HR Conference 2016 - THE “GIG” ECONOMY


From left: Susie Quirk, Christopher Schrader, Trevor Sunderland and Tim Carey

By Nan-Hie In

The wave of independent workers joining the “gig economy,” a workforce that eschews the 9-to-5 employment of being anchored to a single organization, is a growing phenomenon worldwide.

In 2014, Staffing Industry Research reported 44 million of gig workers in the US. In Asia, this flexible workforce is also in demand. In the 2016 Hays Asia Salary Guide, which surveyed over 3,000 employers in various locations across the region, 54 percent of employers in Hong Kong said they have hired contingent staff in the past year.

Freelancers, temp workers, and independent contractors are nothing new and have been in place since the second world war, notes Trevor Sunderland, Country Manager Hong Kong & Asia Operations at Agile-1, adding that these groups have been “re-bundled” into today’s gig economy.

“What’s different today is that technology really supports the overall combination of these verticals,” he says. “That includes on-demand tech companies such as Uber and online platforms which make it easier to connect independent talent with clients. It’s creating a new dynamic of employment that will undoubtedly be carried forward.”

What are the implications? The accelerating pace of change today has shortened the life cycles of companies as well as tenures of their employees, says Susie Quirk, Partner and Head of People and Change Advisory, KPMG.

“In the future to 2025, it’s predicted that a company would stay on the S&P 500 for five years; employees are already adopting a portfolio approach to their career by accruing various jobs over their life span.”

The technological forces, notably artificial intelligence and robotics, will only drive the gig economy further in a shift where low-skilled jobs will be replaced, she adds, predicting a trend of re-training among workers in the next five to ten years. “We are already seeing it through the rise of corporate universities, learning and development centers and more, and more people are being re-skilled.”

Quirk also foresees an increasingly connected worker that will further fuel the gig economy, thanks to “working- at-the-speed-of-thought” technologies. Today, many gig workers operate their knowledge management entirely on smartphone apps, for example, and innovations such as Amazon’s voice-based assistant Echo will increase the capability of workers and intensify the rate of participation in a growing gig economy. Christopher Schrader, CEO of Pathship, an educational tech provider with 2,000 “gigsters,” concurs that artificial intelligence and robotics will play a larger role in an increasingly automated world.

He also believes it will lead to a shift away from a low-skilled gig economy to a high-skilled gig economy comprising expert freelancers, consultants and specialists. “We are moving towards people becoming increasingly specialized,” he says, envisioning a future full of modern tech companies where frontline staff – not managers – will be the most skilled workers in an organization, with multiple degrees under their belt. The shift towards a highly flexible workforce, from the perspective of an employer, is not without challenges.

From a talent management standpoint, it is advisable to budget for a high turnover rate, Sunderland suggests. “[The gig economy] is more difficult for employers than employees, but hopefully technology will evolve and make it significantly easier for employers.” Meanwhile, governments are starting to restructure their employment laws and examine how to categorize this particular sector of the workforce, Sunderland notes.

Countries in Asia, he adds, will have to play an active part in the legal development of labor policy to remain competitive, although no such initiative in Hong Kong has been noted. Meanwhile, China – where the gig economy has taken off – is poised to adapt to the phenomenon with an amendment to the current regulations.

Once it happens, others will follow suit. The discussion on the issue of employee benefits in the gig economy has been ongoing in the US whereas Finland’s implementation of a national universal basic income law to provide a certain level of quality of life has propelled its participation in the gig economy. That’s because the obligation of providing benefits is not on individual companies but is coupled with an entire country at large.