Across the world, the gig economy is growing. By 2025, research suggests around 35% of the US population will be working as freelancers or independents. In the EU, these kinds of workers will account for 20% of the workforce. Which means that in the near future, many people won’t be in traditional employment.
The trend is powered by a growing desire for flexibility. For individuals, gig working can be a route to a more meaningful worklife, or to prioritize the things that are important to them. For organisations, having access to gig workers means they only have to hire people as and when they need their skills.
The arrangement can be very positive. But it also has its downsides. Gig economy workers can have the stress of an unpredictable income, unpredictable schedules – and feelings of isolation. Many use this as a reason to criticize the gig economy. However, Katleen De Stobbeleir, Professor of Leadership at Vlerick Business School says: “The gig economy is here and it’s likely to grow. So we should not ask ourselves the question whether we are in favor of it or not. Rather, we should ask the question how we can make it work for all the parties that are involved.”
So how do you make it work?
Katleen de Stobbeleir says: “Companies need the skills that gig workers have – so to get these skills, they need to consider hiring gig workers. As a manager that may mean that half of your team might be employees, but the other half may be gig workers. “You cannot promote gig workers, or make them employee of the month. So there are implications for managers to establish an appropriate relationship.”
De Stobbeleir says managers must remember that gig workers aren’t simply “suppliers”. She says: “They have talent that’s hard to find, so you may have to work even harder at retaining them – and this is a new challenge for managers.” She recommends treating gig workers in as partners rather than suppliers – for example, in some cases it might be worthwhile to invite them to attend away days and other events.
What gig workers need
“Recent research by Petriglieri, Ashford, and Wrzesniewski (2018) shows that gig workers actively build connections to thrive at work. If you are an employee you have an automatic network – but gig workers don’t have that, so they build it for themselves,” she says, adding: “They have self-leadership skills – they build connections with good teams and they create teams for themselves. And despite the flexibility of gig working, they set routines for themselves – with fixed hours or fixed times to do work.
“They also have preferred places to work – which could be a home office or a coffee shop. But the important thing is that they have spaces they associate with work, that aren’t home.” Research by Ibarra has shown that individuals develop different types of networks and it may be important for gig workers to develop these as well says De Stobbeleir:
- Functional networks – people who help gig workers become better at their jobs
- Developmental networks – when you are independent, you don’t have corporate training so you need mentors/coaches
- Strategic networks – Gig workers form connections with people who might be relevant for their future development or future work
“These connections have purpose,” she says, “Gig workers are selective, using an inner compass of what they want to be or do as a professional, or the type of work they want to do – and they use this to identify the people they need to know.”
Strike the right balance
Knowing this can help managers to create great working experiences for gig workers – providing the right kind of spaces and opportunities to attract and retain the best. De Stobbeleir says: “It’s important to strike the right balance – after all, part of the value of bringing gig workers into projects is that they bring fresh perspective and can remain critical and provide advice – so a little distance can be helpful. To get it right there needs to be dialogue at the contracting stage. It’s important for organisations to think in this way rather than simply impose a policy that says if you’re not an employee, you’re not entitled to any benefits.”
For gig workers themselves, it’s important to think about strategies for success and survival. They have a lot of autonomy and organise themselves and their work. So it’s making sure that they get the right opportunities and get to make the best connections.
Making it work for everyone
De Stobbeleir says that to make the gig economy work, you need real leadership. She says: “Leadership is about guiding people and caring about people and not treating them as a resource that can be thrown away. “From the gig workers’ perspective, it’s important to network, unite with people in similar positions, have a collective voice.” De Stobbeleir says many organisations are adapting to the gig economy. What we all need to do, she says, is make the gig economy work productively and responsibly for all.