The Gig Economy And COVID-19: The Role Of Workplace Flexibility In Responding To A Crisis

BY Susan Seto, Michele Cunningham

Fans of the gig economy see it as a landscape of empowerment, autonomy and entrepreneurial spirit. Whether it’s freelancing, working a number of flex jobs, or finding a ‘side hustle’, the gig economy has opened up more opportunities for people to find work arrangements that suit them.

In our research, we find that a majority of Canadians see the gig economy in these positive terms. Most agree that In this day and age, almost anyone can be an entrepreneur or make a living in a way that is easier than before (over 70%) and that Because of technology, this digital age provides so many more opportunities that are open to anyone who has the wherewithal to take action themselves (60%). But the rise of COVID-19 casts the extreme flexibility of the gig economy in a new light, with both positive and negative aspects.


Uncertainty – and opportunity? – for gig economy workers

Critics of the gig economy already see it not as a landscape of opportunity, but one of precarity. For people whose main livelihood comes from gigs, what happens when they can no longer ‘go to work’ (drive passengers, perform tasks, and so on)? How do you stay gainfully employed when you are paid by the hour or by the service you provide, and now can’t put those hours in or provide that service? How can you self-isolate when your job requires in-person interaction?

As governments and health organizations around the world take increasingly drastic steps to respond to the current pandemic, businesses and corporate organizations have been scrambling to update policies and procedures to conform with new guidance. Some traditional employers have initiated layoffs. Some are trying to ride out the crisis with their existing teams. For the platforms that drive the gig economy, responsibilities are less clear. Uber, for instance, has argued that its drivers are independent contractors and not employees. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it has announced a financial compensation program for drivers prevented from working by quarantine or mandatory self-isolation.

While many workers, including those in the gig economy, are being kept from work by the pandemic, as entire societies begin to practice social distancing and self-isolation, many are relying more than ever on food delivery platforms and other flexible services. Some categories of contract workers that are able to adapt more quickly to an isolated environment will be in greater demand than ever.


Achieving flexibility in more traditional work arrangements

For employees of organizations, the ability to work flexibly is generally a positive, and its benefits are especially palpable at a time like this. It’s reassuring if you’re employed by an organization that accommodates remote working, and doesn’t count the days and hours you ‘clock in’. I speak from experience. At Environics Research, we’ve benefited from an open vacation policy and a flexible work environment for years. These policies have taken much of the stress away from potential illness. There is no worrying about the number of sick days you’ve taken in a given year. If you need to stay home and self-isolate, you’re covered. Working from home is a regular occurrence.

For employees of organizations, the ability to work flexibly is generally a positive, and its benefits are especially palpable at a time like this.

Flexible work environments don’t work for everyone. Yahoo’s famous reversal of its remote working arrangements in 2013 seems to be a case in point – although as remote collaboration tools continue to develop, perhaps the same decision wouldn’t be made today. For organizations, cultural and values alignment – among teams and between the organization and its people in general – are likely to have a powerful influence on the success of remote working arrangements. The value Adaptability to Complexity, a sense of being able to navigate and find opportunity amid change and uncertainty, can be a powerful shared asset.

Offering a more flexible work environment and schedule isn’t a silver bullet. And it will likely be easier for employees of organizations than for gig workers to find a happy balance between flexibility and security. But, flexibility and adaptability on the part of organizations will not only be critical to navigating successfully in the future, it will become an essential capability as the COVID-19 pandemic response continues to evolve.

If you would like to learn more about how we can help organizations better understand their employees and find the right balance of workplace flexibility, get in touch with our Market Strategy team today.

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