A new definition of success for the ‘gig economy’

How do we find meaning@work, when work is a 24/7 hustle? An article in the March/April issue of the Harvard Business Review offers some answers. ‘Thriving in a Gig Economy’ builds on research published by McKinsey in October, adding results of interviews with 65 gig workers.

As more folks opt for independence@work, new models emerge beyond the stereotype of ride-hailing service employee. The McKinsey survey of 8,000 respondents across Europe and the US found “up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States—or 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population—engage in some form of independent work.” This is no longer a trend, but a significant employment sector, attracting new members daily out of choice or necessity.

Authors of the HBR article: Gianpiero Petriglieri, Susan J. Ashford and Amy Wrzesniewski discovered commonalities among those who chose the ‘gig life’.

“We found remarkably similar sentiments across generations and occupations: All those we studied acknowledged that they felt a host of personal, social, and economic anxieties without the cover and support of a traditional employer—but they also claimed that their independence was a choice and that they would not give up the benefits that came with it. Although they worried about unpredictable schedules and finances, they also felt they had mustered more courage and were leading richer lives than their corporate counterparts.”

Ownership is the shared value of gig workers, productivity the measurement, uncertainty the trade-off, and work identity – it’s continually evolving.

“…the price of such freedom is a precariousness that seems not to subside over time. Even the most successful, well-established people we interviewed still worry about money and reputation and sometimes feel that their identity is at stake.”

What does success look like in this new workplace?

“Our conclusion is that people in the gig economy must pursue a different kind of success—one that comes from finding a balance between predictability and possibility, between viability (the promise of continued work) and vitality (feeling present, authentic, and alive in one’s work). Those we interviewed do so by building holding environments around place, routines, purpose, and people, which help them sustain productivity, endure their anxieties, and even turn those feelings into sources of creativity and growth. “There’s a sense of confidence that comes from a career as a self-employed person,” one consultant told us. “You can feel that no matter how bad it gets, I can overcome this. I can change it. I can operate more from a place of choice as opposed to a place of need.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Year@Work: 2017

The workplace took center stage in the global news of 2017. This was the year of the journalist, women@work, side-hustles and maintaining focus. It was also the year that we, as a society questioned expertise.

Two quotes summed up 2017 for me:

“I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me”
Cecily Strong  (2/12 SNL skit )

“How do we measure ‘fulfillment’ in work, and where do we find it when the traditional channels have given way to a round-the-clock hustle?”
Meghan Daum (9/15 NYT Book Review)

It was a year of constant distraction, disruption and fake news. The workplace became a refuge, and activism an essential ‘after hours’ pursuit. Low unemployment rates held, while wages stagnated. The income inequality gap widened.

An overheard conversation on the street this week: “I haven’t had a day off since September 1, with the three jobs I’ve been juggling.” This is the new American workplace.

The year@work was the year of the journalist. Although many were bullied and threatened, the coverage of workplace issues was stellar. For this year in review, I recommend some of the best writing of the year, suggest a book from the new genre ‘UpLit’ and share a few random thoughts.

IMG_8149.jpgWomen@work
On a cool Saturday morning in January we headed downtown to join a protest march. The plan had been to park the car and take the light rail. There were no parking spaces. There are always parking spaces. Something was different.

What was different was this wasn’t a march, it was a ‘standing in place’ because there were too many people and nowhere to go. In downtown LA the crowd was a mosaic of SoCal demographics. It wasn’t a ‘woman’s march’, it was a ‘families march’ in support of women. I think that may be the one thing the press missed this year.

IMG_8191.jpgAt the time many were skeptical.  The Los Angeles Times reported: “New protest era may be emerging, but sustaining unity could prove difficult.”

Yes, it has been difficult, but subsequent elections on local, state and federal levels demonstrated an ongoing commitment to civic engagement. The gig economy has a new ‘side-hustle’ and it’s called involvement.

I believe the seeds for #MeToo were planted on January 21, 2017.

Workplace Harassment

On February 19, former Uber employee, Susan Fowler posted a blog about her experience as a software engineer. “It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go…”

On December 11, Ms. Fowler was named the Financial Times’ Person of the Year.
“Women have been speaking up for many, many years, but were very rarely believed, and there were almost never any real consequences for offenders,” Ms Fowler told the Financial Times. “This year, that completely changed.”

