The fourth post in our Contracting series shares a Harvard Business Review article (“Thriving in the Gig Economy” from the March-April 2018 issue). It was co-written by three professors / associate professors from INSEAD, the University of Michigan, and Yale. Their blend of medical, psychiatry, management and business organisation, and organisational behaviour experience shines through strongly. They interviewed 65 gig / independent workers for the article.
As a nod towards its timeliness, the article references a McKinsey study which reports that "knowledge-intensive industries and creative occupations are the largest and fastest-growing segments of the freelance economy."
I found it both insightful and helpful, and I trust that our readers will too. For me, the juxtaposition of the anxieties faced versus the benefits of independence provided a useful perspective. In their words: "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… they also felt they had mustered more courage and were leading richer lives than their corporate counterparts".
One woman interviewed used the analogy of a trapeze to expand on her feelings: "...the void she felt when between assignments; the exhilaration of landing the next engagement; the discipline, concentration, and grace that mastering her profession required. Trapeze artists seem to take huge risks, she explained, but a safety system — including nets, equipment, and fellow performers — supports them: 'They appear to be on their own, but they’re not.'"
The sense of uncertainty echoes a previous New York Times article we summarised (see Contracting/Gigging - Uncertainty for Millennials), which covered the emotional impact of the “treadmill of temporary work” for millennials, particularly when gigging was not by choice. However, as this HBR article focuses on those who’ve actively chosen to work independently, it also speaks of the sense of empowerment of being a pioneer.
Trapeze Photo by Mr T in DC: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/5016629994/sizes/z/
Managing the pressures
One of the biggest emotional impacts of contracting/gigging is how it affects your sense of self. You can become your work, living and breathing it (like an artist or writer might). The authors comment on this existential question of identity, saying: "Unshackled from managers and corporate norms, people can choose assignments that make the most of their talents and reflect their true interests. They feel ownership over what they produce and over their entire professional lives… They care about both being at work – having the discipline to regularly generate products or services that find a market – and being into their work: having the courage to stay fully invested in the process and output of that labour."
To manage the ongoing feeling of unsettledness, however, it is helpful to develop a physical, social and psychological space for your work. The authors describe this as "an accomplishment; it must be cultivated, and it can be lost". They also recognise that the sense of nervousness/anticipation can be advantageous: "one consultant described [it] as the key to continued learning, and 'keeping my edge'" i.e. the feeling should be managed positively, rather than fully removed.
The authors explain how those interviewed create these spaces for themselves by establishing and maintaining "liberating connections" - "because they both free people up to be individually creative and bind them to work so that their output doesn’t wane" i.e. freedom with support, room to grow with accountability. The four dimensions are: place, routine, purpose, and people.
Disconnected from a corporate office, giggers/contractors aim to find places to work that "protect them from outside distractions and pressures and help them to avoid feeling rootless". Often these places "allow easy access to the tools of the owner’s trade and to little else", underscoring how the space is dedicated to work. "Each workspace is also unique, with a location, furniture, supplies, and decorations that reflect the idiosyncrasy of its owner’s work".
As an aside, the corporate focus on hotdesking (first-come-first-served seating in the office) can also foster feelings of disconnectedness among corporate employees: there is less chance to sit with your team, less chance to form a routine, and no chance to personalise your workspace – in effect, it’s partly like gigging at your employer!
Working in the same place helps to instil a sense of routine and discipline – and the authors comment how people can "use routines to enhance focus and performance". Other examples include: "keeping a schedule; following a to-do list; beginning the day with the most challenging work or with a client call; leaving a sentence incomplete in an unfinished manuscript to make an easy start the next day; sweeping the studio floor while reflecting on a new piece". They also refer to other personal care routines involving exercise, sleep, nutrition, meditation or even wardrobe choices. "[The] ritual element… enhances people’s sense of order and control in uncertain circumstances."
The power of routine comes up regularly in discussion at an entrepreneurial group I’m a member of – many of us find the structure it provides helps us be more accountable and productive.
Another anchor which helps to ground independent workers in tough times is their work connecting to a broader purpose i.e. "their work, or at least their best work… is more than a means of earning a living. Purpose creates a bridge between their personal interests and motivations and a need in the world". Unless you are independently wealthy, this must be balanced with having clients and making an income. Nevertheless, a purpose contributes to resilience and courage – one of the people interviewed said: "It gives me the strength to decline work that isn’t in alignment. It gives me a quality of authenticity and confidence..." The authors reinforced this: "We found that purpose, like the other connections, both binds and frees people by orienting and elevating their work."
To counter the "dangers of social isolation", it is vital for giggers/contractors to nurture a network of people they can turn to for "reassurance and encouragement". These can include:
These four types of connections (to place, routines, purpose, and people) help independent workers "endure the emotional ups and downs of their work and gain energy and inspiration from their freedom". The authors conclude that success in this context "comes from finding a balance between predictability and possibility, and between viability (the promise of continued work) and vitality (feeling present, authentic and alive in one's work)".
The comments left by readers on the original article confirmed my feelings on the accuracy of the authors’ description of the balance/tension – it’s an authenticity which comes from in-depth conversation with people who’ve lived through it.
I found one of the comments, by someone who described how he’s been freelancing for 30 years, particularly fascinating: "...It is the corporate/industrial economy that has been the historical blip on the radar". He encourages more participation in self-employment: "The more workers in all industries step outside of the bounds of corporate control, the more pressure is placed on organisations to offer their employees significant financial and emotional benefit in exchange for their loyalty." He also expands on the "connections to people" element, arguing: "Think about what unionising or a guild structure might look like for web designers, programmers, software testers etc. Low bidding against other contractors only serves to add stress and rob freelancers of the benefits of working outside the corporate envelope, how can you work with others in your industry to establish standard minimum fees that benefit everyone, coupled with minimum requirements that give quality assurance to your clients?"
The full original article can be found here: https://hbr.org/2018/03/thriving-in-the-gig-economy
Do you agree with the insights from this article? Please do share with us examples of the places, routines, purpose and people you’ve found have helped you to unlock your potential and perform at your best.