Set The Stage To Win The Next War For Talent: Gig Workers

It’s fitting that the term “gig” was coined by Jazz musicians in the 1920s (it’s derived from “engagement”). After all, jazz music itself is experimental, complex and improvisational. Today’s businesses are relying more and more on gig workers for similar reasons. As organizations grow more complex, they require more agile thinking. As labor markets tighten, they rely more and more on experimental workforce models. As full time employees (FTEs) seek permanent flexibility, organizations face the potential loss of key skills and institutional knowledge.

Today, 25% to 35% of US workers engage in non-standard or gig work on a supplementary or primary basis, according to data compiled by the Aspen Institute. About 1 in 10 workers identify as primarily gig workers, according the US Bureau of Labor statistics. And an astronomical 77% of executives believe freelance and gig workers will substantially replace full-time employees within the next four years, according to Mercer’s Global Talent Trends.

So, if not now then soon most companies will find themselves competing to attract and retain the best gig workers. How do you create avenues where the best and brightest seek to temporarily perform again and again?

Not extra. Core.

Companies choose gig workers for reasons of resilience, flexibility and agility. Gig workers enable them to shift their sources of labor and respond to any potential scenario that may disrupt operations or create new opportunities. Now, there are no shortages of channels and platforms for accessing gig workers, however, using these platforms effectively requires integrating gig workers into a company’s overall workforce strategy and culture.

A transactional mindset may have worked 10 years ago when gig workers were viewed as supplementary to the rest of the workforce, but that approach is no longer viable or desirable. Today, gig workers are a critical source of labor and need to be engaged with the same degree of thought, planning and investment that we bring to engaging employees. As the Chief HR Officer of a large technology firm once said to me: “Our employees might choose us for the free food and concierge services, but the 3,500 gig workers we use actively choose us every day. How do I ensure we are their first choice when they have opportunities with our competitors? How do I build a relationship with them?”

To answer these concerns, we’re starting to see progressive companies (26%) develop specific value propositions for their contingent talent in order to attract, retain and engage gig workers, according to Mercer’s July 2021, “The gig workforce as a strategic driver for businesssurvey.

Not cheap. Skilled.

Gig workers are no longer viewed solely as a source of cheap labor but rather, increasingly, as a source for the pivotal skills required of the organization. In fact, freelancers are increasingly high-skilled. Half (50%) of freelancers provide skilled services such as computer programming, marketing, IT, and business consulting, up from 45% in 2019, according to UpWork’s Freelance Forward: 2020 study.

Some of the world’s best software developers are on talent platforms like Toptal and 10X. The “democratization” of this talent could be a boon for organizations of all sizes as they can now access digital talent that might previously have been unavailable to them because they were “captive” in a job with high wages. Now, this talent can be accessed for a project or an assignment. So, when companies are challenged with hiring digital talent into full time jobs, why not deconstruct the job into its core elements so the most pivotal tasks can be deployed to a talented gig worker who can do the work on her terms?

Not rigid. Flexible.

Some talent chooses gig work because of the flexibility and variety of work it affords them. Three in four gig workers say being an independent worker provides them with the flexibility they need to better manage their personal and work lives, according to MetLife. And two-thirds of non-freelancers say they would consider freelancing as a career option to take care of a family member, according to UpWork.

Traditionally, women have been more likely to leave the workforce for caregiving reasons, but the UpWork finding suggests that the desire for flexibility has expanded across genders. If past is prologue, then many of these former FTEs will not return to the traditional workforce. Rather, they will turn to gig work to refresh skills and maintain flexibility. 

In the end, the demand for flexibility is clear. What is less clear is employers’ ability to account for the loss of valued talent due to inflexible work and reward structures and their ability to hire back such talent on a less permanent basis. In this fog, however, we can see the faint light of opportunity. One where companies are starting to reinvent work so talent can flow more seamlessly to it across a variety of engagement mechanisms (jobs, gigs, assignments, etc.). Where talent can craft their own unique deal that aligns to their sense of purpose and ensures their well-being. Where employers not only update policies around benefits to attract and retain the best contingent workers, but also utilize new benefit delivery systems that offer gig workers direct access to portable benefits (health, voluntary, and even professional liability insurance).

Altogether, engagement, purpose and access creates additional loyalty points that, along with fair pay, makes it possible to become an employer “of choice” for this critical and growing skill source.

Perfect harmonies

In 1938, Billy Strayhorn, the composer of one of the greatest jazz standards – Take the A train – was introduced to Duke Ellington. As author David Hadju describes, Ellington asked Strayhorn to play for him and, after playing a song exactly as Ellington played it in concert, Strayhorn then played it in his own style. This kicked off a 30-year collaboration. Strayhorn had the necessary skills to support Ellington at gigs. But he also brought a sleeper set of talents that brought even greater fame to the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

That’s the beauty of gig workers. Used strategically and paid fairly, gig workers can play your tune perfectly, while offering perspectives and talent you may not even imagine at the outset. It can all add up to harmonious, successful, and recurring collaborations.

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