UK bosses could do far more to monitor and even develop their ‘non-traditional’ workforce, according to a new study from Deloitte. In its 2018 Global Human Capital Trends survey, the auditor found that just 17% of UK firms have specific policies and strategies in place for the use of non-traditional labour – comprised of contract, freelance, gig and cloud workers.

Some 42% of business leaders expect to see a rise in the use of contractors by 2020, while 41% foresee an increase in freelancers, and 34% expect a growth in gig workers. However, not all workers are given best-practice guidance during their contracts, with just 66% of HR teams say they are actively involved in onboarding non-traditional workers.

Meanwhile, only 49% offer those employees formal training. Furthermore one-third (33%) say that they neither assess, nor manage, the performance of non-traditional workers.

Deloitte UK human capital leader Anne-Marie Malley says: “The breadth of worker contracts available today offers employers huge potential to equip their business with a flexible, diverse and uniquely skilled workforce. However, most of these workers are being treated as unskilled labour – not as professionals.”

Malley adds: “As freelancers, gig, and crowd workers become a growing proportion of the workforce and scrutiny of non-traditional workers intensifies, improving the management of the diverse workforce will grow in importance. Businesses should work to give gig and contract workers clear performance goals, secure communication systems, and the right amount of training and support to make them productive and aligned with the company’s strategy.”

Is Malley correct and, if so, what other approaches could leaders take?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I was recently invited by global technology firm Qinetiq to take part in a panel discussion for a podcast, the subject of which was the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). In particular, we focused on what would be required of leadership as 4IR advances – and one of the threads that we identified as worthy of serious consideration was gig workers.

“If you’re talking about the need to align people with a higher purpose, go the extra mile and all the other buzz phrases that are linked to engagement, then how are you going to expect that – or is it even reasonable to expect that – when people have many different employers?”

Cooper notes: “just as we‘ve developed a problem with data – whereby we’ve accumulated a great deal of the stuff, but don’t know what to do with it, so we’ve ended up being careless with it – we’ve hit similar issues with gig workers. They’ve emerged, and we’ve found them really useful and flexible, and they’ve brought in the appropriate talent as and when required. But we’re not managing this group of people very well. And we’ve got to learn how to do this.”

She explains: “one of the perceived attractions with employing freelance workers is that leaders don’t have to involve them in the minutiae of organisational life. Freelancers are typically not enfolded into the social norms or rituals that have become part and parcel of company cultures. They don’t need to be trained in fire evacuations, or any of the other requirements that go along with being physically co-located with people. But the downside is that, when they utilise gig workers, leaders are often not employing the whole person.”

The relationship is not without its positives, Cooper points out. “Leaders have got much better at clarifying the terms of the contracts they have with gig workers,” she says, “and have gradually become more thorough and rigorous in outlining deliverables, deadlines and levels of quality. That will certainly rub off on leaders’ relationships with their full-time staff, who will be given clearer pictures of what they’re expected to achieve as a result of their bosses’ talks with freelancers. Being able to articulate our expectations of our employees brings universal benefits: it is always useful for staff at any level to understand what they must produce, and what a good job looks like.”

However, she notes: “while it’s very hard to measure, it’s reasonable to conjecture that conversations that occur in workplaces where everyone is co-located help to i) put everyone on the same page, ii) avert things going wrong and iii) encourage stronger performance through loyalty, because staff are on friendly terms and more likely to have each other’s backs. Gig workers may not always feel that they are part of that loop.”

Cooper adds: “Sue Brooks, CEO of professional community Imagine, said of her organisation: ‘We did identify the need to employ talent who can respond to changes; who have a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty – and when the business they’re in isn’t working they’re able to change the business’s direction and do something different.’ That’s something that venture capitalists would recognise: if you back the right people, it doesn’t matter if the business idea is wrong, because the people will get a new idea – one that works. That’s a potential problem with gig workers – they may not feel as much of a responsibility to provide that type of feedback as those who are employed full time.

“So in summary, it’s about learning how to manage gig workers more effectively, and to understand that it’s a relationship you are managing – not just a set of contracts.”

For further thoughts on communication, check out these learning resources from the Institute