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Surviving and thriving in the gig economy - part 2: new approaches to building employee engagement

Nigel Purse

04 March 2018

As outlined in my previous article, the rapid changes and instability in our economic and political environment, the demise of job security, and technological advancements over the last thirty years have given rise to the new gig economy. Short-term contracts and holding multiple jobs at one time are almost the norm. In this new, fractured world of work employee engagement has become both more important, and more difficult to maintain. 

However, I believe that high levels of engagement are possible if organisations and employees are willing to change their mindsets to meet two important challenges: 

First, the accountability for building engagement amongst front-line staff needs to be pushed down to first line managers and supervisors, and become the single most important part of their role. (Getting employee engagement onto the CEO’s agenda still matters, but in today’s employment market it’s not enough.) 

Second, individuals need to create the conditions for self-engagement – adopting a set of behaviours, beliefs and mindset in which they create job satisfaction for themselves. 

Let’s take the first challenge: pushing accountability down to first line managers and supervisors. What does this mean in practice? 

It means taking a new, holistic view of exactly who your front-line workers actually are. Gone is the simplistic view that you only need to focus on people who are in full-time employment. You need to think more widely and embrace the needs of sub-contractors, out-sourced workers, temporary staff and even the self-employed who provide services on your behalf.  

Talking to managers of the IT function of a large public sector organisation, we encountered a strong belief that sub-contractors were a different “sub-species” of a worker who did not deserve the same care and attention as employed workers. We challenged this perception and achieved a marked change in attitude and behaviour. 

It means adopting a new and up-to-date set of beliefs about what your front-line staff need from their work. Of course, people work to earn a living, but in today’s multi-layered and dysfunctional employment market people need more. Top of the list is the need to feel that you have a genuine, trusted and trusting working relationship with your direct supervisor.  

As a first line manager, many things are not in your gift – for example, financial reward, certainty, security. However, one area in which you can make a difference is in the quality of the personal relationships you build with those who provide services on your behalf. You can do this primarily through holding authentic, honest, two-way human conversations. Such conversations, when undertaken with integrity and positive intentions, build trust and the sense of being valued for who you are, rather than your employment status. 

Finally, it means working even harder and smarter to match people to the very different roles that this new employment environment creates. People who can be more autonomous and self-sufficient. You need to be able to spot people who demonstrate three types of behaviour which correlate with surviving and thriving in this new world: relationship focus, going the extra mile and love of learning. Not only that, you need to be honest in assessing them against these criteria, willing to coach them to improve these behaviours, and tough in moving them out when they don’t make the grade. 

The second challenge is the even more radical step of expecting people to be accountable for their own engagement at work and in their job roles. 

As the old model of direct relationships with a so-called “paternalistic” employer breaks down, we need to be honest with people about their responsibility for finding and building their own sources of engagement. And we can’t start too soon: even educating those yet to enter the world of work about the environment that awaits them.  

All of us at work, whether front-line service providers or managers, need to adopt a new set of behaviours and beliefs to build engagement and satisfaction for ourselves. As mentioned above, these are: relationship focus, going the extra mile and love of learning. 

Relationship focus means recognising, and acting on, the profound insight that the most important contributor to your prosperity, satisfaction and general well-being is the quality of the trusting relationships you build with those around you. You can do this by building five simple conversations into your everyday interactions with colleagues, partners and customers. Conversations which: 

  • share what each of you need from a trusting relationship 

  • share a sense of purpose and agree on mutual expectations 

  • show genuine appreciation for someone’s contribution 

  • challenge unhelpful behaviour 

  • understand someone’s dreams for their future. 

Going the extra mile means always being willing to volunteer, to offer support, to collaborate, and to be pro-active. Not only do people want to work with colleagues who are prepared to go that bit further, doing so will build your own self and job satisfaction. Sure, going the extra mile will take up more time, but the benefits to you will be enormous. You will build your reputation and, linked to the final point below, you will access a rich seam of new experiences and learning opportunities. 

Finally, you need to make the love of learning a way of life. Never lose your curiosity, never stop studying, never stop attending courses, evening classes and seminars. Keep reading, especially in areas outside your experience. In his book, Curiosity, Ian Leslie describes how learning a little about a subject outside your experience always stimulates your curiosity to know more. Never cease to seek out new experiences, learn new skills or gain new perspectives. Again, this is not just about making you more employable, it’s also about building the joy of self-development, or “mastery” in Daniel Pink’s words, into your life at work and outside it.