Is culture meaningless in the freelance economy?

With powerful shifts in the economy in recent years, the conversation around employee expectations and incentives has evolved. Elaborate offices boasting ping pong tables and free lunches galore have, at times, misaligned company culture with perks. The perks do not encapsulate an organization’s culture, yet perhaps they have been one of the components that have led employees to think both critically and creatively about what they want out of their experiences with their employers.

There is a growing focus on the most human aspects of work, like alignment with the company culture, philanthropic opportunities, feeling like part of a team, and working towards a more meaningful purpose than the bottom line. According to Glassdoor research, higher earning employees report increased job satisfaction when they feel more positively about company culture and values. Receiving appreciation is at the top of the list for employee satisfaction. Salary is still relevant, but it is not the point a company can differentiate itself upon and expect to attract and retain top talent.

Decades ago, employees could trust that their employers would supply for their needs via clear, albeit bureaucratic promotion paths, annual raises, and relatively gradually shifting market trends. With the impact of new technologies in the 1980s, marketplaces began to change at increasing rates, requiring shifts in organizational structures.

The pace of change and corresponding decreased job security into the early 2000s has left us with a workforce that is soon to be dominated by a generation of individuals who were raised to trust a system that only slightly resembles the workforce their parents entered in their youth. Millennials and baby boomers in the workforce alike are being impacted by this massive shift in the way people work, changing individual company cultures and society as a whole.

Many employers are not able to promise job stability anymore due to our dynamic environment. Further, with public scandals of corruption, inequalities, and abuse, the workforce is skeptical of corporate intentions. Companies are merged, start-ups fail, and competition is rife. Perhaps to compensate for this, employees are demanding more from the time they spend in and out of the office as well as from organization leaders.

Beyond the artificial perks, company culture continues to arise as a key talking point for both job seekers and interview panels, as well as a common area to address in organizational interventions. There have been countless articles, blog posts, and academic research written on culture. It is a point of differentiation sold to prospective employees and its impact on performance has been widely researched and discussed. We are in an age where company culture remains the hot topic, yet our workforce is already changing again and leaders are concerned about how this will impact the cultures they have worked so hard to strengthen.

This shift in the global economy is towards an on-demand workforce with more and more professionals opting out of traditional full-time work to seek part-time or contract opportunities. Also referred to as the ‘gig’ or ‘freelance economy,’ this evolution in the workforce isn’t just in reference to ridesharing apps and other task related projects. Companies from a wide variety of industries hire contractors, part-timers, and project-based employees who have no intention of working for these companies full-time. For many on-demand workers, they can actually get paid more contracting their skills even accounting for missing out on healthcare and other benefits.

With the potential to make more money and to have more flexibility, it’s not a surprise it is projected that the portion of on-demand workers in the U.S. will outweigh the portion of full-time employees by 2020. Organizations have focused on driving energy and resources into developing strong company cultures, so leaders and employees alike are concerned about how a freelance economy will impact the cultures they have worked so hard to establish. It is worth asking, with this evolution in our workforce: have business leaders mistakenly placed too much weight on building their corporate cultures just to hire employees who don’t work full-time?

In our ongoing on-demand workforce pulse survey, one of the highlighted areas of concern when thinking about the change in the structure of our workforce is that of culture. In particular, anonymous respondents noted “lack of connection” and “cultural alignment” as some of their top concerns.

For many, there is an understanding that cultural alignment is related to engagement and engagement is linked to performance. Therefore, one fear is that if workers do not feel connected to the culture, then they will not perform at a high level. It is also valid for companies who have invested vast resources in their office environments (ping pong tables and catering services), to wonder if additional material perks will impact freelance employee motivation and engagement. Can companies shift again to meet the needs of this growing segment of our workforce?

What has your organization’s experience been with freelance workers? Is culture the main challenge as we transition to a majority freelance economy or should organizations be focused on other areas of concern?

We are continuing to collect responses in our quick pulse and would love to hear your input! Participating in the pulse is simple and insightful. Take a look to see for yourself what others are saying: