People Who Need People: Understanding the Gig Economy Workforce

As the movement toward employee flexibility and independence escalates, you need to be prepared for how to manage your workforce. Here are some practices to help keep employees engaged.

“Organizations need talent more than talent needs organizations.” —Dan Pink

I heard Dan say this and I looked at my friend sitting beside me and had the proverbial light go off inside my head. It’s not necessarily a new way of thinking about talent, but it’s a clean way. And if you’re in the talent business at a large organization, it has to shake you to the core a bit. You don’t have the leverage the way you used to have when you were trying to bring people into your organization or stopping them from leaving your organization. Your leverage is gone.

Organizations gave up a good deal of their leverage when the opted for more flexibility with their workforce. Roles were no longer safe from the chopping block; employee loyalty was no longer rewarded or recognized. It was a business, and profits were what mattered. You know the story: Roles off-shored and organizations went flat; less people, less overhead, more profits. But then the tides turned. Once the stability of organizational life went, so, too, did loyalty. You wanted flexibility—you have it now. 

My guess is that in the late 1980s and 1990s, nobody could have predicted it to go to this extreme. Organizations still have the capital, resources, and wherewithal to do great things. But technology has leveled the playing field. If you’re talented and you have an idea, you don’t need direct organizational support to make it happen. You can go alone. And people are. And get this: They’re enjoying it. According to a report by MBO Partners, the rate of independent workers went up 5.5 percent in the last year. No doubt some of that has to do with layoffs and restructuring, but don’t expect independents to return to organizations when the economy turns. MBO also projects that by 2020, independent workers will account for more than 50 percent of the private workforce.

Work Has Become Untethered

So if you’re in talent and you’re making a case for why talent should consider coming to you, it had better be a good one because you’re swimming against a tide of forces that may be difficult to overcome. For starters, you’re up against an economy that has created an ideal set of conditions for the entrepreneurial spirit to take a shot at going at it alone. With unemployment still high, especially for Generation Y (13.7 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds are unemployed), and with the new health-care provision that keeps young adults covered under mom and dad until they’re 26, it’s no surprise 21 percent of the independent workforce is made up of Gen Yers (MBO Partners, “The State of Independence in America”).

But it’s more than just Gen Y that is moving into the independent workforce. It’s happening across all demographics, and it’s happening because of the economy, restructuring, globalization, technological innovation, and a social movement that is seeing us move to more flexible work and people asking for tradeoffs in stability for flexibility. Work has become unhinged. People are no longer chained to their desks; knowledge work, in particular, no longer requires office hours that keep you leashed from 9 to 5 to a set position. Work can be done anywhere.

Early indications are that even as the economy turns, the ranks of the independents will continue to swell. If the health-care reform act in 2014 can get us to a state of lower premiums and insurance that can travel with the individual, I’d be surprised if the ranks don’t overflow. People are getting itchy out there. They want to move. So let’s return to the original point: Organizations need talent more than talent needs organizations. As work continues to become unhinged and this movement toward flexibility and independence escalates, you need to be prepared for how to manage your workforce. It’s no easy task, but there are policies and practices you should be considering to keep your people engaged:

  • For starters, lose the 9 to 5 mandate; it’s gone. People work around the clock; don’t force them to the office for face time. Having a place where your team can assemble a few times a week is nice—there is still something to be said about relationships. Build a communal office, a place where people can mix ideas and talk shop. Be mindful of the environment you’re asking your people to work in. It matters. Aesthetics need to be more than just wall art prints from the impressionist era. It’s not a dentist office, it’s a place of work, and you’re looking to stimulate creativity and thought. You’re not prepping people to face a drill.
  • Don’t get hung up on micromanagement. Show your people the way and then get out of the way and let them do their thing. Easier said than done, I know, but we need to get better not only at leadership practices, but our management practices; upskill both areas in your organization. Teach your people new things and then let them teach you new things. Become an observer and focus on the employee experience. There’s a ton of talk in business circles about the customer experience, and teams in Fortune 500 companies have sprung up to address the customer. Build a team that addresses the employee, too. I’ve only seen a few in existence currently. It’s more than HR policy and practice; it’s the holistic experience.
  • Lastly, do right by your people. Work never stops—it’s a 24x7 proposition. So you need to loosen up and give your people flexibility for them to maintain sanity. If you want to keep them, engage them, because it looks like you’re going to need them a lot more than they are going to need you in the future.

Dr. Curtis Odom is president of Stuck On Start Coaching, a boutique career-coaching firm serving the needs of recent college graduates, and early career professionals. Prior to Stuck on Start, Dr. Odom worked in the field of talent management, supporting Fortune 500 companies around the globe with their hiring needs and challenges. He is the author of four books, including “Stuck in the Middle,” “Generation X Approved,” and “Mind the Gap,” as well as his newest release, “From Campus to Corner Office: How Co-Ops and Internship Will Help You Win in the Workplace.” Learn more at www.stuckonstartcoaching.com.

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