Instant, affordable support for your business might sound too good to be true, but is it? We look at the opportunities and risks of convenience vs commitment.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Contractors… freelancers… call them what you will – short-term workers can be the secret to keeping your business lean and agile. So where does an old-school office temp differ from a member of the gig economy? Both offer an affordable way to cope with sudden increased demand in your business. Both can fill a skills gap – re-designing your website or working on a marketing campaign, for example. They also share the benefits of low-cost and speedy recruitment. But while you might hire a contractor for a task that will take a certain number of days or weeks, gig workers are often called in for a matter of hours. And the process of hiring them is very different too.
Acting as online brokers between ‘independent contractors’ and those offering work, gig economy companies allow you to search for people or jobs. Post a project on a site such as Fiverr, PeoplePerHour or Upwork or check out the profiles of likely candidates (which will include their hourly rate). Commission levels vary, as does the length of time it takes to find a match – a lot depends on the skills required and the amount you’re prepared to pay. Specialist sites such as consultancy providers TalMix can demand significant hourly rates, but pricing on more general platforms often starts alarmingly low. This has raised questions about both ethics and quality.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Hiring someone on the basis of their online review does have its risks. Gig workers may not be all they seem and might have exaggerated (or even fabricated) the skills and experience on their profile. Where possible, make their first task a small one so you can see if they’re up to the job without risking any serious consequences.
Even if you’re lucky enough to hit the jackpot and hire a marketing/accounting/website designing genius, it won’t be quite the same as having someone join your team on a permanent basis. Their commitment might be fairly low (after all, yours is) and you can’t expect them to embrace your company’s mission and values if they’re only rocking up for the afternoon. It’s worth considering asking them to sign a non-disclosure agreement, too. After all, they could be leaving your office and heading straight to work with your main competitor. Many SMBs find that a combination of both employed and self-employed workers is the way forward. That way you have flexibility plus loyalty and a decent sense of company identity.
WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?
According to a recent study by the Royal Society of Arts, 44% of gig workers are university graduates. Some of them will be looking for work through specialist consultancy websites, but others take jobs that allow them to support their other interests. These so-called ‘slashies’ (e.g. novelists ‘slash’ Deliveroo drivers) can offer an interesting different, possibly more creative perspective, but it’s likely that they’ll have different priorities too. That PhD student might be happy to do some data entry for you tomorrow, but ask her back next week and she could be fully immersed in her thesis.
If you want to take advantage of the full range of skills being offered by freelance contractors, it makes sense to offer remote working. The perfect candidate for your project may be 10,000 miles away (and offer a rock-bottom rate) or you may find a match who isn’t available in standard office hours. The first step is to make sure you have secure email and online file sharing. Stream-based messaging such as Slack and Salesforce Chatter and web conferencing tools can also make communication easier too.
Even if you decide that the gig economy and your business aren’t a good fit, don’t rule it out entirely. If you’re spending an unenviable number of hours getting your business in shape, you may not have the time or inclination to unblock that drain, paint that wall or clean that kitchen when you get home. Find someone who’ll get it sorted for you. Today. It’s an instant way to conquer that ‘to do’ list and get a little bit of your life back.
DON’T DO AN UBER
Recent investigations and legal challenges have questioned whether gig workers with little freedom to choose their hours and working conditions should be entitled to employee benefits. If your casual worker becomes a key member of your team, it may be time to rethink their status and offer them a more permanent position. Otherwise, you could find yourself on the wrong side of the law. As Edward Troup, the Executive Chairman of HMRC puts it, ‘Individuals cannot be opted out of employment rights, and protections, simply by calling them ‘self-employed’”. Don’t say we didn’t warn you…