Is Our Future Workplace Contingent?
Leapfrogging technology, different expectations, evolving industries, automation and a rate of change that doesn’t look to be slowing down in our lifetime have all contributed to changes in how people are employed.
Increasingly, younger employees who are hired as full-time workers only plan to stay a year or two before taking that next step in their careers. In some cases, employers will only hire them for a specific project or to fill a time-limited absence.
Known as the gig economy, or alternatively as using contingent workers, it has advanced well beyond a trend to a permanent change in how work gets done.
Gig or Contingent?
Mandie La Montagne sees the two terms as reflections of viewpoint. She’s a co-founder of and partner in the Intueri Group and an instructor in human resources and business at Surrey’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
“I think the gig economy is different,” she explained. “Contingent plans and workers have been around for a long time and will continue to be separate from the gig economy. Gig is more of an individual choice—workers are choosing to gain experiences and participate in situations that work well for them.”
La Montagne said the use of contingent workers comes from an employer’s need, whether that’s to have a backup for a specific project or timeframe, backfill for a leave or draw on a specific skillset of a worker.
The two terms are “framed differently,” she added. “The employer fills a need, or the worker fills a need. When I look at the gig economy, I see it as a worker-driven perspective, where they’re coming at this opportunity as something that meets their needs, preference or expectations. They want to learn a new skill or contribute to a project or belong to a team, but they want flexibility to move on to the next great thing. There might be a lot of connectivity between what they need and what the employer needs to fill, but they are coming at it from two different viewpoints.”
In Practical Terms
Heather McDonald, employment facilitator at Camosun College in Victoria, sees the terms in a practical vein. She said “contingent worker” refers to the workers themselves, while “gig economy” is more of an umbrella term.
“In terms of contingent workers, they’re independent contractors or freelancers, usually highly skilled in their field, and take on work that has a start and a finish. When that project’s done, they move on to
another, maybe with a different organization,” she explained.
“Some people group temporary employees under these terms, but I consider temporary hires to be employees, compared to contingent workers, who work for themselves and pay their own taxes.”
Contingent workers are usually highly skilled in a specific area, McDonald added. “Temporary employees are often at the other end of the scale—coming into seasonal jobs like workers in the tourism sector, or people who are at the beginning of their careers.”
The gig economy also includes people who already have a permanent job and pick up gigs for extra income, she added. “Those are not true contingent workers.”
A Rose by Any Other Name…
Other HR practitioners don’t use either term. Heidi Eaves is the chief operating officer at Relic Entertainment, a video game producer based in Vancouver. “We partner with a range of external workers, including outsourcing companies who have been specifically set up to find the workers we need. We also use independent contractors and agencies.”
In the gaming industry, organizations scale up and down depending on where they are in their production cycles. “Games are very well planned out. A project might take three years, but we have a good sense of which skill sets we need at which point in the process. We use outsources for art and code, speech, video, music, recruiting, sourcing, design—our experts could be anywhere in the world.”
Jillian Hardie is the executive director and CEO of Challenge Disability Resource Group and Career Industries in Whitehorse, Yukon. Their organization provides housing, employment support and training for persons with disabilities.
“We prefer to have permanent staff, but with a 24-hour facility, it’s hard. We have ‘auxiliary on-calls’ or AOCs. For some, this is not their primary job; they’re seniors who want to keep a flexible lifestyle or they’re doing auxiliary work because they want to get into the field.”
The use of non-permanent workers has increased in the eight years she’s worked in human resources, added Hardie. In Whitehorse, she faces additional challenges because the provincial government operates many of the same programs that non-governmental agencies do, but pay more.
And, as in many other jurisdictions, the lack of affordable housing makes it harder to recruit. “We have about two per cent unemployment—it’s really low—but even the government is struggling to recruit because even if they can find people, it’s hard for them to find affordable housing. We’re seeing people working two jobs to make ends meet, even if one of them is a government job.
“I don’t think businesses purposely avoid hiring permanent staff—we still hire permanent whenever we can because we need consistency for the clients we serve. The provincial government has moved to more contract and term employees, but offers benefits, pensions, etc., more like a traditional job would.”
In the gaming industry, outsourcing has always been popular, Eaves said. It’s exacerbated now because of rapid growth that’s increased demand exponentially. “There are more than 60 video game studios of various sizes in Vancouver alone—the competition is absolutely ferocious right now.”
