Back in 2019, HR Analyst Josh Bersin produced research on a concept he called the "pixelated workforce." His core thesis claimed that with the gig economy, talent marketplaces, side-hustles, and alternative forms of work the nature of the relationship between employers and employees was changing.
Instead of full-time employment being the holy grail, there was a shift in the mindset of employees around options for how to work and what constituted work, based on our skill, location, age, and lifestyle. Almost 40% of Americans now had part-time or contingent jobs, almost two thirds of young people had side-hustles, and according to a study by Upwork (and a similar study by MBO partners) 42% of people under the age of 35 were now freelancers.
In the time since Josh wrote about this in 2019 the trend hasn’t slowed down. One estimate from before the pandemic suggested that 48% of workers had been involved in the gig economy at some point. By 2024, that number is projected to rise to 53%.
Much like graphics can be broken down into pixels, each workforce can be deconstructed into smaller pieces, whether that’s sub-divisions, teams, employees, or even individualized projects and tasks.
Josh chose the word "pixelated" to describe this phenomenon. Pixels are the smallest unit of a digital image that can be displayed. According to Gloat, "Much like graphics can be broken down into pixels, each workforce can be deconstructed into smaller pieces, whether that’s sub-divisions, teams, employees, or even individualized projects and tasks."
Instead of trying to cobble together a full-time role with an endless list of skills and responsibilities, a hiring manager could simply act as a "talent agent," and break down the outputs into discrete tasks and workstreams that need to be completed, individually and separately, and then look toward who might be able to do those things. When you look at it that way, the workers could be inside the organization or outside it.
Pixelated work is possible within corporate America because of new companies and technologies we didn't have a decade ago. Like Roleshare, which provides a platform to connect companies looking to staff mid-senior level roles with fractional talent looking for more flexibility. Multiple part time workers share the responsibilities of a single full time work and the job is accomplished in a pixelated manner.
Then there's Braintrust, which is a blockchain-enabled talent platform which places highly-skilled workers on fractional projects with Fortune 500 companies. Each worker also has ownership rights and a stake in how the platform is governed.
While both of these companies serve more senior and experienced pixelated professionals, Passion Fruit is building a freelance platform and educational model for Gen Z professionals who want to build freelance careers.
A.Team takes a "team-based" approach to sourcing pixelated talent, and allows enterprises who hire them to not just hire an individual freelancer but a whole team (for example: a software engineer, a designer, and a product manager) for contract based work.
While pixelated work is starting to become common in the enterprise space, it’s even further along in the entrepreneur, solopreneur, and freelancer world.
The future of work is not just about work, but also about the transformation of workplace and workforce.
Over the past year as an entrepreneur, I’ve met numerous other employees and entrepreneurs who have embraced the idea of the pixelated workforce. Here are a few examples:
- A bookkeeper, who works 20 hours a week, manages a rental property and picks her kids up from school each day
- An Executive Coach who also works as a yoga instructor, and travels for 2 months out of the year across the globe
- A former startup founder + product marketer who now runs a web3 education community
- And, of course, everyone’s favorite software engineer who works 10 remote software engineering jobs
When I talk to these individuals, many of them talk about how they have diverse interests and skills, some of which they use in their core job or work, but many which they don't. They’ve embraced pixelated work, or a portfolio career, to get the same kind of ends that a full-time job would have given them, but through a different set of means. This allowed for a more exciting, engaging, flexible way to find work and develop their careers.
We are still in the early innings of what the pixelated workforce could be. The future of work is not just about work, but also about the transformation of workplace and workforce. This has many implications for leaders, organizations, and employees, ranging from how we hire, who we hire (employers+leaders) and perhaps most importantly, how employees navigate choices and decisions around careers, work, education, and learning. It’s an exciting time to watch this evolve, right before our eyes.
Al Dea is a Talent, Leadership, and Workplace Culture Consultant. This article originally appeared on his Substack, Work In Progress.