“Agency” and the Gig Economy

Deloitte Research and the MIT Sloan Management Review published an interesting report recently entitled “Opportunity Marketplaces.” Their premise is that companies should create internal talent platforms  which are employee directed and enable workers to  develop new skills and investigate new intellectually challenging corporate projects.  By providing such opportunity marketplaces, employees will be able to exercise “agency” or control over their future.  This is important  in terms of the work they do and their career development path. When employees have agency, they are less likely to leave and go to a different employer, so Opportunity Marketplaces are also a retention tool.

Given the primacy of agency in their argument, it was interesting that  the authors never addressed the fact that agency is a key driver  of the gig economy. In every study, and there are many[*], control over your work is one of the primary reasons that independent workers choose to become soloists. Others reasons in  the surveys, like be your own boss,  do work that you like, flexibility, control over your time can conflate to agency as well. As such, this lack of agency is a primary motive of the majority of independent workers.

Another omission in the article then, is the fact that workers without agency may not depart not to another company, but to  become independent professionals.

This trend is underscored by the data on skill development that is reported annually in the report Freelancing in America, In the 2019 study, 54% of freelancers said they had invested in their own skill development, compared to 40% of comparable employees.  Of the most highly skilled independent workers, 65% had done training in the past 6 months.  Training for these independents, opens their horizons to new project opportunities predicated on new skills, something the Opportunity Marketplaces also hope to provide.

So the key question then is will the Opportunity Marketplace concept stem the loss of employees to the independent work marketplace, not just to other employers.  For many it certainly could.  Freelancers share a common  concern for affordable health care and a secure retirement, something traditional employment could offer.  That said, still more than half of the freelance community would not return to regular work regardless of compensation.

Others may be tired of a legal environment that  is increasingly clamping down on independent workers.  The recent  California Law, AB5, which severely limits independent contracting  is an example of a blunt instrument being used on a very nuanced market>  As such, it has had negative consequences for any numbers of independent professions, from freelance writers to photographers to dogwalkers.

On the other hand,  the challenge for some organizations who want to improve retention may be as the authors refer to it, “the hoarding of talent” by certain managers.  If the opportunity is not really available because the manager doesn’t want to lose a great employee, , then the benefits of the marketplace are not available either.

Nevertheless, it could be a step in the right direction, especially if the opportunity marketplaces were not just for employees; It could be a tremendous way to ensure that talented independent workers are also included in the mix, enabling a blending of experiences, skills and perspectives.  This open framework could accrue benefits for all parties, the employees, the independent workers and the organization.

[*] I have written of the problems of data in the gig economy before; there is not one source of data, but many, some one-time, Like the McKinsey Study, and others published annually  like “The State of Independence in America” from MBO Partners and Freelancing in America, from Upwork and The Freelancers Union.

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