Gig Workers Versus Employees

work from homeTraditionally, "work" was described as a full-time worker with set working hours, duties and benefits. But the definition of work has changed more rapidly in the past 20 years due to changing economic conditions and continued technological advances. A new labor force characterized by independent and contractual labor has emerged.

I was listening to a podcast about how California’s Prop. 22 could affect the gig economy nationwide from Marketplace Tech. Proposition 22 is a California initiative sponsored by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig work platforms that would exempt app-based ride-hailing companies and food delivery companies from a new state law that requires them to classify drivers as employees instead of independent contractors. Gig companies have poured nearly $200 million into getting a Yes vote on Prop 22. That is the most spent on a ballot initiative in state history, but a No vote will cost them all (and others) a lot more money.

I have mixed feelings about it. As someone who unretired into gig work, I have no desire to be an "employee." But I'm past the full-time worker phase of life and have health insurance, so I'm not like younger gig workers who might be using gig work for the bigger companies as their main gig.

Those companies have threatened to leave California or dramatically raise prices if Prop 22 doesn't pass. I'm not sure how seriously I would take that threat. California represents a lot of business. And yes, I know it will cost them more to operate there and they will probably need to pass at least some of that along to customers but a "dramatic" increase in their prices will also hurt business.

California often takes the initiative on issues - environmental and otherwise - and other states often follow California.

Temporary work or temporary employment isn't really new. What we call gigs might once have been termed "odd jobs" by my parents. Any employment situation where the working arrangement is limited to a certain period of time that is based on the needs of the hiring organization is similar temp work to some new gigs. Those workers (who we should not be called "employees" at this time) have been called "contractual", "seasonal", "interim", "casual staff", "outsourcing", or "freelancers."

At the higher end of those positions are some highly skilled professionals and seasoned workers in "white-collar" worker fields, such as human resources, research and development, engineering, and accounting. Those people (and I include myself) often refer to themselves as consultants.

Gig workers and the "gig economy" are a 21st-century development. Gig workers are also known sometimes as independent contractors, online platform workers, contract firm workers, on-call workers, or temporary workers. In most cases, gig workers enter into formal agreements with on-demand companies to provide services to the company's clients. It was the Internet and the digitalization of the economy and industry that allowed this type of work to emerge.

Digital technology has created jobs and employment forms that are differentiated from existing offline transactions. The economy is driven by accessibility, convenience and price competitiveness.

Presently, 36% of U.S. workers in the gig economy arrived there through either their primary or secondary jobs. In Europe, 9.7% of adults from 14 EU countries participated in the gig economy in 2017. , according to the survey. Meanwhile, it is estimated that gig worker's size, which covers independent or non-conventional workers, is 20% to 30% of the economically active population in the United States and Europe.

Will the Gig Economy someday be the dominant economy?

Reimagining Work After the Pandemic

home office toyParody home office toy for kids watching their parents working from home - see actual toy below

 

As we move towards the winter of 2020, the pandemic is still the most dominant factor affecting work and school in America. In March of this year, the rise of COVID-19 cases forced a reimagining of work and school. I'll leave school for future posts and focus here on work. 

I could have used the title "Reimagining Work" as a title on a post in any of the 14 years that I have been writing here because we are always reimagining work and the workplace. But 2020 has also been the year of social and cultural uprisings throughout the world, a record number of hurricanes, catastrophic fires in California, dire warning about climate change, and an increasingly divided American political system. 

I saw a panel on this topic focused on reimagining the office and work-life after COVID-19. I think it's too early to say what the results will be, but it is clear that some things have been forced to change. The question is how many of those things will remain or will we return to some of what we were doing in 2019? 

Before the pandemic, it would have been safe to say that having offices were critical to productivity and creating a company culture. Estimates I found vary on how much work has moved out of offices. In April, I found that it was estimated that about 62 percent of employed Americans were working from home. Work from home was already a trend before 2020 but the number was closer to 25 percent. Prior to the pandemic, just 3.4 percent of Americans worked from home, but at the peak of the shutdown, an Upwork report in partnership with MIT found that nearly half of the U.S. workforce was working remotely

Will there still be competition for prime office space in major urban centers? Will companies be maintaining but downsizing their workspaces?

around the world, and many focused on solutions that were seen to promote collaboration. Densification, open-office designs, hoteling, and co-working were the battle cries. a couple of years ago. During the pandemic, many people have been surprised by how quickly and effectively technologies for videoconferencing and other forms of digital collaboration were adopted. For many, the results have been better than imagined.

According to McKinsey research, 80 percent of people questioned report that they enjoy working from home and 41 percent say that they are more productive than they had been before.

As I said, this reimagining was happening before the pandemic. In the 2017 book, Reimagining Work, the focus is on the business leader working in what the author calls a "new on-demand economy" positing that "traditional management strategies are becoming obsolete."

That obsolescence is driven from the bottom up. A skilled workforce wants much greater flexibility and more control over their work. That is not something major corporations really ever considered offering in the last century.

