Freelancers, agency workers, contractors, temps – however you label them, gig workers are changing the employment landscape for good.
This new world of work, enabled by new technologies and business models, presents opportunities and challenges in almost equal measure. As the fourth industrial revolution continues to disrupt virtually all industries, it’s incumbent on HR and business leaders to maintain a people-first perspective on workforce norms – particularly around engagement.
This ebook explores how to do that. Along the way it provides a clear understanding of the gig landscape, bust the myths surrounding it, and answers the ‘why’s and ‘how’s behind engaging gig workers.
Before the internet, gig work was a drop in the employment ocean. Unable to offer their skills to the wider world, huge swathes of the working population had no option but to do their thing in house and on site – and deal with the contracts and work/life restrictions that came with it.
Now, thanks to advancing technologies and the development of new business models, the nature of work is evolving faster than ever before. An increasing number of people are seizing the opportunity to are sacking off the 9-5 in favour of work that’s more fluid and flexible. Others have found themselves in these shorter term, less predictable placements without necessarily wanting to be.
In the wake of the recent Taylor review, which set out to ensure employment regulation keeps up with the rate of change, employers of gig workers are asking themselves searching questions as to how to engage their unfurling workforces.
But defining – let alone regulating – today’s workforce is a trouble enough. So by way of a preamble, at this point it’s worth taking a look at some of the commonly accepted variations of such work, and their definitions.
“An employee is someone who works under an employment contract – a set of conditions, rights, responsibilities and duties.” GOV.uk
“A person with a contract, or other arrangement, to do work for a reward. They have to turn up for work even if they don’t want to, and their employer has to have work for them to do as long as the contract or arrangement lasts.” GOV.uk
“Someone who works outside of a traditional office, although depending on the type of job they do, they might find themselves going into an office on occasion.” remote.co
“Can be ‘self-employed’, a ‘worker’ or an ‘employee’, if they work for a client and are employed by an agency.” GOV.uk
“A way of working that is based on people having temporary jobs or doing separate pieces of work, each paid separately, rather than working for an employer.” Oxford English Dictionary
These nuances in definition serve to illustrate the major overlaps that exist in the modern working landscape. But to respond to the Taylor review’s call for a ‘fair and decent’ world of work, employers need to look beyond the details and think of their workers as individual people with a common need: to feel meaning and fulfillment at work.
This ebook uses the umbrella term of ‘gig worker’ to encompasses all transient and freelance work, unless otherwise specified.
Picture a gig economy worker. Perhaps the image you’ve conjured up is of a food delivery rider, one who’s probably in their early-to-mid twenties and likely sporting lycra and a fairly well trimmed beard. No? Then maybe it’s a minicab driver, splitting their attention between a sat-nav and chit-chat.
While that exercise might seem facetious, it serves to prove there are a number of misconceptions that surround the gig economy. First, contrary to popular assumption, people using organisations like Uber and Deliveroo represent only a fraction of the space. According to the Office of National Statistics, 15% of the entire British workforce are self-employed, with 5 million classifying as gig workers (freelancers, agency workers and those on zero-hour contracts).
The same study highlights a second misconception: that gig work is typically low-skilled. Some 60% of those who fall under the self-employed bracket fill highly skilled professional roles. Indeed, organisations like Fiverr and Upwork enable people to sell their specialist skills through a gig economy model. For example, an HR director tasked with delivering a Q3 people analytics strategy might use Upwork to find specialists to do that one task.
Our third misconception is highlighted by Head of Engagement at Cirrus Jenny Perkins, who points out that gig work isn’t just for millennials. “People often think contractual work is outside of the gig economy,” she says. “However, if you look at what it actually constitutes, which includes freelance and zero-hours contracts, then it’s not just the millennials.” Indeed, nearly one in four workers aged 50 and above are self employed – roughly double the rate of millennials.
The personas serve to illustrate that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to engaging gig workers. No matter their age or reasons for working, those employers must think broader in terms of how they motivate, incentivise and engage gig workers.
While the unprecedented rise of the gig economy poses challenges to workers and employers, the ability to connect talent with prospective work through technology opens up freedom and flexibility that the working landscape has never before seen.
In the not so distant past, freelance and contractual work was seen as a contingency for a lack of resources or skills shortages. But the accessibility of gig work today enables organisations to take a more proactive and sustainable approach to transient job hire, which in turn strengthens the worker’s foothold as they become pivotal to the business’ success. Here are a just a few of the draws for both parties.
The gig economy allows organisations to reduce employment costs, save resources, and gain access to talent and services previously beyond arm’s reach.
