The New American Gig: Creating Sustainability Buy-in with a Transient Workforce

Jacquelyn Woodard Culture, Sustainability, Values

Used with permission from photologue_np.
The composition of the US workforce is changing dramatically. Some define that change based on the overall aging population, while others base it on increasing diversity, or the emergence of women. Still others see the change as a function of the skills needed (from manufacturing to service and information-based). And no doubt, all of these trends are influencing the labor force. However, there is a single phenomenon that is impacting 1/3rd of the US workforce – the “gig” economy

According to Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, approximately 42 million people comprise this group of independent workers she defines as “freelancers, contractors, sole proprietors, consultants, temps, and the self-employed.” The growth in this workgroup is driven by a few mega trends (i) recent economic downturn causing workers to seek supplemental income to augment lower wage jobs; (ii) the laid off, who are finding re-employment difficult and thus are cobbling together multiple jobs to create a meaningful wage; and (iii) an increasing choice by younger workers to trend away from traditional jobs to those that offer more flexibility and balance.

The result of this may mean a large portion of the US workforce does not overly identify or have an allegiance to a single employer, but instead has stitched together a set of income producing gigs that support a desired lifestyle.

What does this have to do with Sustainability you ask? According to Chris Laszlo and Nadya Zhexembayeva, in their book “Embedded Sustainability: The Next Big Advantage,” there are four components to embedding sustainability:

  1. Getting the right start, 
  2. Building the buy in, 
  3. Moving from incremental to breakthrough, and 
  4. Staying with it. 

Without a robust process to embed sustainability, it will not last.

Building buy-in is a key component – but how does one build buy in with a large (and growing) transient staff that does not exhibit loyalty to the organization and may not invest sufficient time to be absorbed into the company’s culture? The standard suggestions offered in this book and elsewhere may not be appropriate for those that are a part of the gig-economy.

So what are some steps companies can take to embed sustainability with a growing transient employee base? A few recommendations

  • Awareness: Not to sound cliché, but the first step to solving any problem is to recognize that one exists. This is also important for this “gig” population. It is important for companies to recognize that the members of the “gig economy” are a growing and meaningful demographic in their employee base. This population can represent 1/3rd of your workforce and undoubtedly these employees are impacting your company’s culture. Without question, their entry, stay and exit into a company needs to be managed.
  • Purposeful Onboarding: In most organizations, the onboarding of temporary employees often is focused on logistical matters. However, I would suggest that the onboarding of “gig-employees” should be seen as an active step in managing the overall corporate culture, not just a logistical exercise. Creating an experience that describes the Lore of the company, including its values, traditions, and sustainability-focus will help to imprint this expectation on this workgroup and create a sense of belonging more quickly.
  • Expect Input/Involvement: Because many of these workers are compensated based on a time-based approach, many employees make the mistake of seeing deviation from specific tasks as a waste of time and money. But given the impact of this segment on the company’s culture, expecting participation in sustainability efforts will help to reinforce the company’s results and show improved alignment in the company’s values and mission. 

For companies that are diligently focused on building embedded sustainability, these few steps will go a long way in helping more effectively manage the employees that are helping to shape the corporate culture. 

Jacquelyn Woodard is a senior vice president with RBS Citizens, and holds an M.B.A. from Harvard University. She is a student in Benedictine University’s Ph.D./D.B.A. program in values-driven leadership.
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