The Agile Workforce, Part 1: How Companies Can Thrive in the Future of Work

By Greg Kihlström

This article was originally posted on The Agile World blog

Part 1: What is the agile workforce and who does it consist of?

Let’s start at the beginning. The agile workforce is the term I use to describe the continually evolving hybrid set of workers that make up a company’s team. While some are employees, there are other types of workers in the mix, and I even include our friends the robots or automations. Together, all of these things make up a hybrid workforce that is building the future of work.

Now, let’s explore the different types of team members that make up the agile workforce.


This first group is often what is referred to as “employees” when talking about the workforce at large. By employees, we mean (here in the United States) that they are W-2 workers, with federal and state taxes withheld. Full-time employees, or those working 35 hours or more, make up approximately 83.5% of employees, and part time are about 16.5% of this group, though this fluctuates, with that number going as high as 20% in 2010, and as low as 13.5% in 1968.

Some members of this group have had massive disruption during COVID-19 times, whether they had to switch to temporary remote or partial-remote work, or if they continued to work on the front lines during the pandemic. 


You can think of this next group as a subset of the last one, but with one big distinction. These individuals work at least part of the time remotely. In some cases, they work 100% remote, and aren’t even able to come into the office without a considerable amount of time and expense.

While some within this group had already been working remotely, many others are part of the 80% of companies a Gartner survey found that plan to allow their employees to work at least partially remote. To add to this, 65% of respondents in a Flexjobs survey said they want to be full-time remote after the pandemic, with 31% wanting at least a partial remote work setup. Yes, that means 96% of those surveyed want some type of remote work.

How do companies feel about this? While some organizations and industries simply can’t perform their work with remote employees, research has shown that productivity can be boosted by 35-40% for those working remotely, and job satisfaction is increased versus in-office employees, 57% to 50%.


The numbers can get  a little hard to follow here, so I’ll clarify the earlier figures for employment. When we talk about independent contractors, these are not “employees” but instead they are (again, here in the United States), 1099 contractors, who are responsible for paying their own federal, state, and local taxes. While estimates range depending on the source, roughly 35% of the United States workforce (including employees and contractors) engage in some type of contracting or freelance work. This figure includes some people who are also full- or part-time W-2 employees.  This group is growing quickly, and is estimated to be roughly 50% of the U.S. workforce by 2027.

Similar to remote employees, not every company or industry is able to utilize the freelance economy in the same way, but most industries are finding that this shift to a more independent workforce has the power to disrupt industries as diverse as the taxi industry, to healthcare, and beyond.


As you can see, not all of the workers in the agile workforce are people! I feel it necessary to bring automation, whether it is artificial intelligence, robotics, or any other type of automated workers. And unlike some doomsayers out there, I don’t believe that the robots are coming for all of our jobs, though I do believe that work as we know it is going to look very different in as little as five to ten years. 

There are many industries and jobs that seem like natural fits for automation, including any repetitive task, or one in which there are many details which human error can complicate. Automation is and will continue to increase its usage in fields like marketing, software engineering, law, healthcare, and more.

There is an interesting upside for those willing to take a small leap in the short term. Globalization has decreased the cost of many services like software development, graphic design, and any work that can be performed remotely and offshore in an area where the hourly rates and cost of living are less than the hiring location.  When automation is introduced into this scenario, suddenly the cost benefits of outsourcing start to disappear, because the time saved by automated processes no longer needs to be paid at any hourly rate, high or low.

Take the manufacturing industry, for instance.  Justin Rose of BCG recently said, “Sixty percent or more of the tasks in a factory can be potentially automated. Therefore, over the long term, the advantage from being a low cost country starts to go away.” In this way, automation helps the more advanced economies with higher paid workers more than it does the less advanced economies. It provides a path for a higher-paid workforce to perform some advanced tasks while automation performs the rest.

Together, all of these types of workers make up the agile workforce. Most companies will find that they need a mix of all of these types of employees, contractors, and automation to do their best work. Each organization will need to plan and understand the best mix in order to be successful.

In the next article in this series, I’m going to explore some broad concepts of how organizations can be successful in the future of work. These can be applied at the organizational level and can apply to how systems, processes, and projects are approached.

You can read more about all of these topics and more in Greg Kihlström’s book book, The Agile Workforce, available in print and digital versions.