How top-rated employers use tech, flexibility to reap bottom-line benefits

A recent survey of 2,000 global business leaders found that perhaps mundane-seeming office policies—such as return-to-office mandates, work models with flexibility and the use of distributed teams/freelance talent—can significantly affect business performance.

The report, from the newly launched Upwork Research Institute, surveyed directors through C-suite leaders across seven industries and 13 countries over the past year. Among other things, the survey identified the three critical attributes of high-performing companies, which it identified as “Work Innovator Companies.”

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The three attributes are: embracing new technologies, especially generative AI throughout the organization; opening the culture to flexible talent; and adopting best practices for distributed teams.

Flexibility for financial wins

These innovative companies also take two actions, according to the survey. First, they provide workforce flexibility in work locations while embracing remote work best practices, with 62% of professionals working remotely at least 1-2 days per week, 28% working fully remotely and 11% occasionally working remotely. And they are more than twice as likely to trust their employees to get their work done, regardless of where they work or whether they are full-time or freelance workers.

Kelly Monahan
Kelly Monahan

These findings, according to Kelly Monahan, managing director of The Upwork Research Institute, prove that business success is grounded in “how we work, rather than where or when we work.”

Because there is “so much noise” in the ongoing conversation about workforce trends, she adds, it can be challenging to identify and prioritize what is right for a business. So UpWork tested whether company size, industry, return-to-office mandates and other company attributes affected performance and revenue. None made much of a difference.

However, the research did identify four key actions that leaders at “Innovator” companies are taking that directly drive performance gains.

  • They’re using data and AI for decision-making across the organization. Monahan says data is a part of everyone’s role, and data democratization is seen as critical for insight-driven decision-making.
  • They have strong internal operational practices that guide how the company communicates, collaborates and orchestrates work across the organization.
  • They inherently trust their workforce to do great work, regardless of location or worker type.
  • They are strategically oriented toward caring for workforce needs across the company’s talent ecosystem.

“Prioritizing the four actions that focus on how work gets done can serve as a new blueprint to help leaders navigate and succeed, even in today’s uncertainty,” Monahan says.

Tech isn’t just for IT

The research also reveals that these top-rated companies are 3.8 times more likely to have a well-defined generative AI strategy in place. In fact, 49% say they have a “well-defined” gen AI strategy and have implemented it across their organization, compared to just 13% of companies not in the top tier.

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Work Innovators also consistently outperform others when it comes to leveraging gen AI, according to the research. They “see gen AI not as an IT solution but as a business imperative,” Monahan says, noting that leaders who view gen AI in this way are 84% more likely to report strong digital collaboration and data-driven decision-making throughout their organizations.

Finally, according to Upwork’s research, one key action leaders can take that directly drives performance gains and enables work innovation at their organization is trusting one’s workforce to do great work, regardless of location or worker type.

“The ability to find, hire, and onboard the right talent quickly can be the difference between meeting or missing this moment of significant technological change,” Monahan says.

Monahan adds that employers need to be open to all types of workers and recognize that freelancers, in particular, bring unique skills, fresh perspectives and specialized expertise to the workplace.

“When organizations view freelancers as valuable contributors rather than temporary placeholders, they are more likely to invest in building strong working relationships with these individuals,” Monahan says. “This positive mindset fosters collaboration, trust, loyalty and, ultimately, very positive results.”

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].