The gig economy opens up exciting opportunities for businesses to become more nimble. I talked to Michelle Fotheringham, founder and CEO of talent marketplace Werkling, about shifting to a gig mindset and making the most of on-demand talent.
This article is a summary of our interview with Michelle in the Playing the Culture Game podcast, a fortnightly interview series where we dive deep into the people & culture space.
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Why the professional gig economy? Why now?
Michelle: I think it’s interesting how particularly on the back of the last couple of years of the pandemic and lockdowns, people want to design their life and work in a different way.
We’ve seen a lot more flexibility opening up, like working from home and a four-day week and well-being days, but this still assumes that people want to have a job to go to through the week. It also creates a problem: as companies, we’re trying to build all this flexibility at the individual level, but where does the work go? How do you resource around that?
And on the other hand, there’s been a shift in the idea of job security. There are a lot of people, particularly in tech, who are losing their jobs. They’ve got one revenue stream and that just disappears, whereas when freelancers and people in the gig economy lose one or even half of their clients, they still have money coming in.
So there’s a growing number of people who want to work differently and do work that plays to their strengths, which is where the gig economy is coming from. It’s a bottom-up drive.
And actually, it brings a whole host of benefits, like reduced burnout and more opportunities for inclusion and workforce participation. It’s a choice I made in my career, and it’s where I spend my time now with Werkling.
How to shift to a gig mindset
What are the benefits?
Michelle: It really is a different way of working. With gig work, for example, things are way more focused. We’re no longer talking about how much time we need someone for; we’re talking about work that we need done.
Having on-demand talent changes your timeframe. Say you think a project needs two days a week of work. In an internal role, two days a week is nothing.
“Your internal worker can’t get anything done because they’re going from meeting to meeting and juggling so much noise. With on-demand talent, what you’re allocating is two days of focused effort. That’s a completely different way of working.”
On-demand hiring opens up an opportunity for reducing burnout, too. The traditional assumption is that you need the same number of people with the same number of skills all the time, but that’s just not true. Work isn't static. It goes up and down and you’re just burning people out in those peaks. With gig workers, you can take a more nimble approach to designing and resourcing work, which I think is really exciting.
And finally, there’s upskilling. Sometimes the reason people bring in Werklings is that they’re super experienced and can team up with internal people and upskill them.
At Werkling, one thing we’re starting to do more of is team people up on projects. So as a business, you get, say, two brains in one. Bespoke consulting teams like that can work for everyone.
When is the right time to bring in on-demand talent?
Michelle: I think there are two main opportunities. The first is when you’re looking at a work priority that you can’t deliver or you can’t meet without burning out your team. How do you meet that immediate need? The best answer is often to just jump to it and open up a conversation with external talent instead of agonising over it too much.
But there’s also another opportunity, when you just step back and look at the makeup of your team. What do you need all of the time and what do you only need some of the time?
We had a great example of a leader earlier in the year who had a team member resign. When he looked at the work in the space that opened up, he realised it wasn’t a job for one person. So he decided to use his budget differently and bring in different capabilities at different times to deliver that work.
What are the mental barriers to gig economy hiring?
Michelle: There are many things. One is that we’re so used to designing work around time, or designing jobs rather than outcomes. We say we need someone three days a week full time, or for five days a week for three months, or whatever. How do we pull that apart and see what the deliverables are? That feels new and different for some people.
Another part of it is ownership and hoarding of talent. There’s a feeling of, “I’ve hired Viren and he’s mine!” Things are very different when you bring in someone who’s outside the organisation.
“Talent mobility gets far greater when you don’t own that talent. Accept that you’re going to have this shared talent that sits externally to the organisation, that you don’t own. That’s when it’s going to be easier to have an open talent economy.”
And a third thing is the power shift. Sometimes I’ll reach out to a Werkling with a gig and they’ll say they’re at capacity or that’s not what they want to be doing right now. Or they’d love to do it but they don’t want to burn themselves out.
