Is the gig economy exploitative or empowering?
Negative stories about contingent workers abound — such as reports of Uber drivers who tell passengers they love the work, but are actually dissatisfied. At the same time, in "Lead the Work," Ravin Jesuthasan, David Creelman and I interviewed freelance workers that actually prefer the flexibility, variety and potential income upside of freelance work.
Statistics about the relative pay, working hours and job security of contingent workers compared to full-time workers tell a similarly paradoxical story. As with the anecdotal evidence referenced above, published research provides no black-or-white answers about contingent workers' happiness. The good news? Within the nuances of these stories and statistics are patterns that leaders can use to increase engagement with freelancers.
The Evidence: Mixed Results
Here are just a few examples of key studies about worker attitudes and motivation, comparing freelance or contingent workers to regular full-time workers.
A meta analysis of 72 studies involving over 230,000 workers found that on average contingent workers experience slightly lower job satisfaction than permanent employees, but that it varies by the type of contingent work. Some contingent workers (e.g., agency workers) experience lower job satisfaction while other contingent workers (e.g., contractors) do not.
A survey of temporary workers in Europe found that prior experience as a temporary worker was not associated with job insecurity, job satisfaction or organizational commitment, but job insecurity increased closer to the end of temporary contracts.
A 2004 review found that in temporary manufacturing jobs, contingent workers actually had lower levels of role overload and role conflict than permanent employees. This suggests that supervisors may narrow the scope of the tasks assigned to contingent workers, which limits their jobs but positively affects their job attitudes.
A 2010 study across a large a national sample of Australian temporary workers found that compared to permanent workers, temporary agency workers are less satisfied with job security and hours worked, but equally satisfied with their pay.
Researchers compared permanent and contingent workers doing the same work in six U.S. locations of a telecommunications company, using the "Job Characteristics Theory," and found contingent workers perceived their work as more motivating due to higher "task identity" (a complete and visible work outcome) and knowledge of results, despite perceiving less job security. Contingent workers also had higher "growth need strength" (need for personal accomplishment, learning and development).
How to Increase Contingent Worker Engagement
Though the findings are mixed, patterns are emerging that suggest how leaders can increase engagement among contingent workers.
2) Volition: Research suggests that those who voluntarily choose or prefer contingent work have more positive experiences than those who chose it for lack of alternatives.
3) Organizational Support: Emotional support from coworkers and supervisors is positively related to contingent worker commitment. This is true of commitment both to the temporary firm that placed the workers, and the organization where they deliver their work. Support from the client organization has been found to "spill over" into commitment to the temporary organization placing workers with that client.
4) Social vs. Economic Psychological Contract: Workers that perceive their "psychological contract" with an organization as social and emotional (versus merely transactional and economic) tend to be more willing to go the extra mile by working longer, helping others and supporting change. Evidence suggests that temporary workers perceive more transactional psychological contracts than permanent workers. Yet, when temporary workers have a lasting relationship with the organization with the possibility of renewing their temporary contract or converting from temporary to permanent, they develop a similar psychological contract to permanent workers.
5) Continuity: Even beyond the psychological contract, expectations of continuity positively associate with temporary worker attitudes and performance. One study found that agency temporary workers who have opportunities to transition to standard employment arrangements have more positive attitudes toward supervisors and coworkers and are better performers than their peers in permanent work arrangements.
Look Beyond Full-Time Employment
It's easy to get trapped in assuming that all regular full-time workers are more satisfied than others, and that regular full-time employment is the only way to satisfy, motivate and engage workers. But the evidence suggests that such simplistic assumptions don't reflect reality.
Leaders must embrace the complexity with which workers experience their work. Full-time, traditional employment can indeed satisfy and engage workers, but it is not the only option. When non-standard temporary and contingent work is carefully constructed to consider the right sourcing, to provide worker choice and organizational support, and when opportunities for renewal and continuity exist, the evidence suggests that non-standard work arrangements can be as equally motivating as — or even more engaging — than permanent employment.
