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Work Without Limits 2023 Highlights

Enterprise leaders from around the country joined us for Upwork’s 7th annual Work Without Limits™ Summit. This one-and-a-half day event brings together Fortune 500 executives, HR visionaries, and industry leaders to explore breakthrough ideas, effective tactics, and provocative trends related to flexible and remote hiring. As top organizations face challenges amid evolving workforce dynamics and macrotrends that are reshaping the rules of work, this year’s theme centered around how companies can adapt how they work to win today—and tomorrow.

We heard first-hand insights from Liz Wiseman, executive advisor, researcher and New York Times bestselling author of “Impact Players,” on what it takes to foster team members into impact players. We also heard from Matthew Luhn, a prominent writer whose credits include “Toy Story” and many other Pixar films, on the practical strategies of storytelling to drive business change. All told, over a hundred executives gathered to discuss critical enterprise challenges affecting how they work.

Here are three key takeaways across keynotes, breakout sessions, and candid discussions.

Generative AI will “rewire the system” of work

At Upwork, we see transformative possibilities for talent and businesses who are tapping into generative AI. Simply put, it’s a game-changer that will deliver major wins for professionals and companies alike. It’s an avenue for the world to work smarter.

Our CEO Hayden Brown underscored the opportunity and responsibility organizations have to shape the next era of work, which will be defined by generative AI. She emphasized that this next era will be about humans going further with the help of the technology. And she highlighted recent findings by the Upwork Research Institute that underline C-suite executives’ plans to hire more professionals of all types to capitalize on the potential of generative AI.

“The era of generative AI is not going to be defined most by job destruction. It will be defined by humans amplifying their potential.”
– Hayden Brown, CEO of Upwork

Upwork CEO Hayden Brown

Upwork CEO Hayden Brown on the power of generative AI

Ajay Agrawal, professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and a leading expert on the economics of AI, reinforced the urgent opportunity for every business to embrace generative AI and “rewire the system” of work itself. AI and automation are leading toward cheaper, better, and faster predictions, fundamentally transforming industries and driving strategic business decisions.

In his latest book, “Power and Prediction: The Disruptive Economics of Artificial Intelligence,” Ajay discusses how AI will shift prediction from humans to machines. This will alleviate the cognitive load of prediction from people, while increasing the speed and accuracy of their decision-making. Prediction problems we once thought as arduous will diminish as profound possibilities and disruptions will open the door for business leaders to rethink their entire systems.

Talent innovation starts with “talent access”

Today’s workforce requires speed, ingenuity, and adaptability. To rely solely on a traditional “talent acquisition” approach—which focuses on filling roles with full-time employees—is simply too slow and too costly for businesses to remain competitive in this environment. Tony Buffum, VP of HR client strategy at Upwork, emphasized the need for business leaders to adopt a “talent access” mindset that goes beyond traditional methods of hiring.

“A ‘talent access’ approach recognizes that independent talent like freelancers can play a critical role in meeting business needs. This is especially true when competition for talent is fierce, and projects require a rapid turnaround.”
– Tony Buffum, VP of HR client strategy at Upwork

We also heard from a number of Upwork customers who have embraced a “talent access” mindset, freeing themselves from the institution of full-time headcounts to unlock a global pool of freelance talent with virtually limitless capabilities.

  • Leaders recognize the global distribution of talent. People leaders, including Karen Arnold of Automattic, Russell Chung of UC Berkeley, and Sunita Solao of Upwork, discussed breakthroughs and transformative outcomes achieved by leveraging talent outside full-time work arrangements. Their organizations have transcended their ZIP codes to access the very best global talent through Upwork. And they were quick to realize the benefits: easy access to specialized skills, the ability to scale as they grow, and increased workplace diversity, fostering an inclusive and empowering culture where employees continue to feel supported and valued.
  • Traditional approaches to talent and workforce management are outdated. Candid discussions between leaders, including Timothy Chow of Indeed and Brett Hughes of Duolingo, underscored the need to innovate how they engage and manage global talent. With the rise of technology, shifting workforce demographics, and changing employee expectations, they’ve been able to diversify and develop a workforce strategy on specific needs and skills.
  • Independent talent bring external expertise and perspectives. Brian Watson of Adobe and Seb Wichmann, an HR and learning development consultant on Upwork, shared their experience working together, which has helped Brian access external expertise and perspectives valuable to fostering leadership development and successfully navigating change and workloads. Their two-year partnership has helped forge a high-ROI and catalyze a new growth edge for Brian and his team.
Upwork Hybrid Workforce Discussion Panel

Left to right: freelance editor Megan Morrone, Karen Arnold of Automattic, Russell Chung of UC Berkeley, and Sunita Solao of Upwork

Upwork Marketing Discussion Panel

Left to right: Jess Weimer of Upwork, Brian Watson of Adobe, and Seb Wichmann Consultant

As business leaders continue to challenge the conventional wisdom of talent acquisition, they also recognize that they need to meet the labor market where talent are. The growing trend of independent work shows that skilled professionals are also challenging the confines of a traditional 9-to-5. Four multimillion-dollar professionals on Upwork discussed their career journey: what drove them to freelancing and how they have thrived as agency owners by partnering with enterprise companies on Upwork.

Their top tips to engage and empower best-in-class independent talent? Trust, respect, and clarity.

Upwork Discussion Panel

Left to right: Margaret Lilian of Upwork and Upwork Expert-Vetted talent, including Alex Tuck, Jaime Hollander, and Samer Bazzi

Being a work innovator is more than a good talent strategy: It’s also good for business

Dr. Kelly Monahan, managing director of the Upwork Research Institute, highlighted the shared behaviors of business leaders who are pioneering new ways of working—and experiencing higher levels of performance. A common trait among these “work innovators” is that they embrace a flexible talent model and create an environment where this model thrives.

Amid economic uncertainties, Tim Sanders, VP of client strategy at Upwork, illustrated the power of leveraging a flexible talent model. He assessed the cost of unfinished projects as budgets tighten and layoffs loom. As enterprises defund projects in flight, push out product launches, or pause programs and digital upgrades, waiting for the economy to improve, they miss peak selling periods, as well as the associated profits and competitive benefits.

To combat delay, Tim emphasized the importance of leveraging independent talent to help keep launch schedules on track. As he noted, talent shortages are a leading disruptor of business strategy. So a workforce model that enables organizations to maintain a small, core team of employees and then empower them to tap available talent on work marketplaces, like Upwork, are key to success.

Upwork VP of Client Strategy Tim Robbins

Tim Sanders on stage at Work Without Limits 2023, discussing “The Surprising Cost of Unfinished Business”

This is how we work now

Changes are happening in the world of work now—not tomorrow and not five years from now. Technological advancements like generative AI, the changing generational expectations around work-life balance, and economic uncertainties have propelled business leaders to rethink where, when, and how work gets done.

Upwork Work Without Limits Audience

Over 100 business leaders from across the country attend Work Without Limits 2023

“We are living through the Renaissance of work—a time when we get to reinvent, innovate, and create the next set of paradigms and foundations that will guide future generations of businesses and professionals.”
– Hayden Brown, CEO of Upwork



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