Permanent employees require continual upskilling, management and other responsibilities, while gig workers are effectively there on demand; their skills can be used as and when they’re needed. With a troop of specialist workers at their disposal, businesses can streamline process, essentially becoming platforms for collaborative work.
Handy on Photoshop and need a few extra quid? You can hire your skills to a startup in need of design through PeoplePerHour. Looking to broaden your horizons beyond one office? Use Upwork to become a self-employed freelancer.
At its best, the gig economy isn’t only a means of making money, it’s a route to achieving life goals. It’s a way of taking control and building your own routine; becoming your own boss and leading your own development.
Clearly there are benefits for both parties. However, you’ll notice in those examples the choices were ultimately in the hands of the worker. This is where a lot of the controversy around the gig economy has arisen, so it’s worth delving into a bit further.
New research from global consults McKinsey estimates that 14% of gig economy workers are ‘reluctants’ – would rather have full-time employment – while a further 16% are ‘financially strapped’ – those who supplement independent work out of necessity.
The trade-off between employee rights and flexibility becomes an issue when the worker finds themself in that 30%. “If gig work is the worker’s choice then it’s clearly a good thing,” says Jenny Perkins, “but there are people working in the gig economy who dearly want a full-time, employee status job.”
She continues: “It shouldn’t make a difference to employers if someone is working with them on a flexible basis because they choose to or are forced to – they should still be trying to give the worker the best possible experience.”
If the main benefit of having a mobile workforce is the fact they don’t need the same attention and resources as permanent employees, you might wonder why it’s important to engage them in the first place.
It’s all down to reciprocation. Flexibility works both ways: while the organisation craves loyalty, it also wants flexibility of its own. And the better an organisation looks after them, the more likely gig workers will be to make themselves available and deliver a good day’s work. So, as well as giving people a fair and decent working life, there’s also a business imperative behind engaging gig workers. Here are the three leaders:
Particularly on the lower-skilled spectrum of gig work, the benefit of keeping a mobilised set of remote workers is huge. Not only will their availability be more likely, they’ll also be less likely to sign up to get gigs with the competition.
Just because gig workers are often lone rangers doesn’t mean they don’t communicate with one another. If the word gets out that your organisation treats its workers as commodities, the chances are potential workers will look elsewhere. This essentially means becoming an employer of choice.
The amount organisations can pay gig workers in the lower-skilled end is limited. Incentivising workers beyond pay through engagement and other benefits is a key component in achieving the previous two areas: retention and attraction.
Deliveroo partnered with Perkbox to harness group sourcing and buying power to bolster its value proposition. Sara Martin, Deliveroo, explains the importance of gig worker engagement.
Nowadays, most employers want to do right by their full-time employees. And it’s true that rules and regulations differ when it comes to freelance and contractual work. But just because you don’t have full authority over these types of workers doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to motivate them.
Jenny Perkins points out that, while not all gig workers necessarily wants to be ‘engaged’, everyone does want to be treated with respect and dignity. “With technology as it is today,” she says, “this doesn't mean you need to ring people up and have a chat with them every day to make them feel part of things and wanted.
“There are plenty of brilliant apps everyone has access to that allow you to connect with people and to share information about what is happening. There are easy ways to keep people in touch and to communicate with them.”
There is, however, a balancing act. It’s important not to expect the same from freelance workers as you would a permanent employee. Gig workers are by definition motivated by work/life balance, so it’s essential organisations respect their autonomy.
“There are 4.8 million self-employed people. At ITSE our mission is to represent and support these people. We have 68,000 members of whom 5,500 are Uber partner drivers who are some of the most productive, flexible, highly skilled workers in the economy. It would be a huge mistake to ignore them.
“A major challenge for organisations is these workers are not a homogenous group. People find it difficult to define them: “Who are they?” “What do they do?”. Once you boil it down, there are a lot of similarities between them but there are very separate segments.
“We identified nine distinct, different sub-sections of self-employment workers. It is a challenge but you would be crazy not to engage them. They are vital to the economy as a whole.”
Toby Tetrault, Head of Marketing at IPSE
As the average employee tenure continues to diminish, it’s not uncommon for gig workers to stick around for longer than permanent employees. It’s vital, therefore, to make a concerted effort to engage and motivate them.
The lack of accessibility is the main challenge to this. By definition, these people will fulfill their duties at least partially away from the employer’s workplace. This makes it particularly hard to find out on an individual level their drivers for working in the first place. Only when employers have that information will they be able to effectively engage gig economy workers. Here are seven steps to get you underway.
As technology has opened the doors to this way of work, it also provides the key to engagement. Toby Tetrault, Head of Marketing at IPSE draws our attention to the fact digital savviness is a prerequisite for gig economy work.
