’s not about how to do what you did before, but remote. Nor is it a stack of tools and tips to help you work remotely. It’s a completely new opportunity to rethink how you do business, and how you can better-align talent with business and human needs. 

Throughout this series, we’ll be sharing the ingredients for our secret sauce—for aligning fully remote teams chock-full of top talent to drive extraordinary business performance.

Work is broken for talent—especially top talent. It’s time to reprogram our thinking, approach, and underlying assumptions from which we build talent-employer relationships and opportunities in the remote work era. Start thinking about talent as the customer.

The prevailing assumption in corporate jobs: If they’re paying you the big bucks, they own you, and you’re there to serve the company as it suits them.
A new assumption for the remote work era: Companies offer employment as a service, and top talent is the customer. 

Employment-as-a-service

“Employment-as-a-service” may sound like a SaaSy, cringe-worthy buzzword, but it’s a way of rearchitecting relationships between talent and companies. It’s a foundation for aligning costs and skills to true business needs.

The value proposition of employment

Employment should be viewed as a service companies “sell” to top talentand the “buyers” generally care about these 5 value propositions:

  • Money and financial well-being
  • Having the ability to do what’s important in life outside of work
  • Belonging to a highly effective team
  • Opportunities for professional growth by working on big, challenging problems
  • Aligning work to personal values

The composition of how important these things are is different for everyone. Throughout our careers, and even throughout any given year, we weigh these elements with different degrees of importance.

Depending on what company and team you’re on, the prevailing model of work can deliver quite well on the financial compensation part. Sometimes, it can deliver on the professional development and team-belonging bits, too. But seldom can it deliver on paving the way for doing what’s important outside of work.

Under the prevailing model of work, employment is a largely undifferentiated service. Not only is work set up as if the company owns the employee, but it starts with the assumption that above all else, people value income alone, no matter the trade-offs. 

At various points in our lives and careers, this setup may be exactly what we want and need. Companies absolutely need some employees with the traditional FTE level of engagement to provide strategic continuity to the business. There are absolutely people who value the prevailing mix of benefits. But—let’s suspend disbelief to examine a new hypothesis: 

a) People want access to employment (not to be “owned” by their employer) 

b) People want a dynamic blend of value (not just monetary) to come from employment 

c) Approaching employment as a service is good for business 

Customer personas: Top talent and what they want

Top talent personas - 3

The working parent

The working parent needs a balance of income stability and flexibility to work around kid schedules, but usually within a predictable, consistent pattern. The working parent doesn’t work during school pick-ups/drop-offs and may catch up on work during the weekend. This person would rather work less in the summer when kids are out of school, and more during the school year. The working parent has built a strong, long-standing professional foundation and wants to keep nurturing skills and gaining experience.

The digital nomad

The digital nomad wants big freedom and adventure, but is not willing to sacrifice their career to do so. They prefer to work in big bursts—they’re okay working long hours if it buys them time to cover big chunks of offline time. The digital nomad may work in different, changing time zones. They come with a lot of professional experience and drive, and their lifestyle often inspires them to be adaptable and innovative.

The trailing spouse

At the height of their career, driven, and on a hot professional track, the trailing spouse has to make an extremely difficult decision to follow a partner to another city with limited professional options. They will immediately seek out remote work opportunities to be immersed in learning and growing professionally. A trailing spouse wants new opportunities, income growth, and regular business hours to keep weekends free when their partner is off work.

Other personas

There are many other personas to describe the needs of top talent. At Apiary, we see digital marketers who are athletes needing time and flexibility to train for the Olympics; artists who want to do standup comedy but still need a steady income; entrepreneurs maintaining income and skills while building their customer base; and everything in between. 

A persona we expect will emerge as the next big customer wanting access to employment-as-a-service: Semi-retired baby boomers. We expect this persona will want to utilize their considerable experience, maintain a sense of belonging and professional purpose, but exercise a lot of choice over the types of projects they work on. And, similar to digital nomads, will want to work in bursts to maintain big blocks of time off.  

Structurally Flexible Teams

On the surface, putting these types of people on the same team sounds like a management disaster. Without critical elements like working with the right talent in the first place, and remote-first communication, culture, and operations, it probably would be a complete fail. 

But recall, in the previous blog post, we highlighted that the prevailing setup for work is horribly misaligned between labor and revenue opportunity. Now, consider the possibility of all these different personal preferences overlaid on the business needs. The magic of Structurally Flexible Teams emerges.

Once you understand the business needs and the people needs, you can hire the right people into roles to provide consistency, continuity, and coordination across the year. Then, you layer in those with different preferences to supply top talent at the right time to deliver on the business needs, while aligning cost and revenue opportunity + personal preferences. 

In this scenario, you keep your full-time staff happy because they don’t get overworked or burnt out, and there’s still flexibility to design work around life. They also get relieved of big projects that hamper them from doing strategic thinking. 

With this model well-executed, and assuming you’re paying people hourly, project-based, or some other pay-on-performance model, everyone gets paid for all their contributions, and your CFO is thrilled to tears to see you’ve aligned costs to cash flow. Think about how much less dependent your company will be on outside funding if costs align to cash flow! You can enjoy stronger margins, less dependence on outside sources, and better control over the destiny of the company.

Now, throw something like COVID into the mix and you can see how Structurally Flexible Teams are resilient. The working parents who usually work consistent schedules will be thrown into varying schedules juggling childcare demands. Digital nomads will be grounded, unable to keep traveling and will be ready to pick up more work. People with a balance of different needs personally makes it easier for people to cover for each other in different, dynamic situations. 

To fully benefit from Structurally Flexible Teams, you need more than just the right mix of lifestyles. You need humble, exceptional performers who are adept at remote team work. How to recruit and vette such talent will be the topic of the next blog post.