That flexibility began in this century with many startups and smaller companies. It's easier to turn around a small boat than it is to turn a large ship.  Some of those smaller companies - Uber, Lyft, Handy, Airbnb, Task Rabbit - have become big and the flexibility was built into their culture. Changes have already happened more broadly in the way companies recruit, develop, and train talent. As the book says, growth for a company is more than just expansion. It also means maturation, adaptation, and evolution. 

During the pandemic, employees were freed from commuting and work travel. That has given them more personal time and greater flexibility in balancing the work-life balance that has been part of attracting new employees for the past twenty years.

For employers, this shift means they can access new pools of talent without considerations of the location while saving on their real-estate costs.

I have had several jobs that were done virtually with only a few visits to the actual company offices. One of my sons started a new job during the COVID-19 summer and he has never been to the company offices. He did his interviews by videoconferencing and has met his co-workers only online and on phone calls.

I don't think total isolation from the office and co-workers is ideal, and there has been speculation about the effect these shifts will ultimately have on "office culture" - morale, company loyalty, camaraderie and other difficult to assess elements.

Almost everyone is looking to return to some reopening and return to whatever the new normal turns out to be. Though President Trump had predicted it would be "by Easter" or "when it gets warmer," no one really knows when we will return. Before a vaccine is available, the office experience of January 2020 will not return. those few offices (and schools) that have reopened require masks and have redesigned workspaces to ensure physical distancing. Companies are restricting movement to avoid typically congested areas (like elevators, break rooms, dining areas, conference rooms). The classic "hanging out at the water cooler" of the 20th century may be gone forever.

But we know that there is value in the social capital that comes from those informal conversations, meetings, and social engagements, not only with co-workers but with clients.

That panel I referenced asked questions that we don't have answers to at this time. Will corporate cultures and communities erode over time without physical interaction? Will planned and unplanned moments of collaboration become impaired? Will there be less mentorship and talent development? Has working from home succeeded only because it is viewed as temporary, not permanent?

Important questions. No answers yet.

 

MORE 

Another webinar on "Reimagining Work in the Pandemic and Beyond" from Harvard Business 

A report on "Reimagining work in the era of COVID-19"




* I used a parody home office toy as an illustration above but Fisher-Price does actually offer such a toy - but no crying baby or wine included.

Checklist for That Video Conference

video conf screenIt seems almost all of us have been involved in more video conferences the past five months because of the pandemic. Offices and classrooms are closed and a lot of paid work is being done. The learning and workspaces have definitely moved online for many of us. But there are also teleconferences with friends and family that are purely social. I have used Zoom, Google Meet, Webex, Slack and Microsoft Teams for formal presentations, courses, social calls and team meetings.

We are also seeing newscasters and celebrities broadcasting from home with surprisingly varied results and quality. I am no longer surprised to see a well-known person who has the resources and motivation to look good on screen look really bad. There are some basic video tech tips that everyone should follow, but before I get to those I want to list some non-tech items that fall under the heading of being prepared.