Two other stories of note broadened the narrative of women@work in Silicon Valley:
‘The Ellen Pao Effect Is What Happens After Lean In’Jessi Hempel for Wired, September 20, 2017
‘Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?’Liza Mundy for The Atlantic, April 2017

fearless girl.jpgOn October 5 the first major story on workplace harassment in Hollywood was reported in The New York Times.  Since then, some of the best journalists have both reported and reflected on the relationship between men, power and women@work.

Here’s a sampling of the best:
‘Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades’Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey for The New York Times, October 5, 2017
‘From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories’Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker, October 10, 2017
‘Your Reckoning and Mine’Rebecca Traister for The Cut, November 12, 2017
‘The Cost of Devaluing Women’Sallie Krawcheck for The New York Times, December 2, 2017

rose reading room.jpgThe questioning of expertise

At work, you know the value of the expertise you bring to your organization. You may be a generalist, a specialist or a combination. You bear the scars and carry the laurels of hard won achievement, and you are compensated for your talent. Colleagues ‘pick your brain’ to complement their own skill set. Customers rely on your advice.

That’s why ‘How America Lost Faith in Expertise’ by Tom Nichols is required reading.

“I fear we are moving beyond a natural skepticism regarding expert claims to the death of the ideal of expertise itself: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those with achievement in an area and those with none.

A modern society cannot function without a social division of labor. No one is an expert on everything. We prosper because we specialize, developing formal and informal mechanisms and practices that allow us to trust one another in those specializations and gain the collective benefit of our individual expertise…The relationship between expert and citizens rests on a foundation of mutual respect and trust.”

IMG_8367.jpgThe gig/side-hustle career

The world of work has changed. We’re not going to time-travel back to a magical place where work fit neatly into single employer; 9-5, five-day a week increments. Whatever you choose to label the current paradigm, it’s a patchwork of assignments, for a variety of employers: some resulting in valuable skill development and others providing the means to an end. And it’s exhausting.

Jia Tolentino examined the consequences of our new work/life for the New Yorker.
‘The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death’ March 22, 2017. “It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news.

“There’s a painful distance between the chipper narratives surrounding labor and success in America and the lived experience of workers.”

IMG_9786.jpgUp lit: A new genre emerges in publishing

In the September article for the NYT Book Review, Meghan Daum reviewed three memoirs.“I’ve always believed some of the best material comes from the workplace…it’s the job site, the place where our skills are honed and our labors converted to currency, that truly defines not just our proficiencies but our element.”

I would agree.

Danuta Kean reported for the Guardian: ‘Up lit: The new book trend with kindness at its core’ “A bruising year dominated by political and economic uncertainty, terrorism and tragedy has, publishers say, kickstarted a new trend they have have branded “up lit”…bookbuyers are seeking out novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood.”

One of her favorites was also mine. ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman, a perfect example of how fiction can outdistance non-fiction when it comes to our relationship to work and our colleagues.

IMG_9162.jpgIt begins: “When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, hairdressers – I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether people hear the phrase work ‘in an office’ and automatically fill in the blanks themselves – lady doing photocopying, man tapping at a keyboard. I’m not complaining, I’m delighted that I don’t have to get into the fascinating intricacies of accounts receivable with them.”

One other recommendation, looking at work from a different life cycle perspective:
‘Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney.

“Now I don’t work anymore, and the world is uncomfortable.”

The world is uncomfortable, for many reasons. As 2017 merges into 2018 the question remains for all @work: How will we find fulfillment @work in the new year, amidst a shape-shifting environment where the familiar has been replaced by a round-the-clock hustle?

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The week@work – new overtime rules, sharing the wealth of the ‘gig economy’ and college grads’ skills gap

This week@work President Obama announced changes in labor rules that will extend overtime benefits to 4.2 million Americans, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren advocated for the rights of ‘gig economy’ workers and a new report indicates a continuing deficiency in recent grads’ communications skills.

Christine Mai-Duc reported on the revisions to overtime regulations that will go into effect on December 1.

“The proposed changes would more than double the salary threshold for overtime eligibility to $970 a week in 2016. That means employees earning a yearly salary of $50,440 or less automatically would be eligible for overtime pay.

