April 2, 2023

The Gig Economy Requires Us to Level Up on Workplace Culture

At work, it feels like all the not-so-great trends have suddenly become “great”: the Great Resignation, the Great Reconsideration, the Great Breakup and, after the recent wave of tech layoffs, the Great Betrayal.

The workplace is in the aftershocks of seismic change. More employees are intentionally choosing part-time, 95% are seeking flexible or remote work and women are leaving in droves. Gig work exploded during the pandemic and shows no sign of slowing down. By 2027, more than half the U.S. workforce will be gig workers.

As we struggle to make sense of all this, no wonder we want to give everything a name. It’s tempting to explain away employee discontent as a great movement, rather than your company’s problem to solve. But we can’t let “great” become an excuse.

With so many remote, part-time and contract workers replacing yesterday’s FTEs, you might think you now have a pass on culture building, since many companies define their culture by the attributes of their people. If the keepers of your culture come and go a lot more frequently than they used to, do you even have a culture to preserve?

Yes, you do. And guess what? In the gig economy, culture matters more than ever. It’s an employee’s market and your workplace environment is a significant factor in whether someone decides to work for you. Your culture can be your superpower - helping you to attract and retain the best talent, regardless of their employment status or how long they stay. It can also be your downfall.

But here’s the conundrum: how do you build and safeguard a culture that helps people thrive - and stay - in the face of a constant changing of the guard? It’s certainly not easy and it requires intention and investment. But here are three places to you can start:

  1. Identify And Institutionalize Your Non-Negotiables

    In one of Aesop’s enduring fables, a slim reed bends to withstand a gale that fells a large oak tree. In the winds of workplace change, the same holds true. Rigidity is not the best strategy. But the flexible reed also needs roots to hold it fast. Workplace culture needs the perfect balance of both. Too rigid, it falls like the oak tree. Too loose, it flies off in the wind.

    To storm-proof your culture, identify the roots: the non-negotiable principles and values that shape the way you work. These are the shared assumptions, behaviors and mindsets that govern your actions and relationships with colleagues, customers and stakeholders. In many workplaces, these roots are hard to pin down: emotional rather than rational, visceral rather than deliberate. And fragile. Few organizations take the time to write them down, and the ones that do often make the mistake of tying them too closely to a particular leader. Leaders come and go, but an enduring culture transcends eras and trends.

    Consider the revered and much-written-about culture of the New Zealand All Blacks, the winningest team in the world. They win because they play rugby really well, but that play is fueled by a culture that shapes how they work together on and off the field. They have 15 clearly articulated principles that define their culture, in both practice and memorable metaphors. “Sweep the sheds” literally means to clean up the locker room, but figuratively exhorts each teammate to attend to little things as well as big. “Be a good ancestor” reminds players that they act as stewards for future teams, “enhancing the jersey” that will be passed to the next player. These principles define the team’s root system, holding fast to support them whether they win or lose.
  2. Onboard People To Your Culture As Well As Your Company

    We routinely onboard new workers, showing them how to access the systems and policies and find the coffee machine. But often we forget to onboard them to our culture. This should start by sharing your non-negotiables. But the rest of the education is actually most effective when it’s less about inculcation and more about invitation. Encourage new people to make your culture their own.

    Research demonstrates that the most effective onboarding taps into an individual’s need to be valued for who they are, not just for how well they can adapt to a new environment. One study found that workers who were encouraged to start with their own identity had higher customer satisfaction ratings and a 33% greater retention rate in the first six months.

    Socialization is an important element of the culture equation, especially when workforces are transient or remote. Culture is not individual, it’s collective. So cultural onboarding is a team effort that involves the whole team, not just the new members. Your team’s willingness to share ideas, expertise and experience with new co-workers is a critical determinant in how well the team will collaborate and innovate. Create time and space for teams to develop the strong interpersonal connections required to pass on your culture and come together as a high-performing team. This investment will help ensure they are collectively ready (and able) to solve the increasingly complex challenges of today’s workplaces – and world.
  3. Erase The Line Between Traditional And Independent Workers

    When it comes to performance, the distinction between contractors and employees is meaningless. This is your team and they can only play their best together. Engaging all members of a team means including and supporting everyone – no matter how HR classifies their employment type. Just like their employed colleagues, contract workers want to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of participation. Research tells us that every work contract is accompanied by a psychological contract: the drive to be challenged, do meaningful work and feel an authentic sense of connection and belonging.

    You can (and should) fulfill this psychological contract regardless of employment status. By recognizing and valuing all members of the team, drawing them in to grapple with problems, and valuing their contribution, it signals that their work makes a difference. Include contractors in social, learning and cultural events instead of limiting their involvement and keeping them on the sidelines. Don't call them contractors, call them colleagues. And watch out for old policies that no longer serve you: many companies require that contractors be let go before employees are laid off. In this new reality, your most talented contributors may be contractors. Invest in everyone - regardless of employment status - to build the best possible team and a culture that helps everyone succeed.

Today’s workplace is a brave new world. Values and objectives have changed and people are pursuing non-linear careers, zig-zagging between companies and jumping to better opportunities. When it’s easier for your workers to leave, you have to work even harder to make them want to stay.

Your culture - especially in a gig-ified economy - requires more intention and attention, not less. It’s about tending your roots to preserve flexibility and resilience, while also making people feel like they’re part of something important, something bigger than themselves. With traditional employment ties eroding before our eyes, we need new ways to bring people together and develop the collective intelligence required to solve disruptive technological challenges and chase the transformational opportunities of our time. That’s the Great Challenge before us.

First published on Forbes.com.

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