Growing numbers of organisations are electing to employ individuals on a contract and freelance basis, leading to increasing numbers of individuals stepping away from traditional working methods to meet this need. The pandemic has escalated this trend, and the way people work is evolving rapidly. Many employers are utilising the gig economy for its benefits of lower cost labour and a flexible workforce, and workers are using this mode of employment to access new opportunities and create a fulfilling work-life balance. There are clearly benefits for both sides, but the fact remains that the best way to get the most from freelance or contract workers is effective management.
Being a manger is a challenging role at the best of times; being able to consider the needs of the business along with those of the employees you manage is a difficult balancing act, and one that only becomes more complex when you begin incorporating the needs of workers within the gig economy.
Who’s Responsible for Managing Gig Workers?
Some may argue that the role of a manger is less important for ‘gig workers’ i.e. those in freelance or contractor roles, as typically such workers are self-employed, and hence should be responsible for managing themselves. However, while the approach to working may be different, running a successful business still comes down to one thing: people, and arguably you can’t get the best out of people unless they are well-managed. The overall challenge is that generally no one is willing to take responsibility.
The growing role of the gig economy in the global working structure is already having significant impacts on how many people work and how many new businesses operate and it is clear things will continue to change as this sector grows. The resulting impact does raise some interesting questions, such as: do freelancers, contractors and casual workers require the same level of management as full-time employees or should they be left to their own devices and held entirely accountable for the work they produce? Or does ultimate responsibility still fall to the management of the hiring organisation?
Despite their ‘self-employed’ status, many gig workers are have been employees in the past and will be used to the standard work environment where having a formal management structure in place is expected. Although they may be striking out on their own, most will continue to expect some form of direction from those they’re working in partnership with. Conversely, companies or individuals hiring freelancers see this group as ‘self-employed’ and therefore responsible for their own workload and tasks, meaning that many workers aren’t getting the support and direction they need to do a good job, leading to dissatisfaction all round.
In most cases these individuals are regarded as self-employed and hired on short-term contracts; and this is part of the reason some employers don’t regard the management of these individuals as their responsibility. But just as with employees, if freelancers aren’t provided with adequate support and guidance, and treated with respect, their performance will almost inevitably decline. Organisations and gig workers would both benefit from thinking proactively about the role of management. Organisations need to be clear about how they can better support their casual workforce in ensuring the agreed outcomes are met, and gig workers need to consider what kind of support they need in order to perform at their best, and ask for it when they’re brought on board.
Top Tips for Managing Gig Workers
Take the time to understand this workforce
There are a lot of highly skilled workers available who actively choose to be part of the gig economy because of the benefits it brings to them in terms of flexibility and work-life balance, and in order to better manage individuals in this population, it’s important to think about why they have elected to work in this way and try to honour that.
Some businesses have simply turned to gig workers because they often offer a cheaper option than recruiting full-time employees, yet continue to treat them as full-time employees in terms of work demands. This is what’s causing so much tension in organisations such as Uber; businesses are trying to have their cake and eat it too. It’s important that organisations respect the needs of these workers and aim to develop a partnership that is mutually beneficial, especially if you find a highly reliable freelancer that is doing great work. Effective management is a huge part of this; smart businesses will try and retain these reliable, skilled workers, even if they can’t have them full-time (whether that’s because of worker’s choice or employer’s). By managing them effectively it will ensure both parties continue to benefit and the first step to doing so is to understand their needs and frustrations.
Value your agile workforce
One of the risks of hiring an agile workforce is their ability to up sticks and ditch your work any time they choose (subject to contact of course) so if you want to get the best out of this population and reduce the chances of them leaving mid-way through a project, they need to be recognised for their contribution, just as equally as permanent staff are. These individuals have chosen to work with you, so demonstrate to them they’ve made a good choice, especially if you advertise your jobs on a sharing platform for flexible workers, as reviews may well impact your chances of hiring suitable staff in the future. Companies that are coming under fire because of working conditions are not recognising the inherent risk in poorly managing and treating their freelance workforce. If all the workers partnering with a company that depends on them for their business to survive, decided it wasn’t worth the hassle, then the company would quickly go bust. Organisations need to recognise the importance of valuing and actively appreciating their workforce, regardless of its make-up.
Make it clear what is expected
A significant challenge within the gig economy is a mismatch of expectations between workers and employers; the employers who encounter troubles with gig workers typically expect to get low paid workers that are available at their beck and call, while workers are enticed into this method of working by promises of ‘work when you like, how you like’. These two viewpoints are inherently incompatible, so in order for either party to get the outcome they desire, effort needs to be made from the start to clarify what is expected.
Some gig workers may be completely comfortable taking on as many job offers as possible to earn as much money as they can, so will leap at the chance for on-going work assignments. Others, on the other hand may prefer something more flexible or ad-hoc that they really can fit around other things. Either way, the only way employers will get the right people for their projects is to make it clear what is expected, and give workers the chance to express their expectations too, to make sure they match.
It’s also essential to be open and clear about the objectives of the project that a gig worker is being assigned. Although most are highly experienced in their field, they will still need clear guidelines on what the project is, what outcomes are expected, and what the measures of success are. These are fundamental to successful management of any employee, and gig workers are no different.
When expectations are not clear it creates ambiguity and stress for both parties and this can be easily avoided with effective management from the outset. For individuals to feel happy, rewarded and supported, it’s not just about having access to pensions or holiday – it’s about being treated well and having appropriate management support so they can utilise the opportunity to grow in their careers.
Get comfortable managing remotely
Many freelance workers will not work on site, may work non-standard hours, and will manage their own time – this is part of the reasons people opt for freelance work, because they don’t have to be tied to a particular place or time when completing a project. However, this means that anyone managing a freelance team needs to be comfortable managing remotely. This is not something all leaders are comfortable with, as many rely on observation and input data to assess the quality of work. The idea that you may be paying an individual X amount per hour to complete a project, and they might be working on someone else’s project or sitting in their PJs watching TV when you think they ‘should’ be working can create mistrust and an unpleasant environment for everyone. It’s therefore important that anyone involved in managing freelance workers is comfortable in managing a remote population. This is not a skill that all managers have, so may be something that actively needs to be developed before attempting to manage gig workers.
Avoid the danger of exclusion
Because they’re freelancers and not technically ‘part of the team’ non-employee workers are often not included in company updates, team meetings or brainstorming sessions, even when the outcomes of these events may impact their work. In some instances this is entirely acceptable and expected from both sides, but there will be situations where having the input of your freelance team, or at least giving them a proper heads up about relevant issues will pay dividends. Effective management in the gig economy will involve deciding when to include or exclude a freelancer from work-related meetings and updates, but excluding them purely because they are not an ‘employee’ will not benefit anyone.
Even if you are only hiring a worker for one task, for one day, take time to introduce them to the company, explain what you’re all about and why their input is important; you’re sure to get a much better level of engagement and higher quality of work compared with simply handing over the brief and telling them it’s due by close of play. Including your agile workforce as appropriate will also help boost their investment in your company; they will feel part of the bigger picture and this engagement will normally play a role in boosting worker satisfaction and consequently performance.
While it may seem like a drastically different mode of working, the needs of those in the gig economy are no different to those of permanent employees, and as a result managing them needn’t be a significant cause of stress. Yes, there are some aspects that make it more challenging, such as the fact they may work remotely almost exclusively, or that they may not work standard hours, so may not always be available at ideal times. However, at its core, managing in the gig economy still revolves around the standard principles of effective management – giving people the time, respect and necessary tools needed to do their job well, and that should be within the remit of every manager, no matter who they manage or how their employees work.