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Tapping Gig Talent

How companies are reorienting their systems to integrate short-term workers
Sonal Khetarpal | Print Edition: December 27, 2020
Tapping Gig Talent
Illustration by Raj Verma

Mohib Malgi, 33, quit his well-paying job as a software developer in Montreal and moved back to Mumbai. He wanted to work independently. The reasons were usual: monotony, office politics and low job satisfaction. It's been a year-and-a-half and he doesn't want to go back to full-time work. "In office, my colleagues were my world. Now, I have the entire world," he says. He works on projects for companies across the globe. He has worked from hills, beaches, forests, including Gokarna in Karnataka, Goa, Rajasthan. He is currently working from a tiny village, Sainj, in Himachal Pradesh, after spending a month in Bir, again in Himachal. "This is life. Why will I ever go back?" he says.

People such as Malgi used to be an exception a few years ago. With lockdown, the freelance work they do has found a much wider acceptance among companies as more and more professionals open up to the idea of gig work. India is now the second-fastest growing market for gig work in the world with an estimated 15 million freelancers, according to Payoneer's report, 'Freelancing in 2020: An Abundance of Opportunities'.

Chandrika Pasricha, Founder & CEO, Flexing It, a curated platform that helps organisations access and work with independent consultants, says there has been a huge change in mindset in the last one year as professionals want to be in charge of their life and career. "There is a realisation that job security is a myth. Even younger professionals want to focus on building and monetising their skills," she says; the trend used to be more common among experienced professionals.

The boom in companies that facilitate working arrangements between companies and gig workers is the clearest indicator of where things are headed. Look at global freelancing platform Upwork. Its third-quarter revenue (FY2020) surpassed expectations by rising 24 per cent to $96.7 million. CEO Hayden Brown said in the company's earnings release that the growth has come on the back on "both existing and new clients who adopted Upwork in record numbers." Back home, number of firms looking to hire consultants on Flexing It rose 75 per cent in FY20.

While there is no aggregate data on Indian firms that are using freelancers, Axis Bank announced this year that 15 per cent of its incremental hiring over the next three years will be under alternative work models. Law firm Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas is moving to a new "permanent dynamic working policy" that enables employees to choose where and when they want to work. One of the concepts is 'flexi-lawyering' where people can work on short projects of, say, four-eight months. Prince Augustin, Executive Vice President-Group Human Capital & Leadership Development, Mahindra & Mahindra, says, "This is part of our overall workforce plan where they come for specialised work, deliver, and go away."

However, is this as simple as it sounds? Or does it require changes in structure of companies considering that most organisations are built on fixed templates? Companies that are looking to make gig work more central to their operations are doing exactly that by making their processes and policies more flexible to accommodate short-term employees and making the most of their skills and time. This includes making contractual arrangements more flexible, offering insurance if the job is on the premise and re-defining job roles based on skills required and outcomes to be achieved. "The benefits will be realised if organisations see that as more of a talent management issue than a cost issue," says Rajkamal Vempati, EVP & Head, HR, Axis Bank.

Here is how companies can make gigs a win-win for both themselves and the workers.

Being Battle-Ready

Companies are built for employees who are expected to have a long-term engagement with them. Making gig work integral to their operations will require them to be far more dynamic. It will help if CXOs themselves act as evangelists for the change. "Firms need one of their senior leaders to own it, work on it and get the teams, one by one, to try it," says Alok Agarwal, Chief Marketing Officer, Orient Bell.

Shraddhanjali Rao, Vice President of Human Resources, SAP, India, says, "It is important for firms to create the right environment for all kinds of employees before jumping on the bandwagon and increasing on-demand workers." She says companies should start with incremental shifts so that the change is acceptable to all stakeholders. For instance, SAP has introduced a programme called 'Talent Marketplace' to prepare their fulltime employees for the road ahead. This allows anyone in the company to put out a project opening. Any employee, irrespective of his or her existing expertise, can take up the stretch assignment. For example, a developer who aspires to be a data scientist can take up a data-related assignment and deliver on the job. It could be a four weeks to six months project.

