Have you ever heard of the ‘ gig economy ’? Nope, it has nothing to do with music or live performances, even though I’d be fun. Well, in case you haven’t, Forbes defines it as the modern phenomenon where an increasing number of organizations is willing to hire freelancers and short-term workers, as well as the increased availability of the workforce for those short-term tasks.
If you’ve been working for some time now, first of all, you deserve a vacation! Secondly, you’ve probably noticed yourself the labor market has changed quite a lot within the last decade.
According to Ardent Partners report on the recent workforce landscape across the world, 35% of the total workforce is labeled as non-employee and is expected to grow to 43% by 2020: independent and external contractors, freelancers, contingent workers and so on. These jobs are characterized by a higher degree of flexibility and shorter periods of time than more traditional and permanent employers. Despite a McKinsey report found the industries with the largest number of independent contractors are the knowledge and creative-intensive ones, this reality is widespread across many fields of expertise, such as IT consultants, designers, and even accountants.
Is it even possible to include your external colleagues in the company culture?
A consequence of all of this fluid and fragmented way of working, though, is that these workers are external to the organizational culture of businesses they work with. Therefore, achieving an effective communication that aligns the company and the independent worker’s needs can be hard. As there is not really time – nor interest – for the external workforce to assimilate formalized as well as implicit organizational knowledge and culture. Just imagine going on vacation to a foreign country, let’s say Spain, for just a couple of days and expecting to fully understand the culture and be perfectly integrated in such a different environment. Just because you can say ‘una cerveza, por favor’, it does not mean you can apply for Spanish citizenship, can you?
How can you better integrate these external workers into your company’s culture? First of all, have a purposeful discussion with them to define and clarify expectations regarding their job roles, how they fit into the company, and how to best work with each other. Secondly, create a regular communication strategy with them; it is a good way to guide them and keep both sides’ goals aligned, and it’ll make them included in your company. Last but not least, implement regular feedback meetings – perhaps monthly – where you talk about where the person is succeeding, where he or she is challenged, what help you can provide them with, and what their ideas and thoughts are.
Nevertheless, engaging and collaborating with short-term and project-based external workers who to some extend need to be a part of the organization, but just for a limited time frame is not the only issue of gig economy. Often times, these collaborators are also located in different cities or even countries than the organization. This geographical dispersion is also common across teams within more traditionally structured businesses, i.e. the ones with full-time employees.
Habits of interacting
Now the question is: if I already struggle so much to get my point across effectively when I’m at home with my wife, how am I supposed to communicate clearly with a colleague who is on the other side of the world?
Of course, using carrier pigeons can’t be the optimal solution – also, many people are actually scared of birds -, so the Internet comes to your rescue – God bless. There are several digital platforms, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Trello, Yammer, and so on, which facilitate internal communications across time and space barriers. Nevertheless, keep in mind that they are only tools you can use, not an instant magic cure. In order to communicate effectively within dispersed teams, there needs to be a shared company culture of communication and this take time and effort to establish.
According to MindTools, choosing the right players for your team is obviously the first step. Just like you need the right bricks to build a solid and tall tower, a business structured this way requires individuals with the right qualities: self-motivated and independent, results-driven, but also good communicators, and open and honest when it comes to problems, suggestions and feedback in general.
To make sure that all the members are united around a common purpose and are working with that purpose in mind, rather than for their own sake, everyone must have a clear idea of the team’s goals, key resources, and members’ roles and responsibilities.
This requires a very good communication strategy where feedback is key to keep everyone aligned in terms of team performance and morale.
While in an office environment the best practice to deliver a feedback avoiding misunderstanding is to talk in person – we all know how important body language can be -, followed by phone calls, as we can interpret the other person’s tone of voice and it is fairly easy to ask for clarifications, and, lastly, emails, the scenario for distributed teams is a bit different. In fact, it is crucial that all the team members stay in contact with each other, but they can only use the last two approaches.
Hence, make sure to schedule regular video calls, where you can virtually talk ‘face-to-face’ regardless of your physical locations, or phone calls and emails, if the members are in different time zones. This helps you to create a constant communication rhythm at all levels.
Moreover, it’d be ideal if you could visit those members who work from different locations than yours as often as it is necessary; depending on your company’s needs –and of course their location, it’s probably not realistic that you travel every other day to China -, that can be once a month as well as once a year. This is an important step to build a personal relationship with all the team members and break through geographical barriers.
Lastly, feedback must be fair, meaning that you need to make sure that everyone receives the same amount of feedback regardless of whether they work in your same office or on the other side of the world. Remember that equal treatment is important and remote members can easily find themselves unmotivated and isolated. So, regular interactions with them make them feel not forgotten and included in the organization.
I mean, you would feel left out if a friend of yours organizes a party and invites everyone else, but ‘forgets’ to invite you, right?
By Matilde Rebori and Morten Melby.