The On-Demand Workforce for 2021: Catalant’s Year-End Insights

At Catalant, we see the market for on-demand talent booming as organizations — under pressure from competitors, new technologies, and a global pandemic — rethink their strategic workforce planning priorities. As we look to 2021, business leaders’ increasing comfort with engaging contingent workers will accelerate trends leading toward a more flexible, adaptable workforce.

2020 has been a trying year for business leaders by any standard. A global pandemic required companies to pivot their strategies while forcing leaders to make difficult cost-saving decisions, including sharp reductions to workforces. The shift to remote work and increased pace of digital transformation is changing how companies think about how to get the right people on the right work to execute their strategies.

At Catalant, we see the market for on-demand talent booming as organizations — under pressure from competitors, new technologies, and a global pandemic — rethink their strategic workforce planning priorities. As we look to 2021, business leaders’ increasing comfort with engaging contingent workers will accelerate trends leading toward a more flexible, adaptable workforce.

Catalant’s Expert Marketplace has been designed to enable this flexibility by providing enterprise leaders an efficient, scalable way to access the capabilities and expertise they need to execute their most important work. Here are a few insights from our team on how customers have taken advantage of on-demand access to expertise to adapt to new market conditions, how our experts have stepped up to meet their needs, and how we’re seeing the flexible workforce evolve for next year.

How Business Leaders Used the Expert Marketplace in 2020

While Catalant Experts have capabilities across all disciplines, our top project categories this year were Project Management, Corporate Strategy, and Market Research. It’s clear that identifying and understanding shifts in customer preferences, creating strategies to meet those customer needs, and executing mission critical initiatives to realize those strategies was a top priority for business leaders this year, and will continue to be in 2021.

Projects by Category in 2020

18.3% of projects on Catalant was in the Project Management category. 18.0% was in the Corporate Strategy category. And 12.5% was in the Market Research Category.

Project Management. Catalant’s Expert Marketplace has traditionally been a top source for project management expertise, and 2020 was no different. Even as companies make difficult decisions and become leaner in response to the pandemic, the most important work still must go on. Orchestrating and aligning distributed, remote teams across the enterprise is difficult, and many organizations find it helpful to have impartial, outside expertise to help their teams execute critical work under new operating conditions.

Corporate Strategy & Transformation. With companies transforming not only their operations but their strategic priorities over the course of the year in response to the pandemic, finding specialized expertise to help determine the right course of action has been essential. Business models and operating models have changed dramatically to adapt, and further expertise in creating new strategies and implementing the transformation needed to realize them will be key going forward.

Market Research. Throughout 2020, business leaders needed to identify and understand changes in customer preferences in order to plan their responses to the pandemic. Under uncertainty, they’re more cost-conscious, looking to prudently invest in projects with data-driven business cases to justify investments. And with leaner budgets and ever-evolving conditions, costly large market research firms aren’t right-sized for the task at hand, so they turned to individual experts or boutique firms to get high quality insights, faster and at a lower cost.

Strengthening our Expert Network

In 2020, highly-skilled professionals continued to gravitate to the Catalant Expert Marketplace — we’re fast approaching 80,000 experts on the platform. In May alone we saw an 88% increase in experts signing up for the platform when compared to the 2019 average.

Experts on the Catalant Platform

From 2018 to 2020, experts on the Catalant marketplace increased 31% from 59,254 to 77,736.

A recent Harvard Business Review article reports that freelancers are estimated to make up roughly a third of the U.S. workforce, and that the pandemic will continue to increase the shift toward independent work.

The quality of experts and consulting firms in the Catalant Expert Marketplace continues to impress enterprise customers: independent experts and firms in the Expert Marketplace are winning more projects that would otherwise go to big traditional consulting firms. These projects continue to increase in size: in our most recent quarter, the average project sourced through Catalant is 30% larger than the 2019 average, and corporate strategy projects are 73% larger than a year ago.

Faster than traditional consulting

1 day

average time from project posting to introduction to first qualified candidate


expert pitches on posted projects vs. 2019

12 days

average time from project posting to having proposals in hand

Source: Catalant Platform Data

Business leaders continue to access elite expertise through the Expert Marketplace much faster than traditional consulting, with introductions to the first qualified candidate taking only 1 day from project posting, on average. Expert pitches on posted projects increased nearly 50% over 2019. And project posters are able to get proposals in hand in just 12 days on average.

Looking Forward to 2021

Throughout 2020, it’s been clear that the shift toward flexible workforce planning is accelerating. Last month, researchers at Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group released a report, Building the On-Demand Workforce, in which 90% of business leaders say on-demand talent platforms are important to their competitive advantage. The benefits of the on-demand workforce, the authors write, include increased labor flexibility, accelerated speed to market, and innovation through new business models.

This year’s shift to remote work will also accelerate adoption of talent marketplaces and contingent work. HBS professor Joe Fuller described remote work’s influence on this trend in a recent Catalant LiveCast. As organizations meet the trough of workforce demand rather than the peak, Fuller says leaders are likely to staff to the minimum number of employees to meet their strategic plan while filling in the gaps by hiring contingent workers. 

To compete in the years ahead, companies must do better. They’ll have to acknowledge and embrace the full potential of digital talent platforms—which is to say, figure out how to engage strategically with what you might call the on-demand workforce.

Source: Harvard Business Review, Rethinking the On-Demand Workforce,
November-December 2020.

One reason this trend is accelerating is the increased comfort level with remote work as a result of the pandemic. As people and teams increasingly work from home (or elsewhere), leaders and managers have grown accustomed to the feel of remote work. This makes it more likely that they’ll trust a remote contractor to provide value. 

There’s still a lot of uncertainty about 2021: how will economies and industries recover when vaccines are widely available? What elements of remote and distributed work will remain when we can go back to work in person?

But one thing is clear: the shift toward new talent models and a more flexible workforce will continue. 

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