Currently, the threshold is $455 a week, meaning a salaried worker making more than $23,660 a year does not automatically qualify for overtime pay under federal standards.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told reporters that too many managers are falling behind and getting caught in the “middle-class squeeze.”

Proponents of the change say the salary threshold, designed to exempt highly paid white-collar workers, hasn’t seen meaningful change for more than 40 years. In 1975, more than 60% of salaried workers were eligible for overtime. Today, less than 8% of full-time salaried workers are covered by those regulations, according to the White House Domestic Policy Council.

“In effect, we have seen inflation repeal the regulations that went into effect decades ago,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor economist and professor at UC Berkeley.”

The man at the head of the Department of Labor, Secretary Thomas Perez, shared his approach to worker advocacy in an interview with David Gelles for The New York Times.

 

“It’s a day job intended to help other people with day jobs. He wants companies to take better care of their employees, even if it costs them in the short term. It’s not a message many C.E.O.s want to hear, but Mr. Perez believes it is his duty to spread the word.

Mr. Perez’s courting of chief executives also stems from a recognition that his department alone can’t fix the problems bedeviling American workers. Thorny issues like wage stagnation, stingy vacation time, shoddy manufacturing and environmental degradation are so complex, so entrenched, that no one government agency can tackle them (not to mention the diminished influence of organized labor).

He is talking about “conscious capitalism” and “inclusive capitalism.” He is singling out “high road” employers. He is promoting B Corps, companies that adhere to lofty social and environmental standards. In doing so, he hopes he can persuade less enlightened corporations to change.

The employers who do best are employers who reject these false choices,” Mr. Perez said. “It’s not a zero-sum world where you either take care of your workers or you take care of your shareholders. You can do good and do well, too.

We’re building a movement,” he said. “It’s undeniably a work in progress, but there’s a fundamental desire to see capitalism to do something different.”

On Thursday, Senator Elizabeth Warren addressed the annual conference of Washington D.C. think tank, New America. Her remarks, ‘Strengthening the Basic Bargain for Workers in the Modern Economy’, detailed the reality of the changing workplace and proposed steps to create an income safety net and ensure portability of benefits for all workers.

Warren takes part in the Washington Ideas Forum in Washington

“The problems facing gig workers are much like the problems facing millions of other workers. An outdated employee benefits model makes it all but impossible for temporary workers, contract workers, part-time workers and workers in industries like retail or construction who switch jobs frequently to build any economic security.

Just as this country did a hundred years ago, it’s time to rethink the basic bargain between workers and companies. As greater wealth is generated by new technology, how can we ensure that the workers who support this economy can share in that wealth?

I believe we start with one simple principle: all workers–no matter when they work, where they work, who they work for, whether they pick tomatoes or build rocket ships–all workers should have some basic protections and be able to build some economic security for themselves and their families. No worker should fall through the cracks.”

Lydia Dishman summarized a report released last week by compensations specialists, Payscale, citing a ‘skills gap’ between managers and employers. And, wait for it…there’s a generational twist.

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Some of the skills hiring managers find lacking or absent are unexpected. Critical thinking, problem solving, attention to detail, and writing proficiency top the list of skills managers find missing from job seekers’ personal tool kits. On the flip side, managers didn’t find graduates wanting for know-how in search engine optimization marketing, foreign languages, and coding.

Overall, hiring managers found soft skills such as communication, leadership, ownership, and teamwork were missing in this new crop of workers.

“Graduates need strong communication and problem-solving skills if they want to interview well and succeed in the workplace, because effective writing, speaking, and critical thinking enables you to accomplish business goals and get ahead,” Dan Schawbel, research director at Future Workplace, said in a statement. “No working day will be complete without writing an email or tackling a new challenge, so the sooner you develop these skills, the more employable you will become,” Schawbel adds.

It’s important to note here that age matters in this report. Fifty-five percent of managers who are millennials themselves believed graduates are prepared to enter the workforce versus 47% of gen Xers and 48% of boomers.”

The ‘gig economy’ and ‘the new romantics’

The ground is shifting the foundations of our world@work. New economic models are emerging of mosaic careers where freelancing is the predominant driver of income. In order to flourish workers will have to reimagine their life@work and add skills previously delivered through full time employers. This is the conversation that should be taking place in corporate boardrooms, university classrooms, state legislatures and presidential debates.

