There’s no doubt the pandemic has changed how we work, with the most obvious impact being the huge increase in numbers of people working from home. This shift has contributed to the rapid acceleration of the use of alternative workers – gig workers, temporary contractors, and others not counted as full-time employees, driven largely by the fact that remote work widens the pool from which employers can recruit.

There is evidence that the pandemic is also accelerating the use of gig workers within industries and sectors, such as white-collar roles in business services, in which short-term work was previously more scarce. In particular, the demand for highly specialized talent for short term projects and episodic business needs is booming.

The appeal of these workers is obvious, offering companies faster and more flexible access to needed people with needed skills, and lower costs in terms of benefits and long-term commitment.

Without a doubt, there are plenty of people for whom flexible, short-term work arrangements are ideal. However, recent data also shows that the trend toward increased reliance upon freelancers and those working on short-term contracts have had negative effects on those employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

However, if you keep the principles of employee engagement in mind as you integrate alternative workers with your team, you can avoid demoralizing employees and damaging company culture, and at the same time, provide more support for your temporary employees, ensuring better outcomes as a result.

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Understanding the risks and pitfalls of blending gig workers & full-time employees

Let’s start by first outlining the risks and pitfalls leaders of teams blending gig and full-time employees face. There are two sides to this coin: impacts on the workers themselves, and impact upon your permanent employees.

Challenges temporary workers face include:

  • Uncertainty and stress about their financial future, which impacts their health and wellbeing,
  • Being treated as outsiders, and even facing hostility from full-time employees,
  • Operating with little or no consideration for their onboarding, training, and support, which diminishes their effectiveness and results in a poor experience.

“It’s important that the entire workforce, both alternative and traditional, be treated with respect with regard to culture, inclusion, and work assignments—and that perceptions on all sides reflect these values,” note the authors of the Deloitte Insight article titled “The alternative workforce: It’s now mainstream.”

Making an effort to ensure the temporary workers your firm brings aboard have a good experience and are successful is good business, in terms of creating better outcomes, and it’s good for the brand, in terms of creating new advocates for your firm and building a positive reputation in the market. Here are simple steps to take to ensure your organzations’ relationships with temporary workers are a win-win for both parties:

  • Set up alternative workers for success. According to oft-cited research from Glassdoor, a good onboarding experience improves the productivity of new employees by more than 70%. Provide your new temporary team members with onboarding designed to provide them the background and context they will need for the work they’re doing, introductions to the people they will be working with, and ready access to systems and resources they’ll need to be successful.
  • Assign them a buddy or mentor who can show them the ropes and answer the inevitable questions all new employees – regardless of status – have in their first few weeks. This simple act will prevent frustration and wasted time, and will your new team member acclimate more quickly.
  • Make asking members of your alternative workforce for their feedback about their experience routine. Ask them about the things you know should be true, such as:
    • They had a clear understanding of their remit, role, and responsibilities
    • Their manager was supportive and present for them
    • They were provided with the tools and resources they needed to do their job
    • Their peers and colleagues were collaborative and willing to share needed information
    • They were treated with respect
    • Their contributions were valued
    • They were treated fairly
    • Their manager provided useful feedback in a timely manner

Taking the step to find out whether these elements are in fact holding true for the company’s alternative workforce enables leaders to immediately take action to resolve any issues that may be identified, as well as continually improve how the company utilizes temporary staff.

Challenges alternative workers pose to full-time employees and company culture:

Ensuring the short-term workers you bring aboard are successful is just part of the equation. At the same time, leaders need to understand the impact bringing “hired guns” onto the team may have on current employees, and even more broadly on company culture

Threats leaders of teams that include alternative workers should keep in mind include:

  • The perception that plum assignments are outsourced. Especially when the short-term workers the firm brings in are highly specialized, full-time workers may perceive that the most interesting and innovative work is being outsourced, leading to resentment,
  • Communicating a lack of confidence in the team – leaders need to be very aware of what they communicate about the decision to employ alternative workers, including why the decision was made, what the new staff will concentrate upon, and how they will fit in with existing employees and projects. It’s especially important to provide detail such as whether the new staff are being brought on to provide more capacity or new expertise.
  • Perception that professional development is being limited. If the alternative workers are being hired to provide specialized expertise, leaders should guard against the perception that existing staff are being denied professional development opportunities, which can quickly lead to disengagement.

Leaders can make an end-run around these and other threats by keeping employees’ perceptions top of mind, and by involving them in the process. Steps you can take include:

  • If possible, include employees in the decision to employ additional help. Including key players from teams that will be involved in a review of projects, resources and timelines will level the playing field and provide a clear line of sight for all into the organization’s needs. Talking through options with members of the team and involving them in the decisions will create buy-in.
  • Focus on mainstreaming new temporary workers by asking existing employees to take responsibility for onboarding and outcomes. Make them stakeholders in the process and its success.
  • Identify opportunities for employees to learn from the experts you bring in, such as gathering requirements, helping with documentation, and participating in testing, user acceptance, or other quality assurance exercises. In addition to improving downstream acceptance from the team, exposing employees to the specialized work being performed will help knowledge transfer and set the scene for future skills development.

By keeping the potential threats and challenges in mind, leaders can ensure the decision to employ alternative workers delivers maximum benefit to the organization and strengthens culture and employee engagement.