"This platform has helped us institutionalise the mindset of dual careers and talent mobility and agility. Through this initiative, we are trying to set the organisational context and culture before going full swing working with freelancers," she says. This will prepare employees to accept that the colleagues they work with will keep changing and also help leaders understand that the teams they lead will not remain the same for long periods.

Job Roles

Companies will also have to relook at the way they look at job roles and talent profiles. They will have to take a clearer stance on roles that should stay with full-time employees and those where freelancers can come on board. In fact, unlike popular perception, firms are not outsourcing volume-based, low-value work but highly-skilled work. For example, the value of projects outsourced through Flexing It rose four times in FY20.

Manu Narang Wadhwa, Chief Human Resource Officer at Sony Pictures Networks India, says they have hired consultants in legal domain. "Legal is among the core functions of our organisation, but for the first time, we have gone ahead and hired freelancers, former judges/lawyers of Supreme Court and high courts," she says.

As freelancers come onboard, job roles will also have to be looked at differently, defined by the goal/outcome. "Workforce planning will have to shift to workfit planning where firms will delineate tasks and hire people with skills to accomplish those deliverables rather than discussing the headcount," says Wadhwa.

Rajkamal Vempati of Axis Bank says when they started implementing the Gig-A programme in the organisation, they had to break through the mindset of best B-schools. "When hiring for gig work, we have to ensure that the organisation is not constrained by frameworks of grade and position in the current structure but focuses on bringing the right talent for projects." They also have a new interview process for independent workers that they call 'Pitch' where focus is not on finding cultural fit for long-term association but getting people with right skill sets for different projects.

HR Policies

Companies will have to attract not only full time but independent workers too and look at engaging both simultaneously. This will entail relooking at HR policies, workplace benefits, onboarding practices, among others.

Abhijit Bhaduri, author of Dreamers and Unicorns - How Leadership, Talent and Culture Are The New Growth Drivers and former Chief Learning Officer at Wipro, says it's a misconception that cultural integration doesn't matter while working with freelancers. "The human tendency is to go above and beyond for people you like. So, it is important to bring in the human side even in transactional relationships." He says many companies treat a freelancer like a vendor and expect to get extra work out of him at as low a price as possible. It is important to treat all kinds of employees equally if they are looking at using freelancers at scale. "In a hyper-connected world, every channel of communication is important for a firm to retain its brand (as an employer)," he says.

Samir Sathe, Executive Vice President of the Wadhwani Advantage Programme, part of the Wadhwani Foundation, says as they scaled up their Sahayata Business Stability programme to provide business consulting to SMEs, they tapped into 50 freelancers (sector specialists) to meet the sudden spurt in demand. He says initially, it was a challenge to get consultants, especially those who worked for fewer hours, to work together as a team. Greater onboarding effort and time spent with them to get them acquainted with the project and the firm eased things. Sathe says it is as important to set the stage with clear directions about the output apart from modus operandi, cadence and values for brand reinforcement, especially in roles where they will be representing the firm to third parties. "It is important that they speak the same language as we do," says Sathe.

However, as freelancers can be remote and on-premise, very much like full-time employees, processes have to become intuitive. The lavish onboarding and orientation will not work. "We will have to re-think about creating the 'wow' element digitally," says Rao of SAP. She says even the feedback mechanism will have to be real-time and objective. "It can't happen at the end of the quarter or the project. It will make the talent very insecure," she says. Even gig workers have to be provided access to learning platforms so that they can upskill. In fact, customisation will have to be brought into each and every employee interface. Wadhwa of Sony Pictures says, "Never before in HR has legality of contracts come in focus." Consultants working on low value work have a generic contract but those with high value skills have very specific terms and conditions. "Today, each of our fixed-term contract is different from each other. Organisations have to become comfortable with multiple types of contract," she says.

Flexibility will have to be brought in the benefits offered too. Wadhwa says that, for example, for on-site job roles, certain gig workers would want on-site insurance, while others might want accommodation. "Gone are the days when a 'one size fits all' approach would have worked," she says.

@sonalkhetarpal7

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