“[Workers] often digital nomads who are often engaging with this technology on a daily basis,” he says. “Employers should use SMS or email or platform messaging to communicate with them.”
While the development and training of gig workers isn’t typically the responsibility of employers, it’s a mutually beneficial practice to involve the cohort in such schemes. Many gig workers will likely have been hired in the first place to deliver on their existing skills, but treating them as is they were employees will give them an incentive to stick around and impress.
This essentially means building a robust employee value proposition (EVP), despite the fact they’re not technically ‘employees’. Let’s call it a GVP.
Never forget your gig cohort exists because of the flexibility the agreement offers. It’s essential that employers respect this, and resist the temptation to treat them as they would a regular 9-5 workforce.
This is particularly important to remember when you’re using digital platforms to connect with and mobilise your remote workers – it should be about keeping them in touch, not on a leash.
There’s no better way to show gig workers their value than by revealing to them the end result of their efforts. Jenny explains how her consultancy worked with a call centre which had a problem with gig worker no-shows. They devised to tell each worker anecdotes about the customers they help on a daily basis: “We might talk about sorting out a lady’s card that has been declined,” she says.
“She is housebound and her groceries are being delivered but she cannot have them because her card has been declined. If you were not there then that lady would have no food for the entire weekend.”
Creating meaning is a bid for moving way from transactional relationships, and to encourage workers to deliver a better service. Gone are the days when organisations would have a host of employees without a defined purpose on the payroll.
Businesses use gig workers because their contribution matters, and Jenny points out that this can be used as an engagement tool. She says: “It should not be hard for organisations to understand what that meaning is and how to share it with people.”
Gig economy organisations such as Deliveroo are leading the way in building a community around its workers. They’re creating a sense of togetherness among workers through multi-platform technology and also periodic events.
This not only opens up a support network for work that can be isolating, it can also create an affinity with your brand. The IPSE exists to support self-employed workers of all disciplines.
Through her work with Cirrus, Jenny Perkins has experienced first-hand the power of engaging with gig workers through basic human communication. She highlights an example in the care sector, a space characterised by its zero-hour contract, low-paid, flexible workforces.
“We found that care organisations in some regions were outperforming others,” she says. “We talked to the regional managers right down to each office and each branch and looked at how they were dealing with people. Successful branches were the ones where the manager knew everyone who was on their books by name. When they rang up to ask, ‘Can you come tonight?’ or ‘Can you work on Saturday?’ she would always be able to say, “How is your mum?” or “Did you enjoy your birthday?”
“She was treating people as people. She had no problem at all bringing people in at short notice and on short hours or flexible because it goes both ways.”
“We communicate with our rider fleet through a number of channels, which are spread across online, phone and in person. The gig economy is a very competitive space, therefore our rider proposition is key to our success. As such our proposition goes beyond fees and the flexible working.
“Our relationship with Perkbox allows us to offer great discounts to riders. This not only helps them with the cost of working but also to save money on things that are traditionally a barrier to entry, such as discounted vehicles and insurance.
“We offer things that keep them safe on the roads, such as discounts on bike repairs and servicing at Halfords and Cycle Republic. In addition we offer benefits that reflect how much we value them, such as the free coffees at Café Nero and various other activities. These show riders that we do genuinely care about them.”
IPSE is a non-profit making organisation. It is the largest association that represents self-employed and independent professionals in the UK. It has roughly 68,000 members that traverses over the whole industry of self-employment, from contractors to consultants to gig workers to high-end creatives.
Once a self-employed person becomes an IPSE member they get access to a range of business covers, including cover for sickness, jury service, client defaults and tax investigations.
Members also have access to free tax and legal helplines, discounts from Perkbox and a lot of events. Its flagship National Freelancers Day is attended by around 500-700 people, and members get free access to the full day, which includes lunch and learning opportunities.
There are now 4.8 million self-employed in the UK. That’s a 34% rise since 2008. And while it’s hard to put a number on it, the evidence suggests this figure will increase further in the next decade.
Young people entering the job market are seeking more and more flexibility– and prospective employers are beginning to have the same idea. But the data clearly shows the empowerment and flexibility are also compelling to older audiences too. Toby reminds us that the principle of engagement is a simple one, regardless of age. “The more employers appreciate workers,” he says, “the better the environment becomes and the more that it will grow.”
As the gig economy continues to disrupt an increasing number of industries, it’s also clear that more people will secure gig work out of necessity, rather than choice. So as organisations like IPSE fight to ensure regulation works for the people in the space, this ebook has highlighted the many things employers can do in the here and now to make the lives of their gig workers more engaging, meaningful and fulfilling.