Why the gig economy needs a solution to workplace belonging

Our associate, Barry Flack, looks at the gig economy, changes in the workplace, and the opportunity to redefine what it means to belong at work.

There was a time, in a galaxy not far from this one, when millennials were just merely office juniors, who knew their place in a hierarchical pecking order in the world of work. Organisations were packed to the rafters with unproductive people inside siloed departments and the distraction of technology had not set in as first generation enterprise computers offered only a basic solitaire package to play with. Camaraderie was at an all-time high as full-time, employed people invariably worked, played and interacted with each other as a matter of course. Belonging at work was implicit for those who’d spent their entire life in the one company they understood and were looking forward to collecting the last gold-plated retirement benefits package we will ever see. “Join – work – accept the organisational rituals – retire” all in one neat employee value proposition without the need for a branded video. Life was simple.

Since then it’s been all change which shows no sign of slowing down. The old creature comforts (with all their faults) began to fall away :

  • We lost one social elite called trade unions and replaced them with a new and different financial elite that focused on shareholders, dividends and short-termism. As an HR function we burnt our old welfare heritage bras and went full in with the employer under the HRM model.

  • Globalisation allowed access to a growing market but in a zero sum game, created winners and losers in a divided society where we were encouraged to be ‘self-interested individuals’ and we created HR reward enablers to bring this to life in the workplace.

  • As a consequence, and with an over-emphasis on labour utilisation (to incentivise a particular employment / growth narrative to access power in downing street), our employment law got lighter (save for the rules ‘enforced’ by Brussels as part of the EU membership card, which will not now be renewed of course) and our business models more fluid – outsourcing, offshoring, freelance, contractors, zero hours, etc – combining with a systems failure of epic cultural proportions in 2008 that has seen the latter grow inexorably and now grouped as a ‘gig economy’ on the rise. Works for some but ‘precarious labour’ is a very big reality for many personally and how we handle it in a post-Brexit, changing landscape will be a major topic for the Government this year (see the Modern Employment Review) and our subsequent organisational response to belonging.

Social history lesson over. So where are we are now ?

Looking inside the pandoras box reveals the erosion of camaraderie, declining numbers of people doing full-time jobs, insecurity at work and an increase in precarious employment, low levels of engagement, talent shortages and an erosion of trust as identified by the Edelman barometer. No wonder businesses and HR functions are looking for expertise in these changing times. Change leadership is required from a function not used to the high profile demands it is getting at this moment but should see it as an opportunity.

On the upside, and in support of this, we’ve also reached a tipping point that now recognises the old rituals and constructs that typified our management approach to people is in need of radical change. Like the recovering alcoholic we’ve now signalled a desire to change our ways and switch from the counterproductive people habits of the annual appraisal, the hierarchical organisation, the sheep dipping behaviour change programmes, the overly-individualised remuneration packages and the biannual employee opinion survey. We’re on the path to normalising mental health, recognising the impact of our hardwired personal bias and just maybe starting to take seriously the need for true diversity & inclusion in the workplace. The best organisations have done this and more by allowing science and fact enter the parlance of the last gut-instinctive function in business.

I’m pleased that amongst the protagonists for good is a scientific focus on the issue of belonging at work. Our need to belong, as humans, is powerful and when we have an aligned system at work that accentuates this fact, we have an enormous ability to be both successful and fulfilling at an individual and organisational level. Framing this in relation to issues such as culture, values, ethics and change programmes is the sweet spot of a tremendous consultancy that I have the pleasure to work with called belongingspace.

Culture and engagement for me historically has felt like either a reactive ‘to-do’ list of misaligned high profile initiatives on one hand or the justification for a bland, one dimensional, cult-like mantra on the other. True belonging success is about a systems alignment across a variety of dimensions in an organisation and is complex and multi-dimensional. The growing gig economy (30% by 2020), treated as a transient workforce historically, required only at a point of need, throws up even more complexity – how does an increasing majority of my ‘workforce belong in an environment were we are fearful of the risk of co-employment and tax ‘penalties / contributions (delete where applicable).

 As the law evolves to meet the changing needs of the ‘new economy’ getting in front of these subjects is a major priority for businesses to stay relevant. Check out belongingspace or drop me a line to find out more but please start the belonging conversation today inside your organisation.

[First published on www.barryflack.co.uk]

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This article, written by Barry Flack, is the first of a series of articles from Belonging Space’s associate network. Barry is our specialist in aligning HR interventions across the employee lifecycle that help create that sense of belonging. He supports us on recruitment, reward & recognition, and talent management challenges. He likes his HR technology, the spark of innovation that comes from collaborative working and bringing positive change to the workplace.