Futures Rambling #95

By Laurie Aznavoorian

 

In late October I spoke at a workplace conference in Sydney (I’ve written three posts that you can read at (http://www.bvn.com.au/2016/11/10/digital-revolution-part-one-background-context/) if you’re interested in knowing more about The Digital Revolution which was my missive for the day. As is often the case with these types of industry gatherings, an unofficial theme emerges, it establishes itself quickly like a light switch flicking to the on position in the collective conscious.

The Work 2.0 conference was no different in this regard, the hot topic that was repeated like a mantra from presentation to presentation was gig economy, gig economy, gig economy. In the event you reside on Mars, this term describes a group of people who have loose arrangements with companies that resemble employment, but aren’t really.

The easiest way to think about the gig economy is to consider the Uber driver who chauffeured you home from the office Christmas party, that guy doesn’t work for Uber. Similarly, the Deliveroo bikie who miraculously made a pizza appear when you got home does not work for your local Italian joint. Both are freelancers and part of an emerging economy defined by loose employment relations coined the gig economy.

The Intuit 2020 report that predicts trends shaping the next decade estimates 40% of the U.S. workforce will be made up of freelancers (or giggers) by 2020. This report provocatively asks us to imagine a world where companies motivate and manage employees who never set a foot in the corporate office.

Wow, I can imagine it, but to my workplace designer pals this is their worst nightmare. But they need not worry – now that America is going to be great again employees will once again be chained to their desks paving the way for designers to remain gainful employed thinking up new ways to arrange desks.

I’d first heard about the gig economy in August while I was in Seattle, the big news around town was a local employer, a tiny outfit called Amazon, announced a new 30- hour a week program that employees could opt into. The program would have a few technical teams and would be made up entirely of part-time workers.

These 30-hour a week employees will be salaried and receive the same benefits as traditional 40-hour workers, but they’ll receive only 75 percent of the pay . To overcome one common pitfalls many experience with part time work, Amazon plans to create teams entirely of part-timers, including managers. Interestingly, my brother’s company has done the same, what is noteworthy about this is he’s not in tech, but a lawyer. Consequently, this must be hot, we all know how progressive lawyers are!

One reason many are choosing to work part time, contract or to gig is noneconomic; employees have gone blue in the face waiting for their employers to do something about work-life balance and have elected to take matters into their own hands. It is not a surprise that analysis by LinkedIn indicates younger professionals, in particularly millennial men, find gigging particularly attractive. It appears to be paying off too, evidence suggests they’re happier, healthier, more loyal and innovative.

And this is why gigging was the hot topic at the conference. One after another HR professional ascended the stage to wring their hands and deliver emotional, heart felt confessions relating to their companies’ ability to attract this new generation of freelance worker. Clearly they lie awake at night concerned their organisation doesn’t have the right stuff to attract those crazy, freewheeling giggers.

In a worried tones they described the tables turning, positioning freelance employees in the driver’s seat and this new order absolutely terrified them. Understandably so, in certain industries it does appear to be the case, technology in particular relies heavily on contract workers. Flexjobs recently ranked areas crucial to Amazon’s business and all of them fell within the top five industries for freelancers: computer and IT, Administrative, Accounting and Finance, Customer Service and Software Development.

Admittedly, hearing this beguiled me, for I’ve been a part of this gig economy for the past two years and have experienced the exact opposite. The word I’d use to describe the way I’ve been treated is worse than appalling. Clearly our industry hasn’t heard about the gig economy, or the importance of creating an environment that is attractive to freelancers, because in architecture and design we still believe it’s acceptable to treat people like they are expendable doormats.

This is manifested by refusing to return phone calls or emails, expecting unrealistic turnaround times and behaving as if the basics of civilized decorum such as saying please and thank you, I’m sorry or you’re welcome were ever a part of their lexicon. To top it off, there is an abhorrent absence of truth that is far more pernicious than the typical ‘emperor’s new clothes’ delusion so common in offices today. This is where hands go to hearts and platitudes on caring, support, fairness and safety come forth, when the opposite is true, but no one has the guts to call bullshit.

I welcome the prospect of tables turning in our industry to favour the gig worker and would love to see the many architectural and design contractors rise up and demand better of employers, not in the way of perks like beer and pool tables, but a very little, simple thing – honesty. I would love to see companies that treat people badly fail miserably. Alas, I acknowledge my dream is unlikely to be realised in this post-truth era where people in power decide what is true and what isn’t, and lying is not only acceptable but rewarded.

 

Sources:

Intuit, 2020 Report, October 2010

Turner, Karen; Amazon is Piloting Teams with a 30-hour Workweek; Forbes, August 26, 2016

Walker, Michael and Kaine Sarah; Deliveroo Strike Win Shows Gig Workers Can Subvert the Rules Too; The Conversation; August 19, 2016

Zimmerman, Kaytie; What Amazon’s New 30-Hour Work Week Means for Millennials; Forbes; September 11, 2016

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