It requires a long-term strategy. “We continue to build and maintain relationships with outsourcers or agencies throughout the year, so that when we do need them, we know who has delivered high quality and who we want to reach out to.
“There’s such heavy competition for talent locally that sometimes the only way for us to fill a specific role is to go outside and find a company or business that fills that need or that wants a flexible arrangement. The cost of living is very high in a lot of tech hubs, but we’ve developed outsourcing in other countries and provinces that we work well with.
“We’ve always had outsourcing partners, and I think that will continue to increase as the need for different types of professionals keeps growing. The industry’s cyclical development nature isn’t going to change.”
No Longer Net Neutral
As a consultant, La Montagne has seen many changes in how employers choose to build contingent workers into their model. “Some are very resistant to having anything but full-time permanent employees.
They may not have the skillset to manage people who work part-time or work from home. I spend a lot of my time managing the expectations of the employer.”
Overall, she believes the use of contingent workers has changed for the benefit of employees. “There are more opportunities, either because of reluctance of some employers to increase permanent full-time employees, or because of the shrinking talent pool. It’s a competitive marketplace. You find someone who fills your need, but they have two or three opportunities from which to pick. It becomes a bit of a sales game, promoting the organization and the opportunities rather than the actual job you need done.”
“Where there’s lots of demand, costs go up. Hiring contingent workers is no longer net neutral,” she added. “Lots of employers may still want the stability of permanent workers, but the workers don’t—jobs are stepping stones and they may have another job already as soon as a project ends.”
“The market is far more global in nature than it was 10 to 15 years ago. Technology drives how we do the work we do—we’re operating at a much faster pace than when we typed memos in triplicate.”
Students’ expectations are evolving, too, said McDonald. “Their goal is not always to have a traditional job anymore. They like the idea of being their own boss and having flexibility.”
It’s a situation that comes with its own risks, she cautioned, especially for students new to the job market who may be unfamiliar with the full implications of contingent work. For example, a freelancer who isn’t covered by WorkSafeBC and is injured on the job is at a huge disadvantage. Internships that might look good on a resume are often lopsided, requiring an enormous amount of work on the employee’s part.
McDonald said she has noticed an increase in the number of employers contacting the college wanting to hire students on contract or commission, but in the last year the generally hotter labour market has forced employers to be more creative, finding different ways to access candidates and modernize their recruitment processes.
She also warned employers as they cannot tell a contractor how to do their job or work and cannot set their hours. They have to hire carefully, so they trust that the contractor knows what they’re doing.
Benefits for Both Workers and Organizations
There are benefits and risks for both employers and employees in contingency arrangements. It generally costs more to hire highly skilled workers through agencies or outsourcing companies in the tech industry, Eaves said, but the industry’s most experienced and sought-after workers are often the ones opening these companies.
On a positive note, while the impact of layoffs can be negative to an entire company, not just the individual workers, she said, hiring contingent workers with clearly established parameters enables the organization to avoid that negativity. “We just fundamentally don’t believe in hiring people and then laying them off.”
Hardie agreed that having non-permanent staff can be a double-edged sword. “We get some really great staff—for example, a paramedic who is an auxiliary on call brings amazing skills to our team; he gets to understand our situation better and gains another perspective.” AOCs also have the opportunity to experience how work is done at each of Challenge Disability Resource Group’s three residences, with different groups of clients and different mandates.
On the other hand, she said, “We deal with burnout because people are working long hours—full-time at one job and half to three-quarter time at a second one.” However, having a full roster of AOCs means the organization’s regular employees aren’t afraid to take their vacations or time off if they’re sick, because they know someone will be available to fill in for them.
“The biggest plus for us is the diversity it adds to the organization. We’ve had the opportunity to use foreign workers, even in permanent jobs, who are highly qualified but still working on transferring their skills and accreditation to Canada. They bring new perspectives from their diverse cultures. They’ve brought in new processes and we’ve changed as a result.”
Mitigating Potential Negatives from the Beginning
La Montagne said at times employers many not be familiar with how to work with a different cultural workforce with different expectations and languages. “Often, the employees bring the exact level of skill, experience or ability we need, albeit from somewhere else. It can cause a lot of harm if employers don’t know how to manage it.