How many times can you do that in an internal role? You can’t choose work or say you’re too busy — you just can’t have that exchange. The idea that it’s suddenly possible is something traditional managers struggle with.
Hiring successfully in the professional gig economy
How can companies find good on-demand talent?
Michelle: Peer referrals work well. Top talent knows top talent, and no one’s going to be jumping on Fiverr or Upwork to find a facilitator for their executive team. So I think a lot of it is about finding the right talent pool and trusting someone’s ability to deliver.
Trust is obviously important, and it’s an advantage of referral. In that situation, everyone knows everyone, so your worker is going to do the right thing.
“There’s actually very little room for error when someone is working as independent talent because their livelihood is based on their reputation. They need to deliver because they want you saying great things about them to your network. There’s no great scam going on.”
What creates a great gig worker experience?
Michelle: One thing people say when they move out of a job into the gig economy is that they miss being part of a team. So on the company side, part of creating a good worker experience is creating a sense of community and belonging.
“As an organisation becomes more reliant on a talent pool, they need to ask, how do we create a sense of connectivity? Because while the nature of the gigs might be short-term, the relationships are long-term.”
Another thing that’s characterised successful companies we’ve worked with is speed. There are no slow internal meetings. Someone will say, here’s the need, give us a talent match, and then great, let’s just get it happening.
I think what organisations often miss is that people who do this type of work aren’t sitting around waiting to hear back on a meeting they had three weeks ago. Or they think they need to create a huge and detailed brief before the talent comes in to do the work. Just let them access your brain and tell them what’s going on, then let them come back to you with a proposal. It can be that easy.
Transparency is another good thing: giving your external workers access to the right people and being really clear about scope. Let them know about scope changes and changes in deliverables, things like that.
Above all, it’s about being a good person. About treating your external workforce no differently to how you treat your internal one.
“We’re used to seeing talent in such a binary way. You’re either an internal talent — an employee — or an external vendor who’s out there. But there’s a place in the middle where people aren’t just vendors. You might be paying by invoice, but they're an extension of your internal team, and you start treating them like that.”
What should companies look for when hiring a professional gig worker?
Michelle: Maybe having delivered a similar sort of project before, though I don’t think it’s completely necessary — particularly in the people and culture space, where the ways we’ve done things traditionally haven’t always worked.
One thing a lot of businesses like about Werklings is that they’ve come out of quite senior internal roles, like GM of Employee Experience at Medibank or Officeworks or Transurban.
They’ve been in that inevitably icky mess, somewhere that’s imperfect. That’s very different to where someone from a big consultancy is coming from.
With a consultancy, you get the brand name and some fairly robust methodology, which can be great, but sometimes a bit rigid. With a gig worker, you’re going to an individual. You need to see it as a talent process rather than a procurement process.
If there are high interdependencies in your team, you’ll also want to make sure there’s a good feel.
But in the end, remember that you’re not making a forever decision here. You’re not looking so much at potential or checking for threats: you’re just getting someone to deliver one piece of work. If they turn out to be the right fit and you want to use them again, that’s awesome. But if it wasn’t quite the right gel, you’ve still got that piece of work delivered and you can try someone else in the future.
The professional gig economy and the future of work
What’s the future for the gig economy?
Michelle: There are statistics saying 50% of the workforce will be gig-based by 2028. It’s not organisation-driven: it’s a question of where the talent is.
We’re already seeing it happen with organisations that can’t fill head-type roles because those people have jumped out. It’s happening in comms, too. These roles lend themselves perfectly to on-demand talent because they’re so project-based.
“In the future, I think the successful companies will be ones who can say, OK, we’ve got our internal team, but we’ve also got this bunch of talent that we know and trust. And we’ve got the right agreements in place so we can bring them in and out as we need. But that talent is going to be shared: they’re going to be working with other organisations as well.”
At Werkling, 90% of our community have no intention of ever returning to a job. That leaves 10% who are fluid — and we’ve actually had a few people who’ve gone back to some great in-house jobs — but most of the time, you can’t recruit this talent. They don’t want to be acquired.