Nura Jabagi is a PhD candidate in business-technology management at Concordia University.
What do Tinder and the gig economy have in common? Both are killing long-term monogamous relationships and replacing them with casual hookups.
Over the past decade, unprecedented developments in information technology have led to the virtualization of the workplace and driven exceptional growth in non-traditional working arrangements. A salient offshoot of this techno-boom is the gig economy.
Hailed by many as the “new economy,” the U.S. gig economy saw participation rates increase 47-fold over the years between 2012-15, from 0.1 per cent of adults to 4.2 per cent. In Canada, as much as one-third of the Canadian work force is composed of non-traditional workers and, according to Intuit Canada, that figure is expected to rise to nearly half by 2020. Although Uber and Airbnb are generally thought to be the poster kids of the gig economy, this digital job market stretches well beyond the transportation and accommodation sectors.
Everyone from dog-sitters to professional chefs and scientists are using these digital labour platforms to score a short-term “side hustle” and the Queen is no exception. Not surprisingly, the allure of the “gig“ is now reaching major corporations. According to an Accenture survey of more than 5,400 business and IT managers worldwide, 85 per cent of executives said last year they planned to increase their organization’s use of independent workers.
Increasing participation in the gig economy stems from a desire for flexibility. On the one hand, organizations view hiring on-demand workers as a way to bring agile work force scaling to their business model. On the other, gig workers enjoy the freedom and empowerment to be their own boss. While this may sound like a match made in heaven, the attraction of flexibility is a double-edged sword that carries profound implications for how organizations manage work in this new economy.
Like most entrepreneurs, gig workers pay for their freedom by relinquishing a certain degree of security in their lives. As a result, they are more likely to have a “what’s-in-it-for-me?” attitude toward work and perhaps less likely to be concerned with promoting and protecting the brand of the organization for which they work. While this poses a significant risk for any business, it can be the kiss of death for organizations that rely on gig workers to independently (and often without supervision) advance organizational goals.
Adding to this risk is the fact that gig workers are often interacting directly with an organization’s clients, making them the “face” of the organization. Relying on an independent gig worker to effectively serve as a “brand ambassador” brings yet another dimension of risk that must be considered by organizations. Although companies such as Upwork and Uber have tried to counter these risks by adopting platform-surveillance software that allows them to virtually “look over the shoulders” of their independent workers, or by experimenting with video-game techniques to entice gig workers to work more hours, the results have been mixed.
This is not surprising given the abundance of research that shows that employee monitoring can kill morale (making employees feel detached and undervalued) and that short-term incentives alone do little for connecting people with the organization’s mission and goals. Seemingly, these organizations have overlooked the fundamental importance of the employer-employee relationship on employee productivity, loyalty and retention.
What next? Few would dispute that multidecade employer-employee relationships are nearly extinct. However, we may need to admit that with the gig economy, monogamy might soon be dead, too. In a world where digital labour platforms evoke a Tinder-like market where once a worker has completed their gig, both parties swipe left and walk away without further promise or commitment, successful organizations must move quickly to rethink their human resource management strategies.
Ironically, the first step in this journey is recognizing that while the traditional model of work has been shelved for many, gig workers are not so different from regular nine-to-fivers in what they need to thrive: a sense of purpose in what they do, and a feeling of belonging and importance. While strong employee-employer relationships can support this engagement, building these relationships will undoubtedly take some creativity in this new world of work.