An agitated corporate Vice President recently approached me after I gave a talk on the Gig Economy at his company. He told me that the last three employees who left his team had quit to take positions that allowed them to work flexibly and remotely from home. His company didn’t allow remote work, and he had no idea how to compete with ones that did. He was worried that if he didn’t figure out a solution, he’d continue to watch his best talent leave.
Scenarios like these are playing out all across corporate America. Employees with the most in-demand skills and expertise are leaving to work independently, or work for companies that give them the autonomy, trust, and ability to manage their own work schedule.
The Gig Economy – made up of consultants, freelancers, independent contractors and on-demand talent – is growing rapidly, forcing companies to rethink how they structure and manage their workforce. Independent workers demand flexibility and autonomy and a focus on the results they produce, not how they produce them. Firms that don’t respond to those preferences and continue to manage their workforce by edict of the clock and the office chair are likely to have difficulties attracting top freelance talent.
The rise of independent workers challenges the prevailing corporate culture of managing employees by time and place and is provoking business leaders to change how they manage and measure workforce performance. These challenges and changes aren’t easy for companies to accept and navigate. They require shifting the traditional corporate mindset and culture in several significant ways.
Realize work is a product, not a place
Not one study suggests that working in an office eight hours a day, five days a week maximizes employee productivity, satisfaction, engagement, or performance. In fact, there is a growing body of data indicating that full-time, on-site employees aren’t always engaged, waste a lot of time in the office not working, and that employee underperformance is a relentlessly persistent problem despite constant physical proximity of working in an office.
The data is clear that the most productive and satisfied workers are not found in an office cube. Recent surveys of 8,000 independent workers by McKinsey’s Global Institute and nearly 900 workers by Future Workplace and Field Nation find that independent contractors, freed from the constraints of office life, are more satisfied and more productive. Strategy firm Global Workplace Analytics analyzed more than 4,000 remote workforce studies and found that remote work increases worker productivity, engagement, collaboration, and retention.
These results make sense from a worker’s perspective. Working independently and flexibly eliminates the wasted time of commuting, the pressure of face time, the stress of office politics, the forced juggling of work and life on someone else’s schedule, and the productivity-killing impact of frequent in-office interruptions and meetings.
Companies that are successful at attracting and integrating independent workers realize that work is a product, that it involves generating results, meeting objectives, and producing deliverables, regardless of where or when it’s done. Firms that shift their corporate culture from viewing work as a place to focusing on work as a product are most attractive to independent workers.
Accept that an office is not necessary, nor sufficient, for creating culture
When I ask HR leaders why they resist integrating independent workers, they tend to respond with vague narratives about culture and collaboration, and an insistence that neither can thrive outside of an office-based setting. Their arguments are anecdotal, and lack any empirical data, even from their own companies.
The myth that a strong and compelling corporate culture can only be created in an office is easily debunked by even a cursory look around the corporate world. It’s as easy to find (or for any of us to individually recall) examples of companies with toxic, dysfunctional, office-based cultures as it is to identify ones with strong, positive, and high performing remote cultures. Culture is created through the behavior a company encourages and tolerates, not physical proximity.
Companies attractive to independent workers create a corporate culture that is not office-based. Below are some examples of the vision and culture to which companies with remote workers aspire. Read them and note how they make you feel:
"Work where, when, and how you want. There’s no corporate office, no corporate B.S.
Nothing between you and your best work." - Articulate
"We care about the work you produce, not the hours you put in." - Automattic
"We are designers, engineers, and communicators united by a common goal, not a common location." - Todoist
"No offices, no useless meetings, no mandatory hours. You’re recognized for what you do, not your time in a chair." - Toptal
It’s difficult to create a healthy, high-performance, functional culture at any company. It requires a clear vision, intention, and communication, as well as the relentless support of behaviors that reflect the desired culture, and absolute intolerance of behaviors that don’t. Those challenges exist whether the culture you’re creating is office-based or remote. Companies that want to create a workforce that includes independent, remote workers are often the most intentional about creating a compelling, and even inspiring, culture – one based on valuing the work itself, not where it takes place.
Valuing what matters
The best companies manage and measure their workforce based on what they produce, deliver, and solve, and not the hours they spend in the office. Those best companies are rare. At most firms, HR leaders and business managers spend significant time implementing systems to track and manage employee time in and out of the office, often down to the hour. Yet managers have no specific information, nor do they track, what employees do when they are in the office. This approach makes little sense because managing employee time in the office isn’t what drives company performance – results are.
Independent workers are nearly unanimous in their desire to have companies they work for value the work they produce, not where and when they produce it. When independent workers asked to identify what makes a company their “client of choice,” 97% said they want to work for companies that value their work, and 94% want to be able control their work schedule – when and where they get the work done.
Companies that want to successfully attract independent workers learn to value the quality of worker results, not the process by which they are created. Put simply, they learn to value what matters.
The rewards of hiring independent workers
The Gig Economy, where independent consultants, contractors, and freelancers create portfolios of work in lieu of one full-time job, is challenging the traditional employer model by forcing companies to change their culture, and the way they manage at least some of their workforce.
Independent workers want autonomy and flexibility. They aren’t seeking the traditional 9-5, 5 days a week office-based culture. Companies that want to attract independent workers need to shift their mindset to create the results-based culture that freelance talent seeks. They want companies that value the work they produce, no matter how or where they produce it.