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Gig for victory: Addressing the stigma of the gig economy

As companies continue apace with digital transformation, the need for ad hoc tech workers is growing. But traditional contracting is giving way to the looser idea of ‘gigging’ – and not just for low-level roles

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There’s still a stigma attached to the gig economy. There have been plenty of stories about the “exploitation” of gig workers by companies such as Uber and Deliveroo. Here in the UK, the Labour Party has announced that it would give gig economy workers similar rights to those in permanent work, including sick and maternity pay.

But while some see gigging as a race to the bottom – with low-level workers forced to compete on price by bidding against one another for jobs – and accusations that some companies use gig workers purely to avoid the costs and responsibilities associated with taking on permanent staff, others argue that both employers and gig workers benefit from the flexibility of this model. There’s truth in both arguments, but most believe the gig economy is here to stay even if we need to do more to curb sharp practices by some employers.

In the tech sector, where contracting has always been a lucrative option for those with in-demand skills, the looser idea of “gigging” is gaining ever more traction as companies increasingly seek people to fill roles fast for the growing number of digital projects they’re embarking on. Agility is the name of the game when it comes to digital transformation, so being able to scale teams up and down as needed can be a real boon for employers.

Dave Chaplin is a veteran software developer and CEO/founder of online contracting guide ContractorCalculator. “Using gig workers in technology, particularly via the online platforms, can be very productive and cost-effective,” he says.

“The quality varies ,so there can be false starts, but you get offers to do the work almost instantly, and work can get completed almost on demand. Compare that to using a regular supplier which has employees – it will need to queue your work into its schedule and it could be weeks before it can get started.”

But he says using popular platforms such as Upwork or Freelancer to source tech workers isn’t suitable for every kind of project.

“These platforms are most suited to isolated pieces of work, rather than outsourcing chunks of work across a long-term project. For the longer-term projects, having skills either in-house or the same contractors on-site for the entire length of the project is much better,” he says.

Losing control of standards and quality

One of the main dangers for employers who overuse gig tech workers is losing control of standards and quality, says Chaplin.

“You need to ensure software is built using the same standards and techniques across the organisation. It’s important to not lose sight of the importance of software quality, which can happen if there is a mish-mash across developments. This can slowly grind down an organisation’s ability to adapt and change systems over time to meet new business requirements,” he says.

Although the platforms show you the reputation scores for anyone bidding for work, these aren’t always a sure guide to a person’s ability or suitability for a particular role, employer or project – and it can be a gamble if you choose people purely on cost.

“When hiring for the first time, you don’t really know if the outcome will be good. We’ve had false starts where we’ve just had to stop the work and start again with someone else – that’s the perils of sometimes choosing the lowest price,” says Chaplin. “Software developers on these platforms range in capability from one to ten, but you have to be knowledgeable to pick out the tens.”

But what about the workers themselves? Are they benefiting from offering their services via these platforms? “The problem for the tens is that they will want to charge more, but they find themselves having to justify this to hirers who can’t discern the ones from the tens,” he says.

“But the reputation systems on the platforms do enable workers to build their reputations, so eventually – if you are good – you should be able to charge a proper price and only work for people who appreciate you’re worth it.”

But there’s no doubt gigging doesn’t suit everyone, and it can be particularly gruelling for newbies. The large, popular platforms for gig workers levy a charge if you want to bid for more than a set number of jobs per month. And they take a percentage of any work you do through them, typically 10-20%. The problem is many make you pay the fee as soon as you’re awarded the work, rather when you get paid. This can be a real pain for freelancers, who tend to work in fits and starts, and often struggle with cashflow.

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As Michael Brooks, founder of one of the smaller platforms, goLance, writes on Quora: “These mega platforms have become a true mission impossible for newbie freelancers. Even if you make it through the extremely rigorous verification process on Upwork, you will have to deal with the overwhelming competition. On Freelancer, you will face competitors who are willing to accept projects for the client’s extremely low budgets.

“What’s fair and undeniable is that goLance can’t match the number of projects you can find on Upwork and Freelancer. However, what you see on this relatively new freelance platform is reliable, checked and authentic. New freelancers stand the better chances of success and building up their portfolio and reputation on smaller than gigantic platforms.”

And like contractors, gigsters have to keep their skillset bang up to date if they want to succeed long term. Rob Gear, a futurist at PA Consulting covering emerging trends, technologies and innovation, says: “As technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, those operating in the gig economy will look to online learning to give them the skills they need.”

But tech skills alone aren’t enough to make you successful gigster, he adds. “The gig economy also demands high levels of flexibility and the ability to collaborate and integrate quickly into teams. Non-technical skills such as emotional intelligence and empathy are therefore equally important for gig workers,” says Gear.

You’ll also need to be able to manage your online reputation successfully. “The gig economy is often based around reviews and feedback for previous work. There is less emphasis on traditional CVs and a far greater focus on reviews and public feedback,” he says.

A shift in recruitment from top to bottom

This, though, could be the way of the future for many more IT staff – at all levels. Pat Lynes is author of the book The interim revolution on crowdsourcing and the gig economy, as well as the CEO/founder of decidedly non-traditional recruitment agency Sullivan & Stanley. He believes we are seeing a fundamental shift in the recruitment market from top to bottom.

“Knowledge workers are increasingly leaving the corporate world to go into this gig economy. Models we have grown accustomed to are dying out, including in the recruitment industry. Large, traditional corporations are bogged down with politics, hierarchy and bureaucracy. They are struggling to recruit the right people who have the skills needed for their digital evolution,” says Lynes.

And today, it’s not just low-level technology workers who are gigging. “At the higher level, interim CIOs are also growing in popularity. One of the reasons I left the traditional tech recruiter world was because I saw a gap in the market to bring these groups of gigsters together.”

His teams-as-a-service (TaaS) model lets companies hire in complete project teams on a gig basis. “The types of interim teams that we resource for include advisory teams, strategic teams, digital architect teams and Swat teams to recover failing IT projects and programmes,” he says. “To cope with today’s rate of change, companies need specialist knowledge and skills from people with a diverse range of experience on a project-by-project basis.”

And he says interim work can be highly rewarding for CIOs. “The more roles and companies a CIO can take on through gigging, the more knowledge he or she can absorb, opening up doors that may be bolted shut for permanent CIOs. In particular, being an interim CIO allows you to break away from the stigmatism of ‘the guy who does technology’, where your C-suite peers can often pigeon-hole you.”

So it seems that lumping all gig workers together as poor, exploited masses in need of protection is too crude a response to what looks more like a broad shift towards flexibility across the market as a whole. You could hardly argue that an interim CIO making more per day than some gig workers make in a month is comparable to an Uber or Deliveroo driver, for instance.

And while we may need new rules to govern this changing market effectively, commentators and politicians would be wise to approach the issue with more nuanced arguments and proposals if they want the digital economy to thrive as we head into our tech-driven future.

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