Countless talking heads have dedicated novels' worth of verbiage to the rise of the gig economy, but the statistics definitely show a booming trend: A recent study by Upwork indicates that freelancers make up 35 percent of the total workforce, and some experts believe the gig economy will double again in four years.
So far, the most visible movement has been on the blue-collar side of the equation. Roles that don't require a specific set of skills – your local repair person or your friendly neighborhood Uber driver, for example – have been quick to adopt the business model. More recently, however, white-collar workers have started to bring their specialized skill sets to the freelance table.
A report by Ernst & Young suggests that technological innovations have buoyed this remarkable shift. With artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and other disruptions becoming mainstream, occupations in all sectors have been turned on their heads. Combine disruption in every industry under the sun with changing worker preferences – younger generations truly champion independence – and it suddenly becomes clear why white-collar workers are interested in gigging.
While marketplaces are still adjusting to this shift, business decision-makers can take steps to get ahead of the white-collar mass migration.
Plenty of white-collar workers embrace gigs
One glaring question remains: Why exactly would a white-collar worker leave a lucrative job with perks and benefits to enter a murky, risky and inconsistent freelance market? The economy isn't faltering – U.S. gross domestic product grew by about 3 percent in the second quarter of 2017 – and many workers could realistically climb the corporate ladder with time and effort.
For a long time, the earning power of gig economy positions has slowed any potential white-collar surge. A CFO in his mid-50s earning a six- or seven-figure salary doesn't have the same motivation to jump into the gig economy as a young professional hustling to keep bills from piling up. It could take several months for the CFO to ramp up to a similar salary doing freelance work, and variable monthly income is probably the last thing a boomer wants to mess with at a late career stage. That said, the financial outlook isn't as rocky as it once was: Six-figure salaries are the norm for at least 3.2 million American freelancers.
A significant portion of this transition is a generational shift. Generation Xers and baby boomers watched as their old, worn-out grandparents retired. This left a huge impression on young minds who vowed to work fewer hours, spend time with their families, set their own schedules, focus on healthy hobbies and simply have the freedom to travel. Millennials champion independence, and the gig economy is a natural extension of that preference for personal happiness over workaholism.
Companies everywhere should see this as an opportunity instead of a threat. Virtual reality and robotics will certainly change workplaces, but they aren't likely to eliminate the need for workers. Businesses have started to see the benefits of the gig economy, which allows companies to seamlessly scale their teams as needs evolve. People are open to these opportunities because of their familiarity with the gig economy (Who hasn't used an Uber at this point?), and white-collar workers are ready to test the freelance waters as opportunities develop.
How to prepare for the freelance future
The tide is turning, and the risks associated with freelance work decrease as new markets emerge. The genie is already out of the bottle, and organizations must prepare to proactively accept and embrace this white-collar migration. Here are three strategies to make the most of this societal shift:
1. Experiment with freelance workersIf you aren't yet comfortable entrusting critical work to freelancers, start by outsourcing smaller projects. Use an Upwork writer to help draft some copy for your website, or have a Shiftgig freelancer plan an upcoming event. Trying to draft a contract? An attorney working gigs for UpCounsel could save you a lot of money while delivering high-quality results.
Remember that you don't have to go all-in at once. Test out a few gig opportunities, noting what works and what doesn’t, and adjust your strategy accordingly as you slowly grow your freelance foundation.
2. Pick up the phone (or webcam)
Connections are critical when you work with gig workers — they deserve better than impersonal emails. Most offices rely so much on email that it begins to feel as though there's not another person on the other end of our messages. A joint survey by Cisco and Redshift Research found that 87 percent of young workers prefer video-enabled workplaces, while 75 percent are willing to look for a new job if their employer fails to foster collaboration.
Instead of emailing back and forth a dozen times, look for more personal ways to connect with freelance employees. You could spend 10 minutes video chatting to resolve an issue or simply check in. This is particularly important for picking up body language or emotions that are imperceptible in written feedback. Considering that 93 percent of communication effectiveness stems from nonverbal cues, personal interactions are invaluable. Technology allows you to form those connections more quickly and with fewer missed touchpoints.
3. Test one new communication tool every month
New communication platforms seem to pop up almost daily. It's tempting to wait until these technologies have been fully vetted before giving them a shot, but you sacrifice your chance to be on the cutting edge of communications. Hyperlink InfoSystem reports that more than 50 percent of workers’ time is wasted on outdated communication methods.Stay in the know about what’s hot, and periodically test out emerging solutions that meet your company's needs. Messaging services such as Slack or Chatter can help remote and freelance workers feel like a valued part of the team by allowing them to interact with colleagues from afar. You might also consider new tools like HipChat, Flock and Twist.
Sweeping change is admittedly a tough sell at large companies, particularly if you're trying to adjust communications across all departments at once. Instead, test any new technologies in smaller teams before you roll them out to everyone.
Whether workers are wearing white, blue, black or green collars, the gig economy has something to offer. Consulting firm BIA/Kelsey reports that on-demand workers contributed $34 billion to the 2016 economy, and that amount has increased every year since 2014. Unless you're content to turn your back on opportunity's strident knocks, you owe it to your company to harness the power of the gig economy.