Depending on who you listen to, there are two versions of the story: An explosion of freelance work is turning Australia into a nation of entrepreneurs, or it will create more losers than winners.
The first story suggests we’re on the brink of some kind of gig-driven utopia. We’re all going to live by the beach, work when we feel like it, and get rich along the way. The second suggests we’re headed for disaster, with contractors exploited and abused.
But if you ask me, the tail is wagging the dog. It’s time to confront some truths. For starters, is Australia really set up for a large-scale gig economy? Do we have the demand for it? Or is this a false scenario we’re putting in place and then worrying about?
Popular rhetoric right now is that businesses must offer talent flexible, part-time, short-term contracts; millennials aren’t committed to permanent roles because they’re seeking variety and independence. Want the best people? Then you must give them want they want and change your employment model accordingly.
Workers are told that they can have their cake and eat it. They can demand flexible freelance roles, work for the best companies, and make a good living. In fact, it’s not just a matter of having the opportunity. They’re increasingly told that they should, for fear of not being entrepreneurial enough.
But this ignores the realities of the world we live in. Businesses still need to build teams that will deliver on their ambitions. We need to be mindful as employers that we’re not offering gig-type jobs at the detriment of our business goals.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s clearly an opportunity to look at the makeup and structure of your talent and offer a range of different working models. Your people are ultimately your greatest asset. You need to think about how you balance their well-being and professional development. But it’s important to drown out the noise.
What do millennials want?
The current gig worker frenzy is based on the broad assumption that this is what millennials want. But do they? No doubt it’s attractive for some, but many young people want much the same thing I wanted when I came out of university: a steady income, interesting work, and a bit of freedom to run my own ship, or at least think that I am.
Yet we’re deciding that they want something fundamentally different. I’ve yet to meet a young worker who turned down an interesting and fulfilling role because it was permanent. They still focus on what they’ll be doing and how it will help them develop, whatever the working arrangements.
This is something business leaders have always had to think about. The trick here is to not fool yourself into thinking that you’re catering to the best talent simply because you’re doing what popular rhetoric tells you they want. A far better strategy is to ask them and then match it to what best serves your organisation.
Short-term work is more flexible, but it’s also implicitly riskier, and that’s a big disincentive for some people. It’s harder to get a mortgage or make long-term plans. From a business perspective, it opens up other vulnerabilities. You don’t capture so much of the intellectual value of that workers and it’s harder to see consistency in how work is being done.
The takeaway is this: Don’t listen to the rhetoric around gig work. Recognising that people are your most critical asset, no matter what business you’re in, is fundamental. Just as a traditional commercial plan takes into account how to optimise your assets, considering the needs of your people must be a priority.
This will vary by industry and from one business to another but your focus needs to be on professional development and wellbeing rather than promoting a more flexible workforce at all costs. What you offer staff still depends on the realities of your business.
The nature of employment will continue to evolve but respect for employees, a solid value proposition and a clear idea of your goals will always be the foundation.
For more insight into the gig economy, see How The Gig Economy Will Disrupt Next-Gen App Development.