The gig economy: Don’t fool yourself that it’s working

Business

The gig economy: Don’t fool yourself that it’s working

It’s just what both parties want, for now, right now, for an hour. Everybody’s happy? I don’t think so

Mark Barnes


There can be no doubt that human capital is the most valuable off-balance sheet asset of the firm. In the new “gig economy” they may be moving even further off-balance sheet than they already are.
When I was growing up a “gig” was a once-off live performance by the local band at the Saturday night social in whatever town hall was hosting it that weekend. Nowadays that definition has expanded considerably. Specifically, and briefly, a gig economy is “an environment in which temporary positions are common and organisations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements”.
It is a phenomenon which is assisted, if not enabled, by technology. Wherever you are, with your mobile device and access to wifi, you’re connected to the world, you are at work, in the office – delivering a service, editing a document, writing a business plan, drawing a design, doing a photo shoot, transferring money, giving a lecture, whatever.
These gigs are not just in the ether. If you’re a physically skilled expert you can surely make yourself available for a couple of days (or hours) to help out on an assembly line after a strike, or help clear out a logistics backlog, say.
Is this going to become pervasive? Hell, yes. It already is. Beyond primary employment this is probably the best way, as an independent human resource, to do more than one job at a time. Is it going to become entirely the new way? I doubt it, and I don’t think it should.
There are any number of obvious advantages. Working for yourself means doing what you want to do, when you want to do it. You can work from wherever it suits you – at home, or in a coffee shop. Whole communities of people, working on computers in public places, are already developing. Irritating. It drives me nuts when someone sits down in a restaurant, asks for the password for the free wifi and then orders a glass of tap water, oh, with a slice of lemon. No bill, no tip.
You get paid as and when you work, and the going rates for gigs are, at this stage, most of them, higher than the implied hourly rate for full time employees. You can structure your financial affairs efficiently. You are your own boss. The employer uses you only when and for as long as you’re required, so the total part-time cost is less than the full-time cost. (And no organised labour issues, no benefits obligations, no HR, no long meetings …)
This is not a marriage. It’s just what both parties want, for now, right now, for an hour. Maybe again next week, if someone else hasn’t booked you. Everybody’s happy? I don’t think so.
There are plenty of negatives. In fact, all the positives I’ve listed have other sides to them. Work alone, sure – but be careful you don’t get lonely. You’re your own boss, but there is no peer group to look after you, no team to belong to. No year-end parties, no golf days, no awards. More importantly, no on-the-job training, no examples, no career path, no personal development plan.
No accountability, the root of self-respect.
When you’re selling time, you’d better have a lot of takers. No work, no pay, takes on a completely different meaning. It’s not a rule to be debated, it’s a game you’ve chosen to play.
The long-term success of a business is founded on continuity, on learning, on being able to adapt while remaining intact, on having values, on a work ethic, on survival, on the culture of the human capital of the business. You can’t insource culture. You can’t hire it temporarily, occasionally. It grows silently, right or wrong, within the management structures over time.
Finally it is neither the CEO, nor the executive committee, nor the human resources division that decides to employ, to promote, to rely on, or to fire people. It is the culture of the organisation, the interpersonal interactions, the unwritten ethos of what is right and wrong, the sense of belonging and purpose. At some point people measure each other best, live in the workplace, and decide collectively whether doing your homework well, and on time, is a good thing, or not; whether excuses are better than actions; whether judgment is better than avoidance. This determines the boundaries within which the organisation can reasonably be expected to perform, which ultimately depends on the prospect of economic dignity that the firm can provide, or not.

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