How Your Company Can Leverage the Gig Economy

It might be time to move “remote work opportunities” from your company’s Perks and Benefits column into Survival Strategies.

America’s economic history has depended on mobility of workers and opportunities. People have followed jobs out west across the country, from the farms and countryside into the cities, and even from city to city. But in recent years, even the job-dense cities are no safe bet; in the majority of metro areas today, more businesses are closing than new ones are opening. The exceptions are robust enough to show positive job and economic growth for the nation as a whole, but the fact remains that outside of places like New York and Silicon Valley, people don’t have an obvious destination for opportunity and employment.

To be clear: people are still relocating in pursuit of jobs, and that typically means going from rural or lower-density areas to cities and suburbs. But people’s jobs are no longer their sole source of employment. Paradoxically, the overall rate of self-employment in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), has been trending downward continuously; yet at the same time, more than a third of the total workforce is engaging in freelance work.

So what gives?

Digital Workspaces

According to BLS data on self-employment, there is still a healthy number of entrepreneurs incorporating (about 40 percent), presumably to take advantage of the protections and tax benefits available to small business owners. But overwhelmingly, these freelancers either remain unincorporated, or don’t even report as self-employed. Why? Because much of the time, they are working a traditional, in-person job, and going online for additional work and income—and a sense of purpose.

Today’s entrepreneurship is less business-creating than it is side-hustling. People are still just as driven, creative, and problem-solving as ever, but they are putting their skills to work for themselves through the gig economy, rather than by hanging a shingle and starting an organization. Small business, in the globalized and Internet-connected age, means taking on diverse work through contracting and freelancing, not creating an entity for merging and acquiring.

Thanks to companies like Uber or Lyft, the barrier to entry is relatively low: download an app and have a car available, and you are side-hustling in the transportation industry. Have a spare room? Airbnb welcomes you to the hospitality sector.

But for all these high-profile ways people make money away from the office, the real drivers of the freelance economy are Millennials.

Young Money

For young people today, the side-hustle is equal parts survival skill and passion project.

Despite outnumbering all other generations in the workforce, Millennials still lag behind Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in terms of purchasing power. Life has gotten expensive, and wages and employment opportunities haven’t kept up. With just a few urban centers representing the last refuge for job-creation and new business openings, the cost of living has skyrocketed as people arrive in droves hoping to get their share of the growth. Making ends meet often requires some creativity–aided by technology.

One side-effect of driving an entire generation online to find extra income is that these workers are finding more opportunities not just to work, but to lend their time and knowledge to companies and enterprises they actually care about. Failure to land a dream job doesn’t represent the end of hope or purpose-driven work for Millennials; it just means they start looking online, in their free time.

For those of us still managing a traditional organization and workforce, all of this should point to a fundamental shift in strategy. When millions of bright, talented, motivated, and innovative workers are settling for day jobs and putting their energy into online side-hustles, maybe it is time to put more projects and jobs into the freelance space too.

Getting the Gig-gles

You can’t count on historical macro trends to drive people to your front door; getting the best means making yourself available where they live, and that is online. How can more of the work that comprises your operations be mobilized, distributed, and brought to people where they live?

There has been a tendency to imagine flexible and remote working arrangements as an outward reach of the company: let people work from home, but still treat onsite staffing as normal. Given the way things are shaping up, the reverse may be a better strategy: make remote workers the norm, and recruit accordingly.

This doesn’t have to amount to a complete restructuring or the abandonment of staff who actually show up in person for work. Rather, think of it as killing two birds with one stone: by turning certain functions and projects into gig-work for virtual freelancers to tackle, you open yourself up to both productivity, and recruitment. And if you can attract talent in a space where passion and purpose are key drivers of engagement, your freelancers may well jump at the chance to turn their side-hustle into full-time work for your company.

That’s the important thing to remember: turning more work into discrete tasks, and making those tasks available to the online freelancing talent pool is not and should not be a threat to company culture. Your culture is still your best advertisement, your top retention strategy, and your ultimate source of employee engagement and productivity. Even online, culture will be what attracts and keeps new talent.

Where jobs and opportunities go, people follow. Since more and more work is being done online, remotely, and in the cloud, that means people are increasingly taking their talents and attention online as well. For once, it may be time for employers to follow instead of leading, and move more operations and opportunities where the talent is clustering.

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