The Emergence of the Gig Mindset – The Long Story

The term “gig mindset” refers to the attitudes and behaviors of people who, even though they are salaried employees in an organization, approach their work as if they were independent freelancers. Their attitudes and behaviors contrast with those of salaried people who work with what we might call the “traditional mindset”, with an approach to work influenced by defined roles, hierarchy and established procedures.

What were early signs that the gig mindset was happening inside organizations?

For the last few years I have seen many people, salaried, inside organizations, showing signs of behavior much like freelancers:

  • People were moving fluidly from project to project, changing roles and bosses (meaning project owners) more often.
  • Many didn’t have job titles, often just generic phrases on their email signatures.
  • They were self-managed, chose where they worked to a greater extent than a few years ago (home, office, on the road).
  • Reputation and personal branding were important to them. They took care to build and nurture it internally and externally.
  • They were active on their enterprise social network, and were frequently members of external, peer-to-peer networking groups made up of people from other organizations.

The gig mindset is a people movement like two earlier ones that brought big change to the workplace.

First, people brought social to the workplace

This happened with social networks, which entered organizations timidly over a decade ago. This was upsetting to many senior managers, because they sensed a loss of control. But today, internal social networks are widespread: approximately 60% of organizations have a single network worldwide, and another 25% have multiple networks.

Then people brought BYOD

BYOD is another example. Bring Your Own Device was frowned on, even forbidden, in most companies. People did it anyway. Why? Because they had no choice. They needed mobile to do their jobs and the company did not supply mobile devices even to employees working with customers outside their own corporate walls and therefore with no access to organizational information systems. Today well over half of organizations officially allow BYOD for work purposes. And most of the others accept it. Companies with the most successful customer-facing workforce also have the highest rate of BYOD.

I wrote about this in 2016: Tracking the Trends in Bringing Our Own Devices to Work in the Harvard Business Review. Exceptions occur of course in highly regulated industries or on work sites with highly classified data.

What has triggered the current gig mindset movement?

People now have three major capabilities they did not have a few years ago

  1. Finding people and expertise: Being able to find people and expertisethrough information generated by people themselves rather than the official HR expertise lists liberated people. They could interact with other people they did not know personally and with whom they could build a relationship.
    People who were visibly active on the social network and who answered questions of others, sharing information freely became known as “experts” in their domain. In other words, they were building a personal brand through their own actions. Management was concerned that the “real experts” were overshadowed by the informal experts. They gradually realized the value brought by informal experts as the workplace became more social.
  1. Commenting: Being able to comment on content from other people, including official information from management means that feedback to management (and others) gained company-wide visibility.
    In early days, around 2011, management feared negative comments. They gradually learned that this did not happen and that crowd regulation came into play when inappropriate comments were published by people.
  1. Social networking: As with most social media inside organizations, management feared people would waste their time. This fear slowly dissipated as success stories began to emerge about how people had been able to achieve things, especially business-related, thanks to connecting with others on the social network.
    This became a platform for informal communication, creation of work groups, and “enterprise Q&A”, asking and answering questions across the organization to the crowd.

Work cultures were stagnating and still are, showing lack of trust in people.

Lacks: giving input, reinventing

These two work culture practices are vital for organizations that want to transform themselves in our current age of fast-moving change, diversity and new competition. Although people in half the organizations self-manage and self-direct their work, two key dimensions are sorely low:

  • In only 1 out of 3 organizations are people encouraged to give input to business goals and to challenge business model and work practices.
  • In only 1 out of 4 are people empowered to act, to reinvent work practices, and to shortcut processes in order to advance more rapidly.

Management attitudes are lagging even further behind.

Focus on the status quo

In only 1 out of 5 organizations people say their senior management is “open and participatory”. Management is still, in many cases, focused on maintaining status quo and hierarchy, and is far from working in an interactive, consultative way. This management style is one of the underlying reasons that decentralized decision-making is still rare. Unbelievably, it has hardly changed since 2013 as you can see on the chart below.

Emergence of the gig mindset is a natural result!

Growing people capabilities + stifling work cultures + rigid management practices

We have a potentially explosive combination. Nonetheless, most people will continue work as usual, heads down, do the hours then get out the door. We can see the effects of this in multiple studies about low levels of engagement.

A few people however will be motivated to find ways to work around the constraints and to achieve their goals. This may involve jeopardizing their reputation in the organization, or it might result in a successful initiative recognized as such. Or a combination of both. Whichever way it goes, it is part of the gig mindset movement, in large part manifested in the behaviors described here. The chart above show clearly why the gig mindset is in fact emerging but, worse still, why it is taking so long.

Said another way, even though people, in theory, can self-manage their work, when it comes to truly influencing how the organization works and reinventing work practices, it was not and still is not part of work cultures in most cases.

The underlying factor that blocks change is leadership. We just saw that very few organizations believe their top leaders work in an “open and participatory” way, and that has been the case for multiple years.  Fortunately, there are exceptions. These leaders are still outliers.

“If I as a manager don’t encourage the gig mindset, I would lose both the motivation and, in the end, the best people.” (Manager, global organization, Sweden)

In 2018 I gave the opening keynotes at IntranetReloaded in Berlin in April and at the London Enterprise Digital Summit in June. Both times I talked about the gig mindset and changes it is bringing to organizations. At both conferences there was strong interest and lots of questions.  I came out of both events convinced that the gig mindset is triggering fundamental changes in how people work.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the gig mindset and its emergence in organizations. Please share your ideas. I have too much spam to keep comments open here. My Twitter DMs are open and you can contact me here.

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