Why Ottawa HR leaders need to recognize the free agent economy’s potential

Editor's Note

This article first appeared in the spring edition of HR Update.

When music superstar Taylor Swift’s record label contract ended in 2018, she became, for a month or so, one of her industry’s rarest of commodities: a free agent at the top of her game. Swift capably wielded her newfound free agency hammer to pick and choose her label, ultimately negotiating a historic record deal with plenty of concessions from her new label.  

Somewhat similarly, actors in Hollywood now largely work on a free agent model – as opposed to the more rigid studio model of years past – where they are free to take assignments from multiple studios based on their talents and preferences, instead of being locked down.

Most of us don’t have the leverage to negotiate multimillion-dollar contracts for ourselves. But the Swift and Hollywood examples are vivid displays of the power of free agency, both for workers and organizations increasingly confronted with a growing cadre of professional talent not willing to be tied to just one entity. These workers know they can earn the same or more money while picking and choosing their assignments. And it’s projected that by 2027, most U.S. workers will be contractors – a great many of them by choice, according to a survey by freelance platform Upwork.

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Free agency pressure isn’t just coming from workers. In today’s turbulent and disruptive business environment, many organizations are also facing atypical business needs requiring more flexible ways of acquiring and using the right talent with the right skills at the right time.

Beyond the gig economy

At this point, we’ve all heard of the growing importance of the gig economy. It typically springs to mind images of lower-paid workers selling their services on digital gig platforms such as Uber, Lyft or Fiverr. But there’s also a higher end to this economy – call it the “free agent economy” – comprised of well-qualified, specialized and experienced professionals attracted to being independents rather than a traditional employee.

This free agency economy is powerful and growing. According to numbers from asset management firm T. Rowe Price, there are now twice as many free agents earning in excess of $250,000 than traditional employees. The numbers are at 50-50 for the $150,000-to-$250,000 segment. This means that to engage top talent, organizations must be increasingly willing to colour outside the lines and be more open to non-traditional employment arrangements.

But here’s the thing: When organizations currently engage free agents, HR is rarely involved. Free agency arrangements with many organizations typically shake out as a one-on-one arrangement between free agent and hiring manager. And when HR is involved, it’s rarely to help the hiring manager find top free agent talent – usually it’s to ensure the required paperwork gets signed off.

And that’s not an accident. The current HR toolkit is almost entirely based on the concept of a predictable, plannable work environment where work changes slowly – if at all. It’s hard to think of a single HR-based policy, process or procedure that doesn’t add rigidity to an organization. And that rigidity is anathema to the flexibility required for dealing with free agents.

As free agency grows in importance both for organizations and for the overall economy, and as organizations look for the best talent for the right project at the right time, HR must begin to adapt its policies and thinking.

Ottawa’s economy has always been relatively consultant-heavy, and may have a leg up compared to other jurisdictions in this regard. Because even the federal government – not exactly known as an organization able to pivot on a dime – has begun embracing the free agent model with its Canada’s Free Agents program, launched in 2016. It gives public servants the chance to pick and choose work that suits them on an ongoing basis.

And while the participants of Canada’s Free Agents make up a relatively small group compared with the 100,000-plus total public servants in this town, it shows the government is at least aware, listening and preparing for the coming shift.

So why aren’t you and your organization?

Jim Donnelly is a former journalist and technology company director turned content and digital marketing free agent.

Tim Ragan is a long-standing free agent who wears various hats as a consultant, facilitator, coach, researcher, business owner, investor, educator and toolkit builder.

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