Are companies, and the country's workforce, ready for the gig economy?
Freedom, flexibility, balance, control and being one's own boss - even a dream job, perhaps, does not tick all the boxes. Or, does it? Well, in a rapidly changing work environment more and more people, globally, are opting for 'gigs'- one-time, short-term assignments or projects - where they may accept a job, or decide not to, and set their own hours and use their own equipment. They are independent workers signing up on-demand contracts and are paid by the hour, day, contract, or on the basis of the complexity of the task. A company's brand value has not really been on the top of their minds - a fact that is reflected in the start-up hiring scenario. "India is the second country in the world where freelance work is on the rise after the US," says a report by Truelancer, a global freelancing marketplace. In fact, India might spearhead the move towards a gig economy, given that 64 per cent of its population will be in the 20-35 age-group by 2021, according to the 2013/14 Economic Survey.
Organisations have been quick to realise the aspirations of the evolving workforce and are open to sign them on for high-value, high-impact jobs. The freelance movement is dominated by project-based jobs, the most popular among them are web and graphic design, search engine optimisation, content writing, translation and interpretation, Internet marketing, recruitment, branding and legal services. Companies have also started considering people for senior positions, such as marketing heads and CxOs, on a contractual basis.
Experts say, talent crunch has been one of the major drivers for the change in approach for companies, and technology advances has made it easy for them to get the best brains from anywhere in the world. According to a 2015 survey by ManpowerGroup, 38 per cent of businesses, globally, are struggling to find the right talent. The flexibility of a start-up, minus the cost of annual pay packages of fulltime employees and infrastructure, makes it even more lucrative for companies as well.
Shelly Singh, co-founder, PeopleStrong, a HR solutions company, feels 20-25 per cent of the workforce of corporate India will be part of the gig economy within the next 12-18 months. "Companies will have to relook at their work processes, talent strategy, rewards and engagement plans to better integrate them in their organisational structure," she says.
Many companies are also working on meeting the aspirations of full-time employees with work-from-home arrangements or letting them work on projects of their choice. For instance, Accenture's internal marketplace allows employees to choose projects across the organization and apply for those that match their experience and skillset, says Unmesh Pawar, Global MD, HR- Products, Accenture.
The first thing companies will have to do, says Sandeep Kohli, National Director, HR, EY, is to delineate the projects to be done in-house and the ones to be sourced out. "This will help companies ascertain the number of freelancers they would like to appoint for a project." Suchita Dutta, Executive Director, Indian Staffing Federation agrees: "For full time employees, companies need not have clear guidelines, but specific goals have to be communicated clearly when work is outsourced."
Companies will also have to integrate the right collaboration tools and data security software, either on cloud technology or virtual private networks, as part of their IT infrastructure, so that freelancers can work from across all locations seamlessly.
Besides, non-disclosure agreements will become very crucial to ensure confidentiality. Says Amitabh Akhauri, Group CHRO, Jindal Stainless: "I will not rule out the chances of data leak. Agreements, at the face of it, are enough, but it does not lock all the doors."
Freelancers bring a different set of values and a diverse approach to work. They possess a distinctive knowledge set that allows them to collaborate and manage their careers independently, rather than following a set career path. "Organisations need to recognise these differences," says Vishalli Dongrie, Partner and Head, People and Change, KPMG in India. The biggest challenge for HR, therefore, will be to adopt the best practices to retain talent. "They should address career mobility, real-time developmental feedback and employee engagement initiatives that focus on work-life balance," adds Dongrie.
Companies will have to determine a uniform pay structure at the policy level, keeping in mind freelancers do not get any security benefits that full-time employees have, says Pasricha of online freelance marketplace Flexing It. According to a survey done by the organisation, only 20 per cent of companies surveyed had salary slabs for paying freelancers based on their experience.
The financial services industry must also change their policies keeping in mind the concerns of freelancers for getting credit. Banks and credit card companies still look at employment contracts and salary slips to ascertain an individual's credit score, and freelancers are seen as riskier clients. In the US, new-age financial services companies, in fact, are using the growth in the gig economy as a business opportunity, offering insurance and security benefits to freelancers and independent workers. Pawar of Accenture says that they are still trying to crack policies around rewards and engagement of freelancers they employ.
The emergence of the gig economy has also impacted the relationship between the employer and the employee - an attitudinal shift in companies, where managers will have to start seeing independent workers as partners, and not as vendors.
"We are used to working with penguins, but we will have to learn to work with peacocks too," says Kohli, adding: "We will have to get used to the fact that it is fine to work with 'face-less' people, who are not sitting at an arm's length. Of course, there is a certain comfort factor in seeing the team across the table." But, as teams go global, managers will have to learn to trust a person on the basis of his or her experience and quality of output, and be comfortable with it.
Kohli explains how EY India hired trainers from outside to coach company executives at all levels, but soon realised that the trainers did not understand the requirements of the employees and the kind of challenges they face. So the EY management started investing time to explain what the trainers needed to focus on, including what the company stood for and its requirements. "As we started doing the context setting before the training sessions, the result was very different," says Kohli.
For companies to benefit from the gig economy, they will have to innovate and tweak their technology and business policies to stay ahead of the curve.