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Dan Pink Interview: 'Free Agent Nation' Evolves

July 6, 2012

In 2001, Daniel Pink coined the term "free agent nation." His book by the same name became an instant bestseller, and the concepts he discussed—namely the rise of the independent contractor—emerged into the public consciousness. Workforce Management contributor Samuel Greengard recently caught up with Pink, who also worked as a speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and asked him to provide insights into the current workplace.

Workforce Management: How do you define the free agent marketplace?

Daniel Pink: Free agents are people who are working untethered from a large organization. This includes freelancers, e-lancers, self-employed professionals and proprietors of very small businesses. These are not necessarily entrepreneurs … they're not necessarily startups that aspire to go big. They're people who have either been cast aside by larger organizations or have broken away from large organizations to make their own way.

WM: What changes have you seen in the free-agent marketplace since you wrote the book?

Pink: Technology has probably been the biggest change. The book came out before the emergence of widespread broadband and social media. Today, individuals hold in their hand the same kind of computing and communications power that entire organizations had 30 years ago. This has radically changed the power equation. There is a bit of a Marxist revenge here. Workers now own their own means of production

WM: How does this play out in terms of the labor market?

Pink: Today, talented individuals need organizations a lot less than organizations need talented individuals. What's interesting is that this situation has forced companies to treat their internal workforce more like an external workforce. They must now provide a greater degree of autonomy, more freedom, more opportunity for challenge, more flexibility and so on. It used to be that there was a stark boundary between who's working on their own and who's working in corporate America. The boundary is now more permeable. It's like the difference between the U.S. and Canada. At times, depending on where you're at, you might not be able to tell the difference between the two countries.

WM: What is the effect of this free-agent marketplace on work as well as the way people work?

Pink: Large organizations must create challenges and opportunities for talent. There must be a sense of purpose, and people must be able to see, in a tangible way, what contribution they are making and how it is affecting the organization. If you can give people the same psychic benefits they receive outside the corporate environment—if they're working on their own—you have a fighting chance to succeed.

WM: You have mentioned that a "feedback desert" exists within many organizations. What is this and what are the implications?

Pink: Research shows that one of the biggest motivators in the workplace is receiving feedback. This is how you know you're making progress. Humans need feedback more than once a year. Feedback also creates more accountability. Unfortunately, within many organizations, feedback is sluggish and informal. People don't have a real sense whether they are making progress. Over time, they can become disenchanted and wind up leaving the company.

WM: Have you noticed any other significant changes in the workplace as a result of free agency?

Pink: The biggest revolves around changes from defined benefit pensions to defined contribution pensions. We also see the burden of health care falling more and more on the individual. In many respects, W-2 employment has become a lot more like free-agent employment. It's more precarious, and the concept of lifetime employment—or at least long-lasting employment—is gone. In some respects, talent has more bargaining power because if they don't like a work environment they can find someone else or go out on their own.

WM: Is the free agent marketplace incorporating new fields?

Pink: We're seeing free agency extend into health care; in some cases nurses, allied health professionals and doctors are working on a contract basis. We're also seeing companies tap C-level talent—CEOs, CFOs, CIOs and CTOs—for short-term stints.

WM: How has the millennial generation affected the workplace?

Pink: Boomers and Gen Xers went into the workplace thinking they would stick with an employer for years or their entire lifetime. They have had to undergo a radical shift in thinking. Younger workers, on the other hand, have only seen the current set of attitudes and rules. They firmly believe that a person is responsible for navigating through his or her own career and that no company is going to take care of you. So, they are very comfortable with this free-agent mentality.

WM: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for human resources in regard to free agency?

Pink: You can now scour the world for the right talent and connect to independent contractors easily. There is a much wider pool of talent to choose from. In addition, because we're still feeling the downdrafts of the Great Recession—many organizations have thinned their ranks and cut back on hiring. Independents are a good way to plug in expertise and talent without hiring people. But companies have to be careful not to create a caste system where the independents wind up existing in a lower caste, with different colored badges, less access and diminished inclusion in virtual or physical meetings. You must create real inclusion. They have to be part of teams and have the same responsibilities. On the other hand, free agents may earn more money because they're not receiving benefits. In some cases, organizations might need to educate employees about free agents so they understand why someone from the outside is being brought in. There is sometimes resentment.

WM: Any advice on how organizations and HR departments should approach today's labor marketplace and free agents?

Pink: There's no recipe or algorithm for determining when you bring in independents and when you don't. It's going to depend on the task. It's going to depend on the project. The thing that HR has to think about is that, in the end, the equation has flipped: talented people need you far less than you need talented people. You have to give talent a sense of autonomy and purpose or you risk losing them.

Samuel Greengard is a writer based in West Linn, Oregon. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.