Sue Ashford is a professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business. Her recent research focuses on the changing world of work, leadership and managerial effectiveness and self-management. Ashford’s research on the gig economy is featured in the book “The definitive management ideas of the year from Harvard Business Review 2019.”
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Q: The gig economy expands every year with some forecasts indicating gig jobs will represent 40 percent of all jobs by 2020. What do you think is driving this?
ASHFORD: It certainly is prevalent: Over 50 percent of millennials are already working in this style. Economists report that all of the net job growth between 2005 and 2015 was in this type of work.Two factors seem to be enabling this trend. One is companies are cutting costs wherever they can and it’s cheaper to have contract labor than full-time employees. The second is technology. More and more people can work from anywhere doing jobs that used to require an office and equipment that was only in the office.
Q: We’ve always had gig workers—musicians, writers, actors and other creative workers—but with the large expansion of workers in technology and service industries, it’s drawn more attention. From your research, what is the experience of a gig worker like today?
ASHFORD: It’s definitely true that some people in some types of work have worked in this style always. In our research, we interviewed everyone from independent consultants, graphic designers all the way to novelists, painters, and sculptors. The psychological experience is pretty consistent across those two groups. There are a few things that characterize the experience. One is what we call precariousness…that people work closer to the economic edge, closer to possibly not making it. And that insecurity and anxiety always present in this work to some degree.
The second is that the work is much more personalized in the gig economy than for people in organizations. Here, individuals make the choices about what to produce, what kind of novel to write, what kind of consulting to do, and if their choices aren’t successful in the market, the reaction feels very personal. In addition to financial consequences, there are personal ones as well (for example, for the ego).
Q: How can gig workers cope with many of the extreme highs and lows associated with such work?
ASHFORD: The result of the conditions of gig work is a lot more emotional highs and lows and a lot more oscillation between them. Those emotions, we found, are very tied to what is an ongoing preoccupation in this work…being productive, staying productive, staying on task, not getting diverted. If you are productive, it creates highs. If you are procrastinating and getting diverted into other things, it creates a lot of anxiety.
How do people cope? We found that to cope, the more people could create and manage four connections the better off they were. These four came up across all our interviews.
The first is connection to people to combat the aloneness that goes along with working in this way, to get advice, to share and dispel the emotion.
The second connection is to routine. Routines really help people. Even if they aren’t into their day, if they get up and do the first three steps of their day that are their routine, pretty soon they are into their day and productive.
The third connection is to place. Each of the people we talked to had a certain place where they did their work. For some it was an office they set up in a particular way.
What’s important is how you set up your place and what it evokes in you.
Lastly was a connection to purpose. To the extent people could articulate a broader purpose of why they are doing what they are doing, it helped them to get out of bed, get going and stick with it when times were tough.
Q: What are the top ingredients for success for independent workers in the coming year?
ASHFORD: In the coming year if you are starting out in the gig economy, the most important thing to remember is that the cavalry isn’t coming. You really are on your own in making this kind of worklife work. You can get help and you should seek it out, but ultimately, your success depends solely on you. Your productivity is your lifeline. That is the way you are going to be successful in this kind of work—but maintaining it takes some active effort to support yourself in the tasks you’re doing. Trying to establish the four connections found in this research is an excellent starting point.