“The biggest risk for the employer is creating an environment of chaos or churn, not having a well-defined understanding of who’s who and how they contribute,” she continued. “If your workforce isn’t advocating in favour of your organization, if you mishandle contingent workers, you run the risk of destroying your brand, which affects whether you can attract candidates, maintain employees and make your payments at the end of the month.”
The key is to define roles, she said. “You have to clearly articulate what these different groups of workers are, who they are and how they contribute to the organization, or else it creates dissension. If there’s confusion about how they fit in, contribute or impact the organization’s work, vision and expectations, then it doesn’t work well.”
McDonald concurred, saying that HR has a duty to be transparent in terms of the type of employment, details of the contract, expectations and job offer.
“Ensuring that the right type of communication is happening, putting policies and procedures in place to make sure appropriate steps are being taken and any concerns are handled as they come up, are vital.”
She added that it’s important for employers to put effort into onboarding a worker, so they’re trained quickly and ready to get to work. “It comes down to proper planning and training, HR doing its job and leadership providing supervision at the least, but hopefully also coaching and mentoring.
“HR has a huge role in making sure the right type of worker is being hired for the situation. Is the contractor the best fit, are they being hired for the right reasons? Know the pros and cons and types of hires before hiring, and make sure leadership is aware of them.”
Building Engagement Outside the Organization
“Building employee engagement can be really difficult with AOCs,” Hardie admitted. “They often don’t have same level of commitment to the work or organization. We really try to have a very open and collaborative team, promote teamwork, value the diversity so everyone is respected for what they bring to the organization and verbalize that.
“We have clear policies about expectations, have a solid onboarding strategy and pretty strong employee engagement strategies. We try to capitalize on the skills everyone brings and make sure they feel they’re contributing in a meaningful way. The biggest thing in maintaining staff is keeping flexibility in workplace, for appointments, etc. Family comes first.”
She added that they concentrate on vetting new workers thoroughly. “We want to know why they want to work with us, their preconceptions, really understand what their needs and our needs are, and meet them to the best of our abilities.
“We also have a fulsome online training program, and employees can do it on their own time or while working. It’s capacity-building for the employees and for the organization.”
Despite different time zones and languages, there are ways to make contingent workers feel part of the team, said Eaves.
Learning and Reaching Out
“We make sure everyone is as engaged and connected to work as possible,” Eaves said. “If they feel part of our studio and an integral part of what we’re making, they’ll be more excited and deliver a higher level of quality.”
Eaves said she finds that building a strong relationship and trust with external workers helps them understand what work is required and will result in them asking questions or raising issues that they otherwise might be too nervous to bring up.
“We’re trying to get better and better about ways to share our culture—it isn’t easy but we’re listening and we’re learning.
“Often, we’ll go out and visit a large group of outsourced employees in the same location to have face time with them. There are a lot of different studios that all need the same help, so there is competition for those workers, and we want to be sure we build strong relationships and treat everyone well. It’s not in our best interests to burn them out.”
Eaves said that includes making sure looming deadlines don’t put undue pressures on outsourced workers, in the same way they do for their regular employees. She adds that it is key to be aware of where and how external workers are being used. This gives employers the tools to help facilitate more travel and face time if needed. It also helps ensure regular employees understand why and when external support is sought out—this ensures they don’t feel disconnected or left out.
HR Can Lead Positive Relationships
La Montagne said, in her experience, employers need to shift their mindset before they can truly maximize the benefits of contingent workers.
Despite this, she said, “If you’re a human, you’re under my umbrella, regardless of your status. HR plays a big role in ensuring that every category, group, class, every name on the list, is properly cared for by ensuring good policy and process that are well communicated to everyone, advising employers on what their obligations are to different groups or being aware of any changes in legislation that might affect employer responsibility.
“HR needs to educate the right people, the senior decision-makers, and make sure everyone understands.”
The use of contingent workers was never just a fad, and it will continue to grow, La Montagne concluded. The changing workplace “is neither good nor bad, it just is. It poses a lot of challenges, but it also offers a lot of opportunities.”
Nancy Painter is an award-winning communication consultant and writer based in Surrey. She is an active member in both the International Association of Business Communicators and the Professional Writers Association of Canada.
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