The evolving role of HR in a gig economy

  • Posted on January 6, 2020
  • Estimated reading time 4 minutes

This article was originally published on Forbes.


It sounds like an ideal business model: lower labor costs, flexible staffing that can surge as needed and a workforce that's enthusiastic about scheduling options that fit individual lifestyles. The gig economy is likely here to stay for these reasons and more. But it presents unique challenges for HR professionals asked to build a gig workforce to replace or augment more traditional forms of employment.


There are risks involved in relying on short-term contractors, but predominantly, gig workforces do offer advantages to companies whose business models can accommodate — or even thrive with — ever-changing personnel. In the tech world, contractors who sign on for a particular project or a certain period of time and then leave for their next gig are becoming more common. Often highly skilled and in demand, these workers move from company to company as their specialized skills are needed or as the level of work demands.


Once the decision is made to incorporate gig contractors into a company’s workforce, how do we as HR professionals adjust our practices and approach to workforce support and engagement to accommodate this new way of working? Key components of our entire workforce support cycle must be rethought for gig workers, from recruitment and performance management to training and development, employee retention and more.


HR at the tempo of a gig economy: Fast, adaptable, available


The gig economy requires a much swifter recruiting process than most companies currently have. It cannot be long and drawn out. The idea of the gig economy is that people come and go, so companies in that environment must move from sourcing to selection to onboarding in weeks or even days, rather than months. Many times, you will be competing for top talent. If you aren’t moving at that pace, someone else will.

Performance management, training and development must also shift. These often operate on an annual timeline, but with people coming in for shorter-term opportunities, annual time frames may no longer be relevant. Instead, we must look at more outcome-based objectives associated with specific tasks or deliverables. This will drive more iterative conversations between a manager and gig worker. Conversations about individual and project goals, objectives and performance need to be ongoing rather than reserved for annual or semi-annual performance discussions.

Similarly, learning goals must be curated to individuals rather than to teams, with more bite-sized learning options. For example, if something breaks in my house, I go to YouTube to learn how to fix it. We need to be able to bring that mentality into the corporate environment to give short-term employees more frequent opportunities to learn.

Hello, goodbye, hello

One big area of difference is our approach to employee retention. Retention is a priority for many companies. That’s not the case in a gig economy. You don’t want to incentivize personnel to stay. You want to create an environment that encourages them to come back.

Retention, therefore, takes on new meaning. How do you create a culture and employee experience that creates enjoyment and engagement for a short period of time, one that entices an individual to return the next time they’re needed? The key is to create an ambassador culture, an environment where gig workers have such a positive experience at a company that they want to talk about it with their peers and friends. It’s part of our social media-dominated world. You want your gig employees to be ambassadors for your organization and brand, both while they’re active and when they’re inactive. When successful, you become the company people want to join.

Embracing change

In the end, I don’t think we have a choice about whether to embrace a gig approach to HR. It’s a bit like artificial intelligence or machine learning: It is one of those new fads that has quickly become a reality.

With a growing population and the trend toward more dynamic businesses, deploying a gig workforce option will often make sense. It’s a mandate in order to stay agile. Of course, different companies will incorporate gig personnel in different ways, and our HR processes will need to reflect and support those decisions.

At my company, for instance, we’re looking at how we can grow our “associate network.” Somewhere between contractors and employees, they’re associates of our organization that help create that ambassador culture. We're also exploring “9+3” work arrangements, with nine months on and three months off. That’s an arrangement we think will appeal to a large number of skilled professionals, from parents to those with particular interests they want to pursue.

Those of us in STEM-related companies in particular are very aware of the skill shortages in our industry. It is up to us to determine how to best adjust to the demands and preferences of a new generation and to offer a new way of working. And, of course, as HR professionals we all have a responsibility to develop and execute programs that support and engage our workforces, no matter how long they are with us or how often they return.

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