(Spoiler alert: Treat them like customers!)
We can now sell our skilled services to someone who wants to use them via online communities, at the click of a button. The overlap between the skills we have (our product), the ease of sharing online (the marketplace), and the transparency of reputation (our performance/online ratings) has led to many new opportunities for people to go work in a more fluid and on demand way. These people often work in short “gigs”, entering or exiting the marketplace at will. While it’s difficult to know the actual size of this gig economy workforce, data suggests it is growing rapidly.
What’s the gig deal?
With technology making it much easier to connect available talent with prospective work, the potential upsides of this gig deal—for both organizations and employees—quickly become apparent:
- For organizations, the proposition of on-demand employees is attractive: a more flexible workforce that is there only when you need it, without the longer-term responsibility and challenges that come with permanent employees. Keeping skills up-to-date becomes the employee’s responsibility, while organizations become the platform through which collective work is coordinated. Businesses become brands that manage the services of others.
- For employees, there is an equally attractive proposition: a working deal that is 100% employee-centric—work on your own schedule, be accountable for your own performance and development, and avoid the potential miseries of being “stuck” with an organization (remember the last time you had an incompetent boss?). The rise in popularity of gig work is similar to the recent glamorisation of entrepreneurship, except it requires far less vision, resources and risk-taking, and thus is accessible to most of the population.
New deal, new challenges
Even though this gig economy sounds like a win-win, there is a catch: while gig workers enjoy the increased flexibility and empowerment of being their own boss, they give up some degree of security and structure in their lives. The flexibility they sign up for also becomes their biggest worry. As a result, they are more likely to be individualistic in their approach to work and less likely to be interested in protecting the brand of the organization they gig for—a substantial risk for any business.
The flexibility of the gig economy therefore becomes both its biggest strength and biggest weakness. Many companies have recognised this risk and have attempted to design complex incentive solutions and behavioural nudges for their workers, such as the psychological tricks Uber uses to keep drivers on the job longer. But, the results have been mixed at best. Creating strong short-term incentives for people to participate does little for engaging them in the mission, purpose, and performance of the company. Participation does not equal engagement.
Gig workers are people too
Assuming that the gig economy will grow, how can companies manage gig workers better? Our view is that gig workers need to have a relationship with the brand that employs them, in the same way that customers have relationships with the brands they purchase. When consumers use a brand to represent aspects of their identity, they become ambassadors—and the same is true for employees. When employees feel a strong sense of connection between their identity and the work they are doing, they are more likely to feel invested and engaged in their work.
Helping giggers thrive
To learn how to foster this sense of engagement, we can turn to the work that psychologists have been doing for the past 50 years in the area of industrial and organizational psychology. The research shows that people want three things from the work they do:
- Meaning and structure
- Belonging and camaraderie
- Feeling important, valued and respected for the work they do
No matter what work they are doing, people crave these three things, and there is no evidence to suggest gig economy workers are any different. So, what would this 3-part formula look like for gig economy workers?
1. Provide meaning and structure
While it’s tempting to focus communications about company strategy on permanent employees, we should recognise that gig workers crave context and meaning as much as anyone else in the workforce. It’s therefore important to ensure that there is a well communicated mission and purpose that all employees can be proud of. Giggers need a “story”, which makes them feel special for contributing, to tell their family and friends. The story provides the meaning. When it comes to structure, it’s important to get rewards and incentives right—the work must be worthwhile with a strong sense of predictability. Links between performance and rewards need to be very clear so that the structure of the deal is obvious.
2. Create a sense of belonging and connection
We’re all social beings who crave camaraderie and belonging—two things that are often missing from gig economy jobs, which are viewed as sitting outside of the mainstream “community” of an organization. To foster a sense of community, companies need mechanisms that help people feel like part of the crew, whether it’s through a strong brand identity or online communities to share stories and exchange ideas. Giving gig workers a way to participate in the collective and feel part of something bigger than themselves can help build a stronger sense of commitment and engagement.
3. Value and respect your workforce
We all want to feel valued and fairly compensated for our contributions. Giving giggers a way to progress their status (for example, levels of ratings, badges or titles based on volume of work or customer ratings) is a great way to create incentive and a sense of progress and achievement. People value the opportunity to feel elite and putting mechanisms in place that allow them to do that can help build loyalty and meet peoples’ need to feel important for what they do.
Gig workers are not so different from any other worker in what it takes to motivate and engage them. But, it will take some creative solutions to reach giggers since they may work different schedules and in different places than permanent employees. The key is to connect gig workers to your brand and mission—just as you strive to do with your customers.