Mention of the gig economy usually conjured images of bike couriers peddling food for Deliveroo, or cab drivers shuttling city folk for Uber. More flexible set-ups crop up in every corner of the working world these days, yet the stories don’t always paint the gig economy in the most positive light.
‘One of our former software developers has gone to work elsewhere as a contractor,’ says Naimish Gohil, CEO of Satchel, the company behind Show My Homework, an educational platform that aims to reduce the workload of teachers. ‘He’s three weeks into the job and hasn’t met his line manager yet. He doesn't know anyone there – he’s just been chucked in a room and asked to do something, execute it, and that's it.’
Indeed, for all the freedom that modern flexible work models give – to employers, customers and often the workers themselves – there can be a disconcerting shift in working conditions. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) recently surveyed 500 non-permanent workers and found 64% of respondents working without sick pay.
Half of those worked when sick to ensure they brought money in. One was even sent to work with Norovirus. The report also found issues around paid holidays, paid overtime and access to occupational health support and PPE gear. For workers, the gig economy isn’t necessarily a great gig at all.
Yet it doesn’t have to be like that. When Matthew Taylor launched his review of modern employment practices in July, he reasoned there ‘shouldn’t be any barriers to flexible workers enjoying the same standards of safety and health as their permanent colleagues’.
That’s not to say that all employers set out to manipulate or exploit. It’s only natural that everyone should wish to benefit from the flexibility and potential savings that cutting-edge work practices afford – especially as the competition is bound to be doing just that. And it doesn’t help that the gig economy remains so poorly-defined: the Central Arbitration Committee recently ruled that Deliveroo workers are technically self-employed, which has serious implications on the benefits and protections they’re due. Elsewhere Uber drivers were ruled to be the opposite.
So what can a well-meaning employer do? IOSH, which introduced its Leading Safely training course to help bosses manage employee wellbeing, believes companies need to establish a care pledge for all employees, an up-front promise to protect health and wellbeing.
The idea is supported by the Department for Work and Pensions and Business and Energy and Industrial Strategy select committees, which recently reported their take on Taylor’s review to the government. Their reports recommended staff at gig economy firms be considered as employees from day one: the employee would then be due minimum wage and holidays, with the onus on the employer to justify any attempt to change that.
The government has yet to respond to their recommendations, but doing the right thing by your employees in the meantime needn’t be difficult. Gohil explains how Satchel’s contract workers, temp staff and full-timers are all treated the same. ‘This isn’t about giving them ping-pong tables,’ he says, pointing out that he gives them all the get chance to settle in, meet the boss, and accrue paid holiday from the off. And that’s just the start.
‘They're part of the core team, they're involved in decision-making, and they have the opportunity to do great, fulfilling work,’ say Gohil. ‘If people are invited to understand the background, values and DNA of the company, they’ll give that extra, discretionary productivity, rather than saying: "I’m doing my hours and I'm out of here".’
This approach hints at another key truth of the gig economy: by treating your distributed workforce better, your business will benefit too: improving engagement, productivity and reputation, and ultimately gaining competitive advantage.
‘You’ll never realise your business potential if you can't look after your people and keep them,’ says Gohil. ‘They’re the only thing that will get you to the promised land.’
Here are a few key tips from IOSH that could help you navigate the gig economy and make it a win-win for everyone…
• Be clear about terms up-front. Let your employees know, in writing, what's in it for them, including how wages, holiday and sick pay are calculated.
• Treat everyone the same. Giving paid holiday and sick leave to all your employees is just the start. How about intranet log-ins and company email addresses, and access to cultural activities and clubs? And have you popped over to introduce yourself?
• Equip people properly. Identify the risks your distributed workers face, and ensure they have the training and equipment to do the job properly.
• Offer quality work. Taylor’s report highlighted the benefits to health and wellbeing of all workers having more security, more opportunities to progress, and a voice in the company.
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