Contracting Cultures & The Gig Economy

Written by Holtby Turner

world today lives in a gig economy. Originally coined to describe platform-based tech companies like Deliveroo and Uber, gigs and short-term contracts are increasingly prevalent in real estate, and this presents a challenge to our leaders. 

As project work becomes more fragmented, how do you ensure a culture of joint responsibility when many employees see work as a string of gigs? How do you ensure a unified brand in a world defined by temporary contracts? This is something many of the CEOs I work with see as a major challenge. 

In Humans as a Service: The Promise and Perils of Work in the Gig Economy, Jeremias Prassl outlines both the promise and perils of the gig economy. As work for many becomes more flexible, so cultures must follow suit. Experimenting with ‘gig-time’ employees runs the risk of creating cultural silos, so how can that be avoided? 

Avoiding Silos

The first step is to be clear about which kinds of work are moved into the gig economy. A charter document regarding the process through which a job might be made either permanent or less can be of great help here. Another step will need to be making sure all employees are assessed in a transparent and fair manner. In construction, issues are already creeping in between workers contracted via online platforms run by algorithms and rating systems, with those hired and supervised by direct line managers.  

Above all else is the need to build and develop a resilient corporate culture. By making culture open and easy to adopt, gig workers feel welcome, and part of a greater whole – do not underestimate the importance of meetings and parties in this! Ensure they do not feel excluded by having to endure the humiliation of asking for keys to the bathroom, for example. This kind of cultural silo will rapidly build resentment.   

Equally important is ensuring that the outward-facing part of the company remains uniform. As more tasks are moved to temporary workers, there is a risk that clients experience an uneven service which damages a brand’s image and core messages around customer experience. In Harvard Business Review’s 6 Ways to Build a Customer-Centric Culture, brand leadership author Denise Lee Yohn shows how important it is to establish clear customer cultures, particularly in the light of such cases described above. 

The culture must be tied to customer outcomes, regardless of what work contract the customer-facing person has. Similarly, compensation for all employees, from permanent staff to giggers should be tied to customer success factors. Every person working for the company should feel that the customer is their customer, and feel motivated to give their best.

In some organisations, this can well create friction. Often this can be due to a sense of entitlement among permanent employees. Leaders in the built environment need to combat this by making sure that everyone understands, and accepts, that customers come first, if that is indeed where you stand as an organisation. Leaders should also be careful not to alienate good gig workers, or see them as endlessly replaceable. On the contrary, establishing a good rapport with gig workers will be a high priority in the future workplace. 

Flexible Outlooks, Flexible Working 

All this is already a fact of life for many organisations delivering off-site services. In the future, the need for stability in the face of fragmenting work will only increase. As early as 2001, author Daniel H Pink spoke of a Free Agent Nation, an economy defined by flexible work. Today, we call it the gig economy. In the future, as platforms mature and technology develops, we might just call it “work”. To prepare for the next step, what can real estate and construction leaders do? 

One, start taking mixed-contract cultures seriously. Leaders will need to work hard to achieve cultural cohesion in the age of the gig economy. Respect and community-building activities will be key. Two, perceived fairness between different contracts and different contractors can make or break a culture. Transparency is critical here, as is the capacity to explain why such differences exist. Three, you need to think of and like the clients. Your organisation may be made up of varied employees and giggers, but the client should see a unified front. Invest in service training, it will pay back handsomely. Thankfully, with the right culture and the right mindset, this can be a win-win-win. 

A win for companies, who gain unprecedented flexibility. A win for employees, who can find the mode of work that works for them. And a win for clients, who can get the best of all worlds – the stability of a corporation combined with the can-do attitude and flexibility of freelancers.

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