Comms leaders need to start figuring out the gig economy

The gig economy is changing the way comms pros work, says Tina McCorkindale, president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations.

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Getty Images

When people think about the gig economy, the first company that comes to mind is Uber. However, Uber only represents one type of contract worker in the gig economy. In the public relations industry, gig workers include temporary employees, consultants, independent contractors, and freelancers in a variety of areas, from graphic design to project management.

According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 36% of the workforce are gig workers and this percentage is projected to grow (though sources vary widely about the numbers and growth rate).

One misconception is that most gig workers are unskilled or can’t find full-time jobs. However, a recent study found 45% of freelancers are skilled professionals in programming, marketing, IT and business consulting.

In October, the Institute for Public Relations launched the 2019 IPR Future of Work Report based on extensive interviews with 25 internal comms executives to discover how companies are preparing for a rapidly-changing workplace.

The study found that many companies are having difficulty keeping up with the pace of change. One recurring theme that hasn’t been addressed much in the industry is the gig economy and its workers.

One travel and tourism CCO said, "In a lot of countries that we operate in, we have a full suite of services, but we don’t have a single hourly employee. We have some management people, but we don’t have a single hourly employee. They’re all service contractors."

According to Gallup, there are various types of gig workers. Independent gig workers have more flexibility and freedom, two of the primary reasons why people choose to be gig workers. That contrasts with temporary and on-call workers who resemble more traditional workers in terms of autonomy, performance metrics, hours, and other factors.

In the IPR report, comms executives indicated that the emergence of the contract-worker economy is a technological workforce disruptor. Communicators are also concerned about the impact on culture and how to effectively communicate and form relationships with a mobile workforce.

One study participant asked, "What are the implications of people not having pensions, not having long-term relationships, maybe not having a community in a work setting?"

With a more mobile, independent workforce, the rules may need changing. What is the impact on relationships, trust, engagement, and retention? And where is the line distinguishing an independent contractor versus an employee, especially from a legal standpoint?

The California Senate just passed a bill that could require Uber, Lyft, and other contractor companies to treat workers as employees especially if they exert control over their performance or if their work is part of the regular business. Uber is determined to fight this.

The extent to which gig workers are integrated into the workplace needs to be considered. Some companies may have relationships with thousands of gig workers at any time, while some gig workers have longer tenures with one company more than others. Gig workers should be treated as people and not temporary resources.

To secure the very best gig workers, companies may need to rethink the hiring process, making it shorter and less complicated.

And there are other issues: If a gig worker is there a long time, how do you appraise their performance? What incentives can you give to improve performance? How do you onboard and train them? Additionally, organizational fit may not be as much of an issue for a gig workers, allowing companies to hire a wider swath of employees.

Companies also need to think about engagement. Should the worker have access to internal communications and company updates? Do they need to understand the strategy and initiatives of the organization to work effectively?

One CCO at a global medical company said sometimes contractors are more engaged because they are seeking information to be more effective in their work. This is a conversation companies should have, especially with the rise of start-ups and unconventional organizational structures.

The 2019 IPR Future of Work Report also discusses lagging internal communication systems, generational differences in the workforce, and the speed of changes, among other issues.
Regardless of the potential disruptors, our industry is in for a wild ride with the fast pace of expected change.

Tina McCorkindale is president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations. Her coauthor, Melissa Dodd, is a professor at the University of Central Florida.

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