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A similar challenge faces businesses who employ workers with non-traditional relationships to the home office such as distance or home working, part- or flexi-time, or the project-by-project contracts so popular in today’s so-called “gig economy.” No matter where your employees are, they represent your brand. So how do you keep your employees involved and engaged when you only see them occasionally? Non-traditional work models are popular because they suit a mobile and flexible workforce, whether maximizing available skills, creating more opportunities, or just a good way to keep people working, consumers spending, and the whole economy moving. The gig economy has existed for a long time in the corporate world where freelance designers or IT professionals, too expensive to keep on staff, are frequently hired temporarily for their unique skills. However, increased connectivity and improved mobile services also mean that even permanent employees don’t need to come into the office every day in order to maintain links to the organization. For the first time in history, employees are in a unique position of being both their own and the company’s person, a state that can be difficult for any manager to cope with: they wear the uniform, but they’re out on the town. So even though a chunk of your employees enjoys a non-traditional career path, what’s the best way to engender values and behaviors across boundaries to ensure distance workers live and breathe your corporate culture?
At Innovation Arts, we rely on a talented network of freelancers to support and deliver the work we do. We value their individual expertise, their unique talents, and their ability to bring a distinctive point of view into our design events, which benefits the process of collaboration. We depend upon varied and deep experiences in order to bring the best ideas to life, so by employing contractors to help us out occasionally, we can add the specific skills our business needs to thrive. On any given event, you can be sure to encounter at least one, if not several, freelancers adding a particular spice to the Innovation Arts recipe. Our events are supported by pop-up teams of people who may have never worked together before, but who, from the moment an event kicks off, rely upon and trust one another to get the job done as intensely as in any hospital emergency room. What allows this to happen is a specific pattern language unique to our industry, our philosophy of self-reliance and self-determination, and a simple set of systems and culture that everyone accepts.
As someone who used to “gig” for Innovation Arts before I came onto its staff full-time, I can say there are downsides to a free and flexible mode of working. The unstable hours, feast-or-famine workloads, and don’t even get me started on accounting. However, as part of the extended Innovation Arts family, I always knew that if I accepted a freelance project I’d know exactly what I was getting into, specifically what the work would be, and precisely what role I was expected to perform. And that comes down to the values and behaviors Innovation Arts promotes, which are clear and easy to understand, rather than a restrictive management structure. Thanks to our values of “High Performance” and “Honesty,” I always knew my work was valued, I knew I’d be expected to make my own decisions and be honest about the work I was doing and if I needed help, to be collaborative and creative, so I delivered. Because iteration is a key part of our ethos, I knew that if I messed up I would have the chance to try again, to fail better. The unspoken laws of team-working never varied from gig-to-gig, manager-to-manager. And now that I work for IA full time, the same rules apply. By embracing a simple and clear values statement and promoting a desired mode of behavior, Innovation Arts has made working easy for me and other colleagues who have made the switch from freelance, both as full-timers and as contractors.
So how do you know if your company’s values are filtering down into a workforce you might only see occasionally—or in the case of app-managed Deliveroo, never—and yet who undeniably represent your organization? How can you engender loyalty and a sense of belonging if you only come in contact now and again? It comes down to the behaviors accepted and promoted for each person who answers to your company’s name. What behaviors do you expect from your employees, whether full-time or contracted, and how do those behaviors reflect your company’s values? We have worked with a number of organizations who have used our game Dilemma® to test how behaviors on the ground map back to the corporate value statement in the company’s lobby, and found that whether you are the CEO or a temp, the action should essentially be the same. By playing through the workplace scenarios in Dilemma®, employees have a chance to explore the preferred responses as well as the actions they might take if pressed for time or to deliver. We’ve discovered that companies who value “respect” will have employees who are respectful, no matter if they are in the home office or on a client site, and that those who embrace “diversity” will employ people who are diverse in ethnicity as well as in attitude. But, if your employees—no matter how entrenched with the company—can’t make sense of your values, or don’t know how the words on the plaque in the lobby translate to day-to-day actions, then you’re in trouble.
There can be a distance between the narrative surrounding labor and success, and the lived experience of workers. In our work with a variety of organizations we know that the culture envisioned by the leaders at the top of the tree can sometimes be very different from the culture lived by the employees at the bottom. In our experience, only a small percentage of companies are getting it completely right with respect to values, and that has a knock-on effect to distant parts of the company culture few leaders ever see. The gig economy is certainly working for the employers who want to have special skills on tap, but in order for it to truly work for the entire company, especially those temporary or distance employees who are a long way from head office; there must be something to sweeten the deal. Treating your workers—temporary, part-time, flexi or full—as you would treat the CEO is a small step, but at least it’s a step forward.