Don’t believe me? How did you get to work? Uber? Where did you stay on vacation? Airbnb?

The initial repercussions of the new world@work are being felt in the halls of justice as folks try to fit old definitions of work and workers into new, entrepreneurial business models.

Sarah Kessler writing for Fast Company summarized the dilemma.

“What’s at stake with these lawsuits and protests? The very definition of “employee” in a tech-enabled, service-driven 21st century American economy. Gig economy companies do not own cars, hotels, or even their workers’ cleaning supplies. What they own is a marketplace with two sides. On one side are people who need a job done—a ride to the airport, a clean house, a lunchtime delivery. On the other are people who are willing to do that job. If Uber and other companies are going to be as big as some claim, a new deal has to be brokered, one that squares the legal rules governing work with new products and services. What benefits can you expect from a quasi-employer? What does it mean to be both independent and tethered to an app-based company? The social contract between gig economy workers and employers is broken. Who will fix it, and how, will determine the fate of thousands of workers and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

James Surowiecki writing in The New Yorker described just how difficult it is to define the difference between an employee and an independent contractor.

“We hear a lot these days about the gig economy, but the issue of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor has been the subject of intense legal battles for decades. The distinction can be surprisingly hard to make. The I.R.S. has a list of twenty factors that it takes into account, but other federal agencies have different criteria, as do most states. The fundamental issue is usually whether an employer has “control” over the work being done, but defining control isn’t always easy.”

This is where it begins in the U.S., in the court system. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs will continue to connect clients with products and hire workers who will supplement their income performing a variety of part-time professional services. Eventually the laws will catch up with the workplace reality. But in the interim, universities have to decipher the emerging skill set and prepare the next generation of workers for success.

Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University in Boston conducted an informal survey of the university community, tweeting the question, “What skills will graduates need for success in the gig economy?”

“…we can see five skills that will be invaluable for thriving in the gig economy:

Generativity: How to create something unique, be it a product, a service, or an idea. E.g., coming up with the idea for a widget.

Entrepreneurship: How to spot an opportunity and act on it effectively. Discovering a market for widgets.

Originality: How to view an existing subject through an unexpected lens. Realizing that the widget can be made more sustainably from recycled water bottles.

Interdisciplinary thought: How to bridge concepts from different fields to form new ideas. Combining engineering and design so that the widget is not only functional, but beautiful.

Dealing with ambiguity: How to confidently address a problem with no clear solution, often by using a blend of experience, intuition, and grasp of human nature. Faced with plunging stock prices, reinventing the company as a widget-sharing app.”

The ‘new gig workers’ will also need a basic understanding of business law and finance. Arun Sundararajan writing in The Guardian assesses the micro and macro implications of the new model.

“There’s certainly something empowering about being your own boss. With the right mindset, you can achieve a better work-life balance. But there’s also something empowering about a steady pay cheque, fixed work hours and company-provided benefits. It’s harder to plan your life longer term when you don’t know how much money you’re going to be making next year.”

In many countries, key slices of the social safety net are tied to full-time employment with a company or the government. Although the broader socioeconomic effects of the gig economy are as yet unclear, it is clear we must rethink the provision of our safety net, decoupling it from salaried jobs and making it more readily available to independent workers.”

Fundamentally, the new ‘gig worker’ will focus on human interaction vs. transactional activities. We are back to the core curriculum of a liberal arts education. The lawyers, politicians and business folk will figure out the structure and protections. The humanists will find job security in the ‘gig economy’.

David Brooks writing in The New York Times imagines the new world@work.

“What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?”

“Secure workers will combine technical knowledge with social awareness — the sort of thing you get from your genes, from growing up in a certain sort of family and by widening your repertoire of emotions through reflection, literature and a capacity for intimacy.”

“I could imagine a time when young thinkers discard the strictures of the academic professionalism and try to revive the model of the intellectual as secular sage. I could see other young people tiring of résumé-building do-goodism and trying to live more radically for the poor. The romantic tries as much as possible to ground his or her life in purer love that transforms — making him or her more inspired, creative and dedicated, and therefore better able to live as a modern instantiation of some ideal.”

Gig learning is lifelong learning. We will need leaders in both education and business who will welcome the feedback of their constituencies and be nimble in their response to a world@work that is driven by human interaction in the relational and supported by technology in the transactional.