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Why the Gig Economy must consider the Employer Brand impact

The 2015 poster child of HR ‘must-have accessory of the year’ was undoubtedly Employer Branding. As fad-creating, prize-giving and thought-leader waffling are all intrinsically linked in a value chain that keeps content creators, conference organisers and a willing audience collusively joined in harmony, it neither deserved the over-inflated podium nor the counter claims from cynical pedants threw at it. Building an environment with a good reputation as an employer, then amplifying it as a talent differentiator, should be an honourable pursuit of all those interested in making the workplace more humane and selling that concept to an otherwise sceptical, tangible-oriented boardroom. Unlike others, I don’t care if it is done under the auspices of an Employee Value Proposition (EVP), on a shoestring over a lost weekend in a hotel in Amsterdam or decadently paying a high-browed recruitment marketing agency for the whole thing to be packaged and sold in all its digital beauty and on a variety of platforms. Whatever works, the debate and discussion opens up a wonderful means to reflect on and put right the stupidity of many prevailing HR tactical norms and allows for focus on the things that add value to the people you want to be productive on your company’s behalf.

As the main focus on employer branding has been typically the offer of some kind of sustainable, long term employment offering, what should we be doing with regards to the growing gig economy, expected to hit 30% of the workforce in 3 years time ?

Historically we have embraced what we knew as contingent labour from a variety of angles we have all too codified in our world of work as follows:

  1. The ‘it’s a cheaper than a permanent hire’ for the business one.

  2. The ‘it’s perfect for hiring at the point of need’ for the zero hours one.

  3. The ‘she has just resigned and I need one now’ for the distressed one.

  4. The perfectly sensible ‘it’s a project with specialist skills’ for the project one.

Why we currently lambast gig economy employers for having their cake and eat it when as a business world we have been gorging on labour utilisation instead of productivity / growth for a generation now regardless. The complexity of ‘fixing’ the above is that for each loser in each category there also appears to be winners emerging who enjoy the additional income, flexibility or variety and any modern employment review must not erode the good when taming the bad. When it has come to the latter then there is a case that lifting the floor on employment protection should be fixable but of course at a cost that this Government is loathe to pass on to employers.

As is always the case, Uber provides a cautionary lesson on employer brand for the gig economy. So in love where we with the concept in the late noughties as a professional function we embraced it as the one to emulate – the Uber of recruitment search in google gives us 49 million results. We did all this in a typically siloed manner without taking into consideration how the evolving business model could wreak havoc on both the sociology of the workplace and the dislocation between the most important person – the driver and the very purpose of the enterprise and its brand.

There is an argument that we should wait for the new set of rules to be set and applied before businesses fall into line and employer branding for the gig economy is fixed. That would be foolish. I’d argue there is work that can be done and would advocate the following to counter a generation of accidental distressed hiring and opportunistic fiscal prudence.

What can we do about now ?

1. Invest the time and energy to review internally (your organisational permanent : contingent mix) and externally (the impact of automation, business strategy, changing demographics, etc) and develop a resourcing strategy.

2. Assess the impact of the existing contingent workforce strategy and understand what that is doing to your employer brand or the risks you carry that could cost you dear. (e.g is this driven by having no bench strength or a particular location strategy ?)

3. Underpinning this resourcing strategy is a forecasting capability based on data and scenario planning, plus a key focus on building internal leadership skills to manage the grey areas with intelligence and consistency (the return of the soft skills debate)

4. Champion at board level the need to align a developing business model (a la Uber), a positive reinforcing culture and an alignment on the employment brand that reflects an attractive reality to ‘all’ the people who work there. This step change might just keep you relevant over the next few years.

Until next time. The sexy software talent marketplace app will take care of itself. Focus obsessively on the sociology of work.

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