Photo: Creative Commons
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How Smart Engagement Builds a Dynamic Workforce
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The Great Engagement Robbery: How Others Influence Engagement
"Don't grab your shovel right away. Just step back and watch the pace and tempo of how we work around here." I hold a strong belief in personal responsibility for employee engagement, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge how relationships can influence and shape how we work. In this post, I will outline how workplace relationships can foster disengagement. We were working on the railroad... The term railroad has two meanings. As a noun, it refers to a system of tracks for trains that are built and maintained by hundreds of employees. As a verb, it means to rush or coerce someone into doing something. I have the perfect story to illustrate both definitions at the same time. In 1974, I got a job with the railway on a crew called the "Perishable Gang" in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was still the age of nepotism, so I got the job because my father was a railroader. I wanted to make a good impression at work and I wanted to make my father proud of me. The perishable gang was a group of four to eight employees who were responsible to look after livestock cars, heater and refrigerator cars, and pick up large grain spills in the railway yard when there were no freight trains moving through Thunder Bay. ... and then I was railroaded I vividly remember my first day at work. I arrived before eight in the morning and as there were no trains coming for three hours, we drove out in trucks to clean up a large grain spill in the yard. With shovel, burlap bags and great enthusiasm I eagerly went about my task. I rapidly filled a burlap sack with grain, slung it over my shoulder and crossed multiple railway tracks like an Olympic hurdler to sling the bag into the back of the pickup truck and return rapidly to fill the next bag. I thought the rest of the gang was going to be impressed with my show of herculean effort. And sure enough, within twenty minutes, the head of the gang called me over and suggested we take a walk down the track. He asked me, "How do you think it is going?" "I am working about as hard as I can," I replied. "That could be the problem," he said. I looked at him, puzzled. He continued. "I want you to go back to the spill. Don't grab your shovel right away; just step back and watch the pace and tempo of how we work around here. Once you understand our pace, and only after you understand our pace, do I want you to pick up your shovel and fall in." How workplace relationships effect engagement Had you been watching me work, in less than 90 minutes from starting a new job you would have witnessed a highly engaged new employee transform into a plodding and disengaged worker in record time. Ultimately, I did not perish working in the perishable gang as I was let go during the annual seasonal layoff three months later. Don't get me wrong; I take full responsibility for my lack of engagement. But even with personal responsibility for our work other people have a huge influence on our engagement. This early formative experience is why I entered the field of engagement thirty-five years later - to atone for my past sins of disengagement. If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.Let him step to the music which he hears,however, measured or far away. - Henry David Thoreau The purpose of this story is to examine the role of others in your own engagement and the engagement of employees within your organization. Do others enhance or undermine engagement where you work? How are you addressing the role relationships play in influencing engagement? Are you helping employees take personal responsibility for work and educating them on how to do this?
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Break the Engagement Funk: Why Companies Must Close the ’Passion Gap’
Bored. Complacent. Uninspired. Those adjectives describe (at least some of the time) a vast majority of employees in the modern workforce. New Deloitte research found that more than 87 percent of America’s workforce fails to reach their full potential because they lack passion for their work. This "passion gap" is a drag that prevents people from doing their best work. But the bad news doesn’t end there. The malaise can be contagious, threatening to pull down other employees’ satisfaction and performance. "In today’s rapidly changing business environment, companies need passionate workers because such workers can drive extreme and sustained performance improvement — more than the one-time performance ’bump’ that follows a bonus or the implementation of a worker engagement initiative," says Deloitte. There’s no panacea, no quick fix, to fight the affliction. A promotion or an employee outing might improve engagement, but passion runs deeper. Deloitte defines passion through three attributes: commitment to a specialty or area of expertise, questioning, and connecting. The ardent people who possess all three are driven, model employees that every business leader strives for. Some just don’t know it yet. Recognize Workplace Passion as a Positive So how can business leaders help employees break out of the funk and inject a bit of passion into the workplace? Business leaders' first step should be shedding bad connotations they might have with passionate employees. Passion is often trumpeted as a noble characteristic in life, but in the office that same quality is often (too often, according to Deloitte) associated with the emotional, risky behavior that makes an employee a HR nightmare. Not so, says Deloitte. Shedding prejudices against passion is the first step. Then, managers should rid those same prejudices from the businesses’ processes. Institutional and business processes that stress conformity and process over creativity and passion can stifle passionate employees. The study suggests four workplace conditions that nurture passion among employees: Encourage connections: Allow and encourage employees to work with people in different departments, both within the company and in the industry broadly. Reward curiosity: Encourage employees to tackle projects and work that inspire them, even if those projects go beyond their daily responsibilities. Nix xenophobia: It’s a big world out there. Encourage employees to work and collaborate with people in the broader industry, beyond the office walls. Listen and innovate: Keep an open dialogue, at all levels of the organization, with customers to encourage fresh thinking. Perhaps passion is one component of what Josh Bersin, founder of talent management consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte, calls the "irresistible workplace," an antidote to the engagement and performance problems that plague companies. Photo: Can Stock