  1. Prep your desktop. Do you need notes or a way to take notes? If you use papers or another device make sure they are off-camera and won't block the camera or your microphone.
  2. If you're using a phone or tablet, put it horizontally so that you get a full video frame. Have you ever watched a movie or TV show that was in a vertical format? Of course not - think movie screens.
  3. Hang a "Do not disturb" sign on your office door or at least warn people that you're going to be on air and to give you some privacy. Mute other phones nearby. I've been on several calls where someone's other phone rings or the cell phone rings while they're on their laptop.
  4. How you dress depends on the formality of the conference but avoid pinstripes and checks, which can create distracting moiré patterns on camera, and try not to wear bright white or deep black clothing, because many webcams have automatic exposure settings and will adjust to the brightness or darkness of those colors. 
  5. When you position your camera, try to have it at your eye-level. You might be able to adjust the chair you use for that. You should be sitting straight up not slouched back on a couch. Low and high angles are unflattering. Leave those for horror films. Pros and semi-pros use a tripod to hold their camera or phone and you can get those relatively inexpensively, but there are also less expensive tablet and phone stands.
  6. On the more tech side of preparedness, I would say lighting is at the top of the list. Bad lighting can ruin a video. Most people don't have a studio lighting kit to work with or knowledge of three-point lighting schemes, so here are simple things to do. Do have the main light source behind the camera and pointed at you. That's true when using a sunny window or any kind of lamp. Do not have the light behind you or you might be a silhouette. A single bright light on one side of you might make for a dramatic photograph but not a good video. The light, like the camera, is best at eye level because higher or lower create unflattering shadows on your eyes, nose and chin. Again, leave that to the horror films. I sometimes use a sheet of white poster board to bounce the light on my face for a softer look. You might also point a bright lamp at a plain wall or ceiling to get softer light. If you have a smaller desk lamp around that you can point in different directions (such as a gooseneck one), that can work pretty well. If there are shadows on your face and you're using natural sunlight as your main source you can add the artificial light source to fill in the shadows. If you wear eyeglasses, try to avoid glare and reflections on them. You may have to adjust the angle of the light.
  7. It's a video meeting but being heard clearly is actually more important most of the time. There are people who connect by phone without video sometimes so all that have is your audio. Being in a quiet room. Try to avoid echo which shows up in empty rooms, halls and bathrooms (Yes, I know you sound great singing in the shower but...) Many people just use the microphone built into their laptop, phone or tablet which can be fine if you're close enough to it. If being close enough means you end up with a giant closeup of your face on the video then the microphone is an issue. Many people buy a special headset of higher-quality but also try out the earbuds that came with your phone (the optional wireless ones are great)
  8. Position yourself a distance from the camera that gives viewers a head and shoulders shot. Further back is better than too close. (Do consider that microphone though) When talking, look at the camera rather than at the screen of that iPad or laptop so that there is eye contact.
  9. People get concerned about the background in their video and may choose a location based on that rather than on the more important lighting considerations. Zoom and other apps actually allow you to put in a fake background. Newscasters might use a fake studio set and friends might put themselves on a beach or on the Moon. I'm not a fan of that and sometimes doing that causes odd halo effects that are very distracting. My suggestion is to avoid extremes. A blank white wall is not flattering but either is a busy background of shelves filled with clutter. I know that many academics and writers like to use bookshelves as their setting. 
  10. You should practice with the setup and application you are using. All of the applications have websites with help on how to test your video (such as this one from Zoom). You should be aware of what tools are available and how to use them well before you go on air. Too many people don't know very basic things such as how to mute/unmute, change their ID on the screen, ask a question, use the chat function, etc. Practice may not make perfect but it certainly will make better. There are also many videos on YouTube with tips about the tech side of things and for specific applications. Some application help videos are even specific to certain users. The two screenshots shown here are from a Zoom training video that is for educators. Educators will want to use some of the more advanced tools in the apps, such as screen sharing, breakout rooms, whiteboards, etc. 
  11. Finally, you want to look your best whether this is a job interview or saying hello to your granddaughter. The pros use makeup so that they look good under the bright lights, but for most of us, your ordinary makeup, groomed hair and a video-safe shirt or blouse is enough. If there is some shine on your face from the lighting a simple wipe with a soft cloth might be enough.

Zoom session

Learning, Working and Podcasting Spaces

microphone
Image by Daniel Friesenecker from Pixabay

I recently changed one of my categories here, "Learning Spaces," to "Learning & Working Spaces" because I'm seeing greater overlap in those two places. We know learning has always been occurring outside of traditional spaces, such as classrooms, but it is more formalized now than ever before.

Spring 2020 certainly moved a lot of learning online from pandemic necessity. But other learning spaces have emerged in recent decades.

Co-working spaces are formal places for people needing office space but not wanting an office full-time. WeWork is one of the better-known commercial spaces. Colleges are opening virtual campuses, micro-campuses, but informal work and learning is happening in Panera Bread stores, Starbucks, and many local cafes and coffee shops.

I saw recently that Staples stores have been giving some of its retail space over to podcast recording booths. They partnered with Spreaker for recording spaces in six Staples stores in the Boston area. These booths are part of a new Staples Connect model, in which the retail stores offer coworking and community event spaces. The soundproof Staples Connect Podcast Studios are being developed in partnership with iHeartRadio. They provide professional equipment (RODECaster Pro control board, RODE microphones and SHURE headphones) and space for up to four people.

I don't know if most people would consider podcasts as a learning space but a lot of informal and some formal learning is happening through podcasts. 

When I started podcasting at NJIT back in 2006, our initial audience was prospective students and we were clearly doing marketing. But that potential audience quickly grew when we saw that downloads were coming from a more general audience that was interested in research from the university.

In 2007, NJIT became part of the original sixteen colleges to launch Apple's iTunes U. That's when we started thinking about podcasts as a learning space. (The term "coursecasting" was briefly being used by some schools.) 

Apple has changed how it offers podcasts but iTunes U still exists and as they state "iTunes U provides everything an instructor needs to bring the classroom together on iPad—build lessons with apps and your own materials, collect and grade assignments, start class discussions or talk with students to answer questions and provide feedback."

bookMy virtual friend, Kristen Meinzer, recently published So You Want to Start a Podcast, a very comprehensive how-to guide to getting started. There's a lot more to starting a podcast than buying a good microphone and installing some software. Though those things are necessary, having great equipment is hardly at the top of the list of reasons why podcasts succeed.

Kristen knows podcasting having been a commentator, producer, and former director of nonfiction programming for Slate’s sister company, Panoply. She has also hosted several successful podcasts, reaching millions of listeners and continue to create shows.

Is she an educator? Not in the formal sense of a teacher or professor, but you can certainly learn from the programs - and be entertained, which is a combination that some educators have not mastered. 

I would include podcasting as a learning and working space that should be considered by individuals, businesses and schools.