Working in the Gig Economy

Employment levels are at a high point but part-time working is on the increase and it seems likely that a lot of work is no longer offered in the form of full-time salaried posts. The workforce is more mobile and increasingly work can be done from anywhere, so flexible work is a real option for more of us.

The gig economy is a free market system where temporary positions are the norm and organisations contract independent workers for short-term engagements. The term "gig" means "a job for a specified period of time" and could cover freelancers, independent contractors, project-based workers and temporary or part-time hires. Estimates suggest that the number of people involved with the gig economy will double in the next four years.

In the gig economy, enterprises make savings in resources - benefits, office space and training. They contract with skilled workers for specific projects without maintaining them on the payroll as permanent employees. For the freelancer, it may improve work-life balance and offer more flexibility and autonomy than is possible in some jobs. In a perfect world independent workers choose jobs that interest them and work where and when they want to work. This is not a perfect world.

Freedom and Obligation

It’s great if you have in demand skills or specialist expertise or a high profile within your field. It may enable the creation of a meaningful career that you fit around other commitments and priorities, rather than the other way around. Those who are less vulnerable to fluctuations in the amount of work available can experience more freedom to accept or reject jobs and have the benefits of working on their own terms.

For many the gig economy is more problematic. Many of us place great value on achieving good work/life balance but this new way of hiring and working has changed the world of work irrevocably. For many there is no job security and remuneration fluctuates while workers are treated as self-employed in temporary and zero-hours contracts. Often workers find they have obligations to the employer without any benefits - such as holiday pay, sick pay, parental leave and pension contributions; it seems almost a return to 19th century piece-work.

Such roles lack the psychological contract whereby employee and employer make commitments to one another in a relationship that allows trust and reciprocity to develop. Some employers are able to manage their workforce of contractors and associates in such a way that they enable collaboration and engagement, they do it because they need commitment from skilled specialist employees. Taking care of your workers is good for business, whether they are temps or permanent staff, because they are more likely to be engaged and committed, to be aligned with organisational purpose and mission and more productive and proactive.

Career Choices

For many employees, though, they have little choice but to take work on the terms offered, they can’t afford to be too picky; this is particularly true for younger workers with little work experience and for the unskilled worker.

Sociologist and author Alexandra Ravanelle says “workers in the sharing economy—hailed as the height of the modern workplace—find themselves without any of the worker protections enjoyed by their great-grandparents. Although workplace protections still exist for full-time and part-time employees, gig workers as independent contractors, are outside the social safety net of basic workplace protections.”

In real terms all this means is that independent workers have to be more proactive about managing their careers as digitisation and automation continue to reshape the world of work.

Posted: Wednesday 17 April 2019

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