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Monday Morning Moan - why shouldn't the future of work be a professional gig economy?

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks September 27, 2021
Company management is talking much more with its staff, but is the real problem that they are ‘staff’? Would a shift to the gig economy model set the relationship on a more professional footing?


I've seen a growing number of surveys and reports lately pointing to the need for businesses to pay much more attention to their customers and their staff if they are to continue to be successful. And these have prompted me towards two separate lines of thought.

Firstly,  that this really ought to be so blindingly obvious that having to state it suggests that some business managers  really are as bad as some people think they are. Alternatively is it the case that that there are a growing number of businesses which have jumped on this as good marketing hook for selling more of their products or services?

For example, not listening to customers enough, both in terms of quantity and quality, should really never happen. It ought to be impossible for any C-Suite occupant to claim they did not know what their customers were telling them. It might, of course, be surprisingly easy for them to be arrogant or egotistical enough to believe they don’t need to listen, and for that there is no guaranteed solution, except perhaps business failure.

Not listening to staff is, sadly, a more common C-Suite failure, if only because of the basic nature of the employer/employee relationship. That, of course, can often be based on the old assumption of `I am the Boss and I boss you around… are not the Boss, so you are bossed around’. This dynamic is, however, on the wane and the pace of that change has been accelerated by the pandemic and the requirement for the majority to work at home if at all possible. This has greatly increased the need for businesses to democratize their accumulated  data far more widely across the staff, for they have the opportunity – nay, the obligation! – to work with far greater levels of autonomy and responsibility. This, in turn, has started to change that employer/employee relationship.

For example, it has helped raise the profile of the gig economy again as a sensible alternative option for both staff and employers, not least because it has the potential to change the relationship  forever between a company’s management and the people who do the work. This emerged during a discussion with Mike Grossman, the CEO of Inflection, a California-based company specializing in staff selection and their consequent identity management.

I wanted to talk to him because this emerging need has already prompted a surge of vendors uttering the immortal claim that ‘we have a product which can do that for you’ at a time when the real issue should be about changing relationships and common perceptions. Grossman’s view is:

There's this trend around companies needing to change because they need to be more in touch with how employees and customers feel. I think the reason for it is that switching costs have gone down. I think in the old days, because of tradition or practical reality, it was harder for people to switch jobs on the one hand and harder for customers to switch vendors. And I think that in general ,technology and maybe also changes in society have made it easier for folks to just switch from job to job or from vendor to vendor.

Such ease of job switching, of course, is likely to be seen as a real negative by most business managers, and it is this issue that is what they perhaps now have to address directly. The two options then seem to be to adjust their attitudes to staff requirements across the board – pay, benefits, hours worked, decision-making responsibilities and a host of other issues – or accept that regular staff movement is not only inevitable but can bring its own benefits.

Towards a professional gig economy

What follows from this line of thought is the emergence of a structured, professional gig economy, where a business is no longer employing individuals, but is contracting for right of access to the skills of individuals – in the same way that vendor products and services are contracted for. Grossman argues:

I think the gig economy has democratized access to work in a lot of ways. People have more power really over their own employment. Companies therefore need to adapt, because people generally have been empowered to think about how they manage their time and their careers with much greater flexibility than they've historically had. One of the applications of this is that companies will lose people, unless they're sensitive to that issue. Why does somebody stay in a job? It might be that they like it, it might be because they feel they don't have a choice. And these days, people have a lot more choice.

One of the issues that could hold back such a change is that it will require management and support services that far exceed what is currently available with `body shop’ staffing agencies. Inflection, for example, operates as a background screening service for potential staff, operating not only from the point of view of the potential employer but also employees and how they might fit with a company and how the company fits with the employees. It does not take much wit to see the possibilities of this extending into the role of managing a gig economy environment.

It is a possible future Grossman sees fitting Inflection well. What he sees happening right now though is people switching jobs at a much more rapid rate than before, maybe having multiple jobs, or they might no longer be a full-time job and already on the cusp of operating in a formal gig economy:

As people have more power in terms of where they go they bring with them their skills, but they also bring with them their identity. Where individuals own their identities that's the way that they will interact with companies.

Inflection’s current primary role is background screening new staff companies are thinking of hiring, but it is already starting to develop ways to democratise the process more. Though it is the employer that is paying Inflection, Grossman sees the job candidate as also a ‘customer’. They, for example, are also provided with all of the information that's being provided to the employer.

He also sees a future with far wider possibilities. For example, background screening currently only covers the past, what a candidate has `been’. But over time, he sees real potential in projecting forward, not just in terms of whether a past might repeat itself, but also more forward looking: will somebody actually be a good fit for a company and, say, resonate with not just a company’s culture but with other members of a team?

That is where the potential of the gig economy could be realised, in helping companies fit together teams that not only have the technical smarts to collectively create new product `X’ or new service `Y’ ,but that could pull together well enough to engineer something that flies rather than simply works. And all without any of them being employees (with all the baggage that state entails), but rather contractors, business partners and, for many a C-Suite occupant, someone who can be spoken with as an equal, not a subservience.

In other words, let's get gigging!

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