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Welcome the Growing Tribe of Gig Workers

More people are going to be engaged in work outside the formal workforce than inside it
Sairee Chahal   New Delhi     Print Edition: February 9, 2020
Welcome the Growing Tribe of Gig Workers
Illustration by Raj Verma

Vidhya Anupkumar has an MBA degree and is a Six Sigma certified professional who used to work with GE in Bengaluru. These days she lives in Bharuch (Gujarat) and works remotely as a program manager for a company based in Delhi. She puts in about 9-10 hours a day of work with some flexibility built in. She is a gig worker.

Seema is an engineer, lives in Shimla and runs a crochet store online. She is also a part-time coder and splits time between her education and passion.

Asha is a commerce graduate. She owns a blogging and travel start-up, which she runs with another friend. This two-person set-up employs other bloggers across the country and the two spend their time travelling, blogging and building the business.

Aditi is an engineering graduate. She is a defence wife and her husband is often away. She takes care of her two kids and works as a quality assurance (QA) analyst from home. Aditi often picks up the night or early morning shifts to work.

Nitin moved to Goa a couple of years ago. He is an internet content professional and runs a website owned by his employer, who is based in Mumbai. He works 6-7 hours a day, producing content, editing videos and co-ordinating with his colleagues.

Shona is a doctor, who logs in to a website twice a day to offer consultations to patients via video calls. She lives in Trichy (Tamil Nadu) and her employer is based in Delhi. She works based on a roster and is able to do a few other projects on the side.

Lata is a housewife and lives in Meerut. She sources sarees and jewellery from an online wholesaler and sells them among her friends. She works for about four hours a day split between sessions. She has never worked before this and is earning her own money for the first time.

Seema, Asha, Aditi, Nitin, Shona and Lata are all gig workers.

Did you use that food delivery app and chat with that customer support person behind the chat window? There is a fair chance that he or she is a gig worker. Ever booked a home facial appointment or hired a driver for a day? You have probably taken Uber and Ola rides too. There is an ecosystem out there which sits on the shoulders of people who are connected to these organisations somewhere between an employee and an entrepreneur. That is the growing tribe of gig workers that we all meet and are supported by every day.

No other decade has brought in as much change in how we live, work and engage with the world as the one that is getting over. More people are going to be engaged in work outside the formal workforce than inside it. The predictability on business cycles is decreasing and the degree of uncertainty is increasing. Technology is changing faster than people are building it or using it and that is reflected in how work will take shape in the decade to come.


Getting Ready for the Future

  • Women stand to benefit from gig work in a big way in an increasingly marketplace-led, entrepreneurial economy.
  • Most gig workers do not get benefits or health insurance or pensions. Companies need to think through these gaps with empathy and long-term goals of their businesses.
  • Retention of gig workers and their engagement is an equally important metric to track when a large number of workers are gig workers.
  • Smart financial incentives and fair wages are the bare minimum a company looking to benefit from gig work would do.
  • Organisations need to offer space to their gig partners and workers to grow their skills, financial well-being and find support via mentoring.

More and more forms of employment look like gigs - short pre-defined stints or work set-ups in entrepreneur-led environments. Employment formats now look like an aisle of a mall with something for everyone. Almost all businesses are now Result Only Work Environment (ROWE) and that determines deep modularisation of work units but not so much of skills, since flat, generalist skill-sets topped with deep specialisations seem to be the winners.

Micro-entrepreneur: From work being a pre-defined pre-managed entity, it has come to be a unit of entrepreneurship for everyone. In today's economy, all of us are micro-entrepreneurs, negotiating new, constantly evolving contexts and business variables much like in any business. The resources are limited and competition to gain them is high. In this environment, winners are those who have drive, ingenuity, resourcefulness and consistent performance.

Staying connected: We cannot live without food, water, shelter and the internet. Being disconnected is a form of exclusion in the age of digital work, payments, marketplaces and online identities. Remote work, off-location work, on-demand work, skill marketplaces - all these forms of work means one is constantly connected and able to work via the internet or a platform to connect with work peers or stakeholders.

Learning mode on: These professionals are constantly pushing themselves to stay aligned and updated with their fields and often with the upcoming fields of their choice or even dictated by the market. Learning is the new level-playing field, with newer technologies and platforms making it a welcome field for newcomers.

Specialist inside generalist: As a gig worker, a generally high level of competence, credibility, trust and capability is assumed. It is assumed that you will bring a sense of commitment, along with above-average skills, ability to time and manage stakeholders and not get bogged down by complex evolving situations. And on top of that, if there is a super skill you own, that puts you among the top one percentile of gig workers.

Remote as default: While a lot of gig work is locational, remote and on-device connectivity along with system access and other workflow automation tools make it as remote as it possibly can be. Even a plumber or a makeup professional is connected via an app or device to be able to connect to work or customers on demand.

Diverse: As the surface area of the gig economy grows, more and more workers from the margins of geography, society and polity find a way into the income opportunities around them and into the economic mainstream eventually. Gig work by design is built for all, though it is still not as open for women in some areas as it can be. Women stand to benefit from gig work in a big way in an increasingly marketplace-led, entrepreneurial economy.

Lead with empathy: Being a gig worker is lonely and community is often missing. Being able to offer a community and a safety net to this growing tribe will be a decisive factor in making gigs valuable socially too. Most gig workers do not get benefits or health insurance or pensions. Companies need to think through these gaps with empathy and long-term goals of their businesses.

Retention of gig workers and their engagement is an equally important metric to track when a large number of workers are gig workers. Smart financial incentives and fair wages are the bare minimum a company looking to benefit from gig work would do.

Safety nets and benefits: Gig workers stand a chance to be marginalised in the mainstream workforce since their presence is emerging and less weighty. Organisations need to offer space to their gig partners and workers to grow their skills, financial well-being, find support via mentoring and similar initiatives. Gig workers are precious since their bottom-line impact is immense and ever-growing. Companies need to realise, out of sight is not out of mind.

If we have to make gigs core to the economic mainstream, certain elements need to be kept in mind as more and more people enter the gig workforce.

Sairee Chahal is Founder & CEO of Sheroes

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