I started typing this in a cosy bakery and pizzeria in the small Wiltshire town of Corsham. Lots of us now work like this: alone together. We’re fuelled by coffee and connected by the invisible thread of wifi.
The gig economy has its appeal, and works well in the creative industries. Where the main scarcity is talent, those with the skills, dedication and experience can thrive. Yet the gig economy can mask underemployment and can lead to isolation and a loss of rights. It’s easy to be out-negotiated when it’s just you offering yourself to large organisations. Trades unions prefer a world governed by secure contracts, rights and pension contributions.
Despite the rise of the gig economy, there’s a stubborn twentieth century hangover that expects everyone to have a job title and an affiliation. To be institutionalised. To have business cards (remember them?), names and titles on office doors.
So what are we? Company men and women, institutionalised and infantilised by cake on our birthdays (don’t forget that HR knows your personal details)? Or entrepreneurial sole traders, willing to go where the work takes us?
In part, it’s a question of temperament. Some are risk averse and will prioritise the regular monthly payment by bank transfer. Some chase the job title and won’t rest until ‘Chief’, ‘Director’ or ‘Professor’ appears on their door. (Such status seekers are almost always men, in my experience.) Others are independent-minded and are willing to sacrifice regular hours and regular pay for greater autonomy and flexibility.
The most successful and satisfying period of my working life in public relations and corporate comms was in the mid 1990s when I held a succession of interim in-house PR manager roles - often as maternity leave cover.
The work was rewarding: the pay was good, the regular new challenges meant I was always learning. I could avoid becoming dragged into power plays and office politics because of my temporary status.
The only false move I made during this time was to accept the offer of a well paid full-time role on the back of a successful three-month interim role at the same firm. The dynamics changed almost overnight and I became ensnared in a web of internal power plays. Before the end of the year I was offered a sideways move but chose to leave. Freedom regained! And no regrets either. That firm had been a rising star on the London Stock Exchange following its recent flotation. Today it no longer exists as an independent entity. Job for life? Don’t you believe it.
This is less about work-life balance than about the balance between institutionalisation and independence. Who is getting it right and who is facilitating change?
Some firms are constraining the ‘mission creep’ inevitable in a full-time role. When there’s no off button, how do you ever rest and sleep? So Rich Leigh’s Radioactive PR agency has introduced a four-day week. Frank PR is using an app to reward staff who don’t check work messages out of hours. These initiatives become a competitive advantage in the pursuit of talent.
Others have moved to a virtual agency model. Brendon Craigie’s Tyto is a ‘location agnostic’ consultancy. Staff have the benefits of regular pay (or partnership status) and of working where they choose, saving the time and expense of commuting. The firm also saves on the fixed overheads of bricks and mortar. Did a client ever choose a consultancy because of its flashy offices? I doubt it.
Note how these networks become more trusted and more successful the more transactions they facilitate. This process is known as ‘network effects’ and it’s led to winner-takes-all in the cases of Amazon, Ebay, Uber and Airbnb.
Back when I held a succession of interim roles, the internet was in its infancy. There were no smartphones, no apps, fewer opportunities for network effects.
Back then, I found work through direct recommendation and through recruitment agencies. How did employers trust me with the work? Through the old school methods of CVs, interviews and references.
How does it work for freelancers today? Everyone can have a presence on LinkedIn and social media; blogs remain a useful shop window for some. The internet is in effect a giant reputation engine, though there are legitimate concerns about the power of the gatekeepers and the dangers of ‘fake news’. Everyone, it seems, is an expert (a guru, even).
Some answers are being provided by startups operating in in the public relations space.
The PR Cavalry is a Manchester-based tech startup founded by Nigel Sarbutts. It’s a website that promises to use data to match freelancers to projects.
Pimento People, co-founded this year by Nick Band (former CEO of Band & Brown) and Stephen Knight, also acts as a ‘dating agency’ matching freelancers with work. But it also offers a distinctive service borrowed from professional football: the option to take employees on loan for a fixed period. This is intriguing: talent has the potential to become an asset, not just a regular cost to the employer. This even suggests a future world of transfer fees for talent.
For now, what advice to give to those considering their career options? It used to be presented as a binary choice between working in-house for a large employer or working in a consultancy.
Now, we are each responsible for developing our own careers in a world where no one should assume to be in a job for life. This should ideally include spells in different sized organisations, sectors and work cultures. We have to adopt an entrepreneurial approach: sometimes we should value experience more than money, risk over security. At other times, we will make the opposite choices.
At all times, we need to invest in ourselves and make decisions about work-life balance, future potential, income now and income deferred (in the form of prospects and pensions).
The intersection between work, leisure, income and assets is explored in David Sawyer’s bestselling book RESET. It’s a bestseller because the questions he asks are universal. We’re all seeking purpose and trying to make sense of our cluttered lives.
Several soon-to-graduate students are asking probing questions about their futures. In the past it would have been so much clearer: a life of grinding poverty in the rural economy or repetitive and regular work in the industrial economy. Women would have been further constrained by the obligations of childcare. Today, we’re so much freer. But with this freedom comes the responsibility to make the right decisions.
Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.