Ups and downs of ‘gig economy’ work

Louisa Baczor, Research Adviser

The ‘gig economy’ has been a hot topic of debate, particularly following the Taylor Review’s call to improve the quality of work for those in atypical employment. The CIPD’s research found that while 60% of ‘giggers’ feel they often don’t get enough work and are typically on low income, around half are satisfied with how much they earn, often using gig work to supplement their main job. But what do gig economy workers actually experience in their work day-to-day? What’s it like to interact with an app instead of a human employer? How does this impact on their sense of voice and well-being? Our recent photo-journal series gave deeper insight into individuals’ perspectives on these questions. We heard the stories of three giggers, each in a different skill demographic: Susie, a voiceover artist; David, a web developer; and Elle, a working artist who does several types of gig work.

The stories illustrate the various reasons for joining the gig economy, from already being self-employed to choosing it after becoming frustrated with permanent work. It offers individuals the ability to have much more control over their work, and to develop skills in areas they choose. David and Elle both decided to sign up to platforms after leaving poor quality full-time jobs — mentioning low pay, long hours, or being pushed into roles that weren’t suited to them.

Their stories highlight the precarious nature of the work, with each of them describing how they may switch from being overly busy to having no work in any given period, with very little notice. While quiet patches often trigger anxiety about cash flow and job security, the workers portrayed a sense of acceptance that this is the nature of the work, and that cycles of varying workloads are to be expected. For the individuals, the freedom that this way of working provides appears to outweigh the unpredictability of it.

At the other end of the scale, they often grapple with the temptation to boost their earnings by taking on unmanageable amounts of work. There’s a need for self-discipline in switching off to avoid burnout — as Susie says: ‘That’s something I’m constantly working on, trying to keep that balance and saying, “No, I’m not going to work tonight; I’m not going to reply to emails”.’

Well-being is an important priority for each of these individuals. They describe the effort they make to dedicate time for themselves and to pursue other interests:

‘There are days where I could make a lot of money, but you have to prioritise. You can easily get to the point where you’ve worked 14 days in a row, and if you’re not giving yourself a clear break, it’s not good.’ (Elle)

‘I create space around the work that I do to lead the life I live. I work to live, not live to work.’ (David)

While each of the gig workers place a high value on the personal autonomy that gig work provides, they also describe feelings of isolation as a result of rarely meeting other ‘colleagues’ who might also work for the platform. Building relationships with co-workers is a key driver of job satisfaction and fulfilment, and helps people to feel part of an organisation. Questions are therefore raised over how opportunities can be created for remote or short-term contract workers to feel engaged in their jobs. Being self-driven to learn and develop skills may be an important quality for gig workers — for example, through webinars or learning on the job, as shown in the photo-journals.

Resilience is a quality that may come with experience in the gig economy, particularly through learning to negotiate fees and not accepting underpaid jobs. When it comes to dealing with issues — either with a client or the company — the workers are largely on their own. There’s a general sense coming through their stories that gig platforms prioritise their own profitability and ensuring that customers keep using them, over dealing with workers’ concerns. For example, David says, ‘Generally, every decision they make is not in my interest, but in theirs.’ Any feedback that they give to the company is often met with an automated response, and when it comes to disputes over particular jobs, it’s the clients who hold the power: ‘I don’t feel like I can dispute a bad rating. You are silenced with that; you have no voice.’ (Elle)

Addressing issues related to voice and balance of power is essential if we want to create ‘good work’ for all. The CIPD’s survey findings demonstrated the challenge of finding the right regulatory changes to support those in atypical employment contracts, while maintaining business flexibility. We are calling for greater clarity for gig economy workers on their employment status and associated rights, including access to trade unions.

The recent cases of Uber and Deliveroo workers taking the organisations to court over their rights have demonstrated what can happen when worker voice isn’t heard. The question is, to what extent can and should organisations consider the views of their temporary and contract workers? Clearly, doing so can reduce the risk of legal action, but it may also uncover important issues in the company that would otherwise be unnoticed. Beyond that, organisations have a moral obligation to treat people as human beings and protect their well-being, and giving them a meaningful voice is a fundamental enabler of that.

Our new research paper explores new ways of thinking about employee voice, not just as a means to increase employee engagement and business performance, but as a driver of intrinsic value for individuals. By recognising different forms of voice that may be meaningful for individuals, such as building relationships and releasing stress, organisations can develop a more holistic approach that creates sustainable value for their business and their people.

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