Managing a Fluid Workforce in the 'Gig' Economy

04/04/2017
In Asia Pacific, digital transformation is sending shock waves across the business landscape, posing challenges and opportunities for the HR industry. One element of this is the emergence of the ‘gig economy’ in the region – providing workers with greater freedom, autonomy and the prospect of a much-expanded career portfolio, but also creating potential issues for the wider business environment. In March 2017, the Singapore Government announced it will set up a tripartite workgroup to study the concerns faced by those in the industry, including the lack of income security and savings for retirement.

Karen Cariss, CEO and Co-Founder of PageUp, and Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith, Senior Vice President, Global Research at PageUp – a unified talent management Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider, have co-authored a book called Cliffhanger: HR on the Precipice in the Future of Work. The book was launched in Singapore this week and explores these themes in depth, surfacing some hard truths about the future of work and road ahead for HR. Here is an excerpt from the book, looking at the wider impact the ‘gig economy’ will have on the HR function and the future of work:

Society is fast adopting the shift from a mindset of ownership to one of sharing. The sharing economy has already disrupted many long-standing, seemingly entrenched industries: from how we listen to music, read books and watch movies, to where we stay when we travel, to how we transport ourselves around town and country. It seems we love to share.

In the sharing economy, we mostly think of sharing tangible resources, such as cars and homes. Why would the concept of sharing, rather than owning, not extend to the talent employed in organisations? We are already rethinking the relationship between employer and employee: perhaps these terms will even become redundant.

Increasingly, the peer economy (also referred to as the gig economy) is gaining traction. Given its aqueous nature, size estimates of the gig economy are variable. In the decade to 2015, one U.S. study shows a 56% rate of growth in contingent workers (defined as independent contractors, freelancers, on-call workers, company contract workers and temporary help agency workers), from 10.1% to 15.8%.[1] A recent Time Magazine poll counted all those who have participated in this market at some point and put the U.S. number at around 90 million – or 44% of working adults.[2] In the U.K. recent estimates count ‘gigsters’ at 5 million, or 11% of the working age population.[3] Globally, no accurate count exists – but it is safe to say, the number is large and growing.

Unicorns such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb are frequently credited for, or accused of, generating these contingent jobs, but of course casual, part time and contract workers were a component of the workforce long before their arrival. ‘Brokers’ of contingent work such as TaskRabbit, Freelancer and Upwork, have also contributed to the spiked growth of this mode of employment in the last two decades. Equally, we cannot underestimate the demand for flexible workers by organisations that have scarcely survived the deteriorated and uncertain economic conditions since the Global Financial Crisis. Combined, these are all accelerants of a new multi-modal workforce structure that also aligns with changed worker preferences and the advent of technologies that facilitate this.

Equality in the gig economy

Whether by design, ambivalence or employment regulations, contingent workers have historically ranked as second-rate citizens in most organisations. At best, viewed as short-term external skills or expertise, at worst, dispensable hired hands. Either way, they have been pooled in a category that typically denies them many of the monetary, social and professional development benefits enjoyed by permanent employees.

Denise Cheng of the Roosevelt Institute says “for its cheerleaders, the peer economy represents greater independence and the blossoming of entrepreneurship.”[4] Clearly, among the motivations to participate in the gig economy are freedom, autonomy and the prospect of a much-expanded career portfolio. Gig work also suits many Millennials with the skills, talent and digital resources to concurrently juggle multiple projects and employers, accelerating their earning capacity and professional networks.

But being classed as ‘talent on demand’ also has its shortcomings. Lack of the worker benefits usually provided by employers, legal protections, the potential for financial disadvantage due to inconsistent or piecemeal work and commoditised skills that become devalued in an open global market, to name a few.

One key career ingredient that is typically lacking for contingent workers is ongoing learning and development opportunities sponsored by their employers. Excepting for a few forward-thinking organisations, contingent workers are rarely invited to participate in employer-funded training or management development, not given mentoring or leadership opportunities, nor sponsored for advanced technical or professional skills development. That will prove to be a short-sighted approach that reinforces the paradigm of contingent workers as temporary and dispensable resources. In reality, such workers will make up a significant component of any high-performing team in future.

Managing a fluid workforce

For the last two decades, employers have fought the escalating war for talent and rather than this war abating, it is gaining intensity on many fronts – especially in professions requiring advanced science, technology and engineering skills.

Organisations, leaders and managers and employment policymakers are ill-prepared for an agile workforce that will assess its own career portfolio opportunities and vote with its feet. Almost every employment practice that exists today can and should be dismantled and scrutinised for its propensity to either help or hinder the talent attraction and retention demands of the business.

To prepare for the future, employers need to rethink their workforces. It boils down to this: employers have an ownership mindset about their employees, but as Orly Lobel aptly notes in the title of his book on the topic, talent wants to be free.

The skills and mindset required to effectively manage the workforce of the future are, predictably, different from those that succeeded in the past. The premise that authority, know-how and decisions cascade from the top is already coming undone. If your leadership repertoire is limited to a command and control style, you will have some soul-searching to do.

While the hierarchy is undoubtedly likely to become more egalitarian, technology itself may play a significant role in future workflow management. As is already the case with Uber, for example, machine algorithms are effectively replacing the role of supervisors and managers, by sourcing work, assigning it to workers and managing performance via feedback and ratings. An algorithm could be your next boss….

Copies of the book, Cliffhanger: HR on the Precipice in the Future of Work, by PageUp, can be purchased on amazon.com.

PageUp will be running HR Bootcamp workshops in Singapore and the Philippines next month to help leaders in the industry take steps towards preparing for the future of work and harness the strategies required to succeed.

 For more information visit: https://www.pageuppeople.com/cliffhanger-bootcamp/


[1] Katz, L.F. & Krueger, A.B. (2016). The rise and nature of alternative work arrangements in the United States, 1995-2015.

[2] Time Magazine (2016). http://time.com/4169532/sharing-economy-poll/Retrieved August 17, 2016.

[3] University of Hertfordshire (2016). http://www.herts.ac.uk/about-us/news/2016/february/around-five-million-crowd-workers-in-the-uk-gig-economy,-new-research-finds. Retrieved August 17, 2016.

[4] Cheng, D. (2015). Barriers to growth in the ‘sharing economy’. The Roosevelt Institute

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