Three Questions for HR – The Gig Career

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According to the Oxford dictionary, a ‘gig’ is “a job, especially one that is temporary or that has an uncertain future.” The term derives from the act of musicians performing live – usually in a once off or infrequent basis in order to progress their career. Anyone who knows a musician (or who is one) will tell you it’s hardly a comforting way to make a living. The vicarious upside of the gig career model is that it’s an extremely dynamic, flexible, and unpredictable existence, one punctuated by moments of excitement, success, and euphoria.

This brings us to the ‘gig economy’. For a number of years, a rise in the prevalence of short term contracted employment, freelancing, and independent contracting, has created a rather unusual labour market. The ‘gig’ model lies in stark contrast to the linear, salaried positions dominant across Western economies since the middle of the 20th Century. The purported benefits of the gig economy is that it allows flexibility for both employees and employers, that it reflects the fast pace of technological change (see: Uber, AirBnB), and that it provides a more agile manner to complete finite projects. However, detractors claim it’s an economic model that intensifies existing inequalities in the labour market and does not provide adequate protections for workers. Despite objections, it appears to be a model that is critical to the development of some ‘new’ career pathways premised on agility and experiential development. In the 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report article From careers to experiences: New pathways, Deloitte eloquently outlines the fundamental nature of the evolving career model:

“Rather than an orderly, sequential progression from job to job, 21st-century careers can be viewed as a series of developmental experiences, each offering the opportunity to acquire new skills, perspectives, and judgment”

If we take the position that the gig career model is here to stay (for now), then HR professionals should probably ask themselves a few supplementary questions:

What does the gig career model mean for employees and their careers?

Because a lot of the initiative for undertaking employment is left up to the individual, the types of skills and interactions needed to get work completed has undergone small, but significant shifts. A 2017 study by Upwork of 1000 hiring managers, found that over half said they use freelancers to “scale up quickly for a project,” or to “leverage skills we don’t currently have.” However, it was also noted that one of the major concerns of such work was that developing relationships with the existing team was tough, and that it was difficult to hold them accountable. John Boudreau suggests that these findings may not be surprising given that teamwork skills are likely not prioritised for short term or remote contracts. This creates an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, it’s clearly beneficial to employers to have temporary gaps in operations filled by qualified, work-hungry professionals. However, often the desired teamwork and intrapersonal interactions crucial in creating meaning and defining teams takes a big hit. In an age where interaction and human contact is in high demand – this might just be a pertinent paradox to explore further.

The imperative on the development of skills must of course fall to the individual – and while linear qualifications from established institutions (schools, universities, trade colleges) are still the go-to for many, more and more digital platforms abound for continued learning and development. Employees must also be cognizant of the types of organizations they’re working with. Organizations that afford agile career progression opportunities and constant learning pathways are probably much more likely to attract longer-term employees alongside better qualified and motivated contingent workers. So, if careers are to be mindsets, rather than merely a formalized economic tool for individuals – why should HR assume it’s any different for the business?

What does this model mean for HR and the Business?

Building a modern organization to accommodate the contingency of the modern workforce is a huge strategic and practical challenge. HR professionals sit at the vanguard of this challenge, as a complete understanding of the shifting nature of work for each industry/organization is essential. HR organizations must become more agile – by design and by practice. HR must understand the human capital technology at their disposal and how it augments workforce strategy. Talent, performance, rewards, and L&D in particular are now increasingly digitalized and mobile. Gone are the days of yearly appraisals and one-off end of year bonuses. A contingent workforce requires and equally adaptable and functional HR organization that can accommodate all manner of employees and their individual needs. To capture the strategic zeitgeist, HR must engage the employee ecosystem. Deloitte’s recent research publications on contingent workforce management highlight some of the key practical challenges that HR is facing:

  • HR should work with legal and IT to give contract workers clear performance goals, secure communication systems, and the right amount of training and support
  • HR should get more involved in sourcing and selection decisions for alternative workers
  • Organizations should provide ecosystem workers with onboarding and development opportunities
  • Companies should consider workforce brand and incentive programs that cover the range of ecosystem workers

Organizations must invest in career pathways and talent management systems that accommodate agility, and also maximise the engagement of the workforce. In a sense, the internal and external workforces are becoming more blended, while successful organizations provide learning and career solutions for all manner of employees – from ‘lifers’, to short term contracted parties. Amy Edmondson suggests that to minimise the risk to team productivity, it may organizations should ensure ensure that cross-functional and fluid team models replace static, bounded teams. This extends from the most basic workplace interactions, right the way to how HR structures its processes to capitalize on agility. Hiring for ‘people skills’ will likely become more crucial than ever before.

So where does this leave the ‘career’ model we’ve mostly grown up understanding?

This all leads to a final speculation: are we in a post-career age? Now clearly there are many different ways to look at this, and I am not for a second suggesting that careers have disappeared – well, perhaps in the way we might have thought of them in 1965. Careers certainly do exist, and for many professions that require specific certifications or some gated entry, there are still pathways that are well defined and established – these are not going to disappear overnight. But even within these areas the scope of work might begin to change as technology streamlines some transactional tasks. Despite the uneven depth and pace of change, for many people, jumping on to Upwork or Freelancer might just be the most efficient way to get into the labour market. The ‘gig career’ may not be a comforting ideal at this current time, but it’s going to be an integral part of the marketplace for the next few years at the very least – just ask the musicians.

For HR professionals, taking these questions into consideration will be an essential element in their day-to-day work. The need for greater organizational agility, flexible career pathways, and bespoke practices for; learning, talent, performance, rewards, and employee experience is now the new normal.

Bibliography and further suggested reading:

Agarwal D, Bersin J, Lahiri G, Schwartz J, Volini E., Deloitte 2018 Global Human Capital Trends, The workforce ecosystem: Managing beyond the enterprise, March 28, 2018.

Agarwal et al., Deloitte 2018 Global Human Capital Trends, From careers to experiences: New pathways, March 28, 2018.

Boudreau, John. Are Freelancers Your Best Performers? Applying Organizational Network Analysis to the Gig Economy, May 8, 2018.

Edmondson, Amy. Senior Executives at Today’s Leading Enterprises Increasingly Focus on Developing People and Enabling Collaboration, March 19, 2018.

The 3rd HR Congress Brussels, November 27-28 will feature a selection of sessions that will explore this topic and much more! Follow the HR Congress Blog for more interesting ideas and content from around the world of work!

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