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Employment 13 Oct 2021

Liquid work: total flexibility comes to the office

Working hours that suit the individual, the ability to operate from anywhere in the world, breaking with traditional hierarchical structures and constant renewal to respond to the needs of the market. This is liquid work - a model that puts individual talent at the heart of activities.

Does the concept of liquid best define the times in which we are living? This is what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman believed. In the year 2000 he coined the idea of "liquid modernity" to refer to a changing reality, marked by uncertainty and where temporariness is the norm.

In this paradigm shift where traditional formats are being challenged and some values previously considered central are less and less important, the working environment is no exception. In an increasingly demanding market, where digitisation encourages new challenges that require a specialised response, there is a clear need for structures that are sufficiently flexible to undergo constant transformation. It's time for liquid work.

The right talent at the right time

Liquid work - also known as "fluid work" - can be defined as a model that allows companies to have the talent that best meets the needs of their business activities at all times. For their part, workers have much more active roles in which they are not limited by their position within a company, but are able to move between companies, departments and projects, depending on what will contribute more to their professional life.

"A job for life no longer exists. This is a new, much more fluid situation, in which societies are reinventing themselves with a much more flexible way of organising work, to create more functional spaces and conditioned by the digital transformation", reflects Roberto Cabezas, director of Career Services at the University of Navarra.

"A job for life no longer exists. This is a new, much more fluid situation"

For many young people, spending their whole working life in the ranks of a single company is unimaginable, although it may have been the norm for their grandparents and parents. On the contrary, there is talk of growing trends such as the gig economy and of attracting talent through alternatives to traditional recruitment. In Spain, the number of freelancers has risen by 40% over the last ten years to reach 753,000 workers, according to the 2021 Freelance Panorama in Europe report.

Liquid work allows corporations to find professionals with highly specialised profiles, who are able to tackle new challenges in the workplace, in a shorter amount of time and anywhere in the world. The demands of the volatile environment in which we live today are one of the most relevant factors in this new landscape, according to assistant Director General of Fundación máshumano, Tomás Pereda Riaza. "At the speed with which things are changing, no company in the world can aspire to have all the skills it needs at all times, especially in the field of technology," he says.

"No company in the world can aspire to have all the skills it needs at all times"

According to the expert, the trend can be summed up as "there is more and more work, but less employment". To put it another way, "conventional employment formulae are ever more scarce, and unconventional working patterns are increasingly abundant".

No geographical boundaries

While liquid work is not a new concept - in 2016, consulting firm Accenture picked it as one of the technological trends of the year - the pandemic has acted as a springboard, catapulting its features across the labour ecosystem. The implementation of remote working for those activities that allow for it has marked a before and after in how we understand the labour model.

Now, questions like whether the hybrid model will endure or how offices can be rethought so that they can adapt to new ways of working are imperative, and will therefore be at the heart of discussions at the BBVA Open Talks Global: Smart working challenge event on 26 October, organised by BBVA Open Innovation.

In a recent LinkedIn study of around 1,000 professionals, 40% of respondents recognised that they prefer a hybrid work model, while 35% would opt for a full-time presence in the workplace, and 25% preferred to stick with remote working. However, these aspirations do not always tally with reality, as figures published by show. These indicate that the percentage of people working remotely more than half of the time has dropped "significantly", going from 16.2% in the second quarter of 2020 to 9.4% in the same period this year. Nevertheless, there are large differences between regions - Madrid, for example, has a rate of 18.7%, more than double the national average.

"Work is no longer a time and a place, but an activity you can undertake any time and anywhere"

The dissolution of geographical boundaries and fixed schedules have become two recurring aspirations for workers, and 69% and 73% of those surveyed by LinkedIn, respectively, would like to make these aspects more flexible. "Nowadays it's easy to identify and acquire the talent you need anywhere in the world, at the click of a button and without going to the office. This means that work is no longer a time and a place, but an activity you can undertake any time and anywhere", notes Pereda Riaza.

A new worker profile with initiative, training and digital skills

Putting all the focus on individual skills benefits the best talent when it comes to choosing their activities with greater freedom. And yet this model also involves constantly working on certain skills in order to survive in the new world, and a person's training must be fluid too.

"One of the strengths of liquid work is that it gives more confidence to teams, who gain the autonomy to organise their work and their commitments based on the time and resources available", points out Imma Catalá, Global Head of Strategy and Solutions Development for BBVA's Talent and Culture department.

Added to this self-management is the task of correctly identifying your own capabilities and how to improve them. Consequently, the secret of success at work is "working on your employability and keeping your professional profile attractive over time", adds the Director of Career Services at the University of Navarra.

Continuous learning and adaptation to new technologies is a need that has already been highlighted by international bodies such as the World Economic Forum, which defends the viewpoint that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will involve more than a billion people retraining by 2030, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which estimates that a third of jobs globally will suffer "significant changes" due to technology over the coming decade.

The challenge for companies: talent management

This model also represents an operational and mindset change on the part of companies. As Catalá says, "greater flexibility or liquidity at work requires a degree of organisation, working methodologies and leadership styles that are very different to traditional ones", which are adapted to a more decentralised reality and are based on trusting the teams.

"Greater flexibility requires working methodologies and leadership styles that are very different from traditional ones"

Companies are being called on to create training models that are "appealing to employees, flexible and digital". According to the BBVA expert, these should be aimed at reskilling, a concept that was explored at a recent BBVA Open Talks Spain event by BBVA Open Innovation, 'When reskilling is an adventure', and upskilling or updating and improving existing abilities. They should also cover the soft skills that are gaining popularity at present, such as empathy, resilience and learning agility.

For assistant director of máshumano, Tomás Pereda Riaza, the major challenge for companies is to achieve good "talent ecosystem management" to ensure that quality levels are the same for those working both within and outside the organisation. While it would be ideal to talk about "talent experience" rather than "employee experience", Pereda Riaza laments that "current regulations do not help talent on both sides to be managed at the same level".

"Flexible work is not going home with a computer and working from there"

Indeed, the new ways of working that have burst onto the scene, particularly those driven by digitisation, run the risk of entering a grey area in the legislative arena, but there are examples of how the European Union and other countries are making efforts to regulate these models. "Flexible work is not me going home with a computer and working from there. Here we raise the numerous questions that we've been wondering about during the pandemic - what happens about my obligations, my rights, my responsibilities… it's constantly evolving", Cabezas points out.

Despite these potential hurdles, the demand from talent for greater flexibility continues to rise, at a time when companies are striving to establish new labour dynamics that respond to the needs of the post-pandemic world. Over the coming years, we'll see that liquid work is the answer.