Research-Based Implications of the Gig Economy

April 5, 2016

Research-Based Implications of the Gig Economy

Chances are that you’ve encountered the “gig economy” in your organization already, even if you haven’t called it that.

Simply speaking, it refers to the increasingly prevalent trend of people and organizations choosing to work in temporary, contingent arrangements. I’ve experienced it across a number of industries and sectors, from working alongside adjunct professors to advising Afghan police officers alongside civilian contractors. I’ve worked with a number of businesses that are increasingly maintaining a contingent workforce that can respond to shifting labor demands.

When thinking about the history of modern organizations—from the industrial revolution to today—this change is dramatic.

For all of us and our careers, the expectation and reality of working for one organization for most of one’s life in a continuous, full-time status is rapidly fading.

For organizations, leaders—particularly those in human resources (HR) and related functions—will need to uncover both the mechanics of efficiently integrating such workers across projects and—potentially even more importantly—find ways to engage such workers and create the conditions under which they can flourish.

A Research Perspective

Rigorous, scholarly research on contingent workers is still in its early stages, at least from the standpoint of uncovering tried-and-true best practices for leaders and managers. There are, however, a few broad areas that we can consider regarding some implications of the gig economy. In particular, let’s take a psychological perspective.

As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s well established that employees have a higher level of well-being and perform better when they sense that their work organization cares about them and values what they do (this is part of a conceptual framework called organizational support theory).

But what about those situations in which a person is essentially a member of multiple organizations?

This is the essence of the gig economy—people doing their actual work performing tasks for one organization but also belonging to another. For example, when I served in Afghanistan in 2013, I worked as part of the police training unit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A). I was there serving in a military uniform, but some of my coworkers were civilian contractors who worked for DynCorp International, a defense-contracting firm. Those contractors served both NTM-A and DynCorp, but from a talent management perspective, such relationships were almost exclusively transactional and administrative.

If we think about some research-based implications of these increasingly common arrangements, a number of possibilities emerge, including:

  • What do organizations do to onboard, orient and welcome contingent workers?
  • How do organizations make contingent workers feel appreciated?
  • What might organizations do to train and equip managers to best engage contingent workers?

Addressing such questions fundamentally requires a shift in thinking within the realm of talent management. It means that employee engagement doesn’t only apply to full-time workers. It implies that the ecosystem of work itself is changing, as John Boudreau has described.

It also implies, as described by my colleague and agility expert Nick Horney, that HR leaders should think about their workforce more broadly, using a “talent portfolio” that includes traditional and non-traditional employees.  

Speaking of Nick Horney, I encourage you to join him at the 2016 HR People + Strategy Annual Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., April 10-13 where he'll take a deep dive into The New Talent Ecosystem ( In particular, I encourage you to participate in a facilitated discussion with Nick on April 12 on The Gig Economy:  A Human Resource Agility Fitness Challenge. Finally, click here and take 60 seconds to provide your insights on the gig economy.

The Authors: 

Ben Baran, Ph.D., is a human resources and organizational behavior professor, management consultant and U.S. Navy officer fascinated by the world of work. He uses science to find innovative ways to guide people who want to know, understand, and improve personal effectiveness and organizational performance. Twitter: @BenBaran