Portfolio working: an employment model fit for purpose?

Written by
David Knight

24 Mar 2015

24 Mar 2015 • by David Knight

Dealing with workforce pressures

The sharp rise in workers hired on zero-hour contracts that guarantee no minimum hours of work or pay is a concerning trend, demonstrating the continued financial pressure on employers.

Even with economic growth, firms are increasingly resorting to temporary work contracts or just demanding more work from fewer people. This creates job insecurity and pushes down wages.

The time is ripe for a new and innovative employment model that addresses business needs and is socially acceptable and sustainable. Portfolio working could be that model. 

The rise of the portfolio worker

A nascent form of employment most commonly seen among non-exec directors, portfolio workers differ from freelancers by having contracts in place with a number of different companies simultaneously, with a guaranteed number of hours of work from all during any given period of time.

Our latest future workforce research shows there is certainly appetite from the boardroom for more flexible working models. Of the business leaders surveyed, 63% felt that portfolio workers will gain mainstream commercial acceptance within the next ten years. Yet, those responsible for hiring them – in HR – are less convinced, with just 50% suggesting portfolio workers will be an acceptable face in business. 

Will it catch on?

A recent survey of executive boards, HR directors and recent graduates showed that there is a need for organisations' management teams to be able to switch their workforce 'on and off' in line with demand, without incurring financial liability.

Some 57% of HR directors and 65% of c-suite executives said a well articulated and effective portfolio worker strategy could be a source of competitive advantage within the talent market. 

Not a freelancer

The need for workforce agility is being driven by the unpredictable nature of the market and increasing competition.

It’s telling that the business leaders interviewed did not even seem to be familiar with the concept of portfolio working, even though it’s a term that's been around for a while.

Just over a third (35%) of Generation Y respondents understood the term ‘portfolio workers’ but 78% felt that they were simply freelancers by another name, as did three quarters of senior executives (76%) and older respondents (74%).

The freelance model has always been about plugging in additional capacity on an ad hoc basis and often at premium rates that are typically higher than those of permanent employees. But this has the potential of creating resentment across the wider workforce.

The portfolio working approach is a far more commercial and socially beneficial option, but it seems UK plc is still a way off recognising and offering this employment model. 

Steps to success

For the trend to establish, HR directors (51%) agreed the biggest challenge is not enough employers offering the portfolio worker option. Client confidentiality and fears over loss of intellectual property were also high on the list for business leaders, with 46% of the c-suite saying it was their biggest concern and 51% of HRDs saying it was second from top.

For this system to work, employees need to be able to build up an acceptable personal portfolio of jobs meaning that a broad employer footprint is needed. Scale will be vital to moving a good idea into accepted convention. And with concerns over confidentiality and IP, sensible gov ernance is needed in constructing the framework to enable portfolio working to be established, along with a regulatory environment that balances employee safeguards with workforce innovation.

The research suggests organisations are willing to take up the challenge and it could generate a snowball effect. We may see the portfolio worker mindset being adopted at pace which could lead to interesting times ahead.

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