The impact of technology has changed both the way we work and our attitudes about work. A growing number of workers have joined the “gig economy,” exploring careers outside of the single-employer model and taking on multiple employers or projects. According to a study conducted by Gallup last year, approximately one-third of the U.S. workforce, about 57 million people, works in the gig economy model.
The gig economy challenges long-held beliefs about work and business with a brazen brand of entrepreneurism. But while some of the rules have changed, workers and companies that operate in the gig economy are a diverse bunch—and in important ways some of them are not all that different from those in the traditional workforce.
Some in the gig economy work on-demand jobs for wages to supplement an existing income or create one. These giggers are not necessarily interested in building a business, and will even gig-hop for higher pay. In fact, for those that are on-demand labor for large companies, we could argue that they are employees with a different pay structure. They cannot set their own rates or rules but are restricted to an infrastructure created by a company. Unlike traditional workers, they also have to compete with other workers for each gig.
Then there are freelancers, who have full control over rates, hours and clients. These self-employed entrepreneurs may or may not have aspirations to build a larger business. Designers, writers and management consultants typically fall into this category.
But even those that set their own rates are not without challenges. The labor infrastructure that supports work still favors the traditional employment model. Benefits, taxes and even qualifying for loans are not seamless processes for those in the gig economy.
How we define and describe these workers underlies some of the challenges that face those in the gig economy. Gig workers who work on-demand for large companies operate in a model that requires them to operate like a business – but not be paid like one. Unlike a business that can set pricing that accounts for overhead such as insurance and equipment, gig workers must work within a rate structure. They discover that the rate they are paid is not pure profit, once taxes and expenses are accounted for, and leads many into a spiral of working more to earn their actual rate.
In the public relations world, there is a group often classified as part of the gig economy: independent PR professionals who function as micro-agencies, with one or a few principals. But while the gig economy has certainly fueled the growth of these micro-agencies, they actually function much like their larger counterparts, performing the same tasks and serving diverse clients of all sizes. They are neither freelancers nor giggers, but small business owners.
Micro-agencies deliver many of the same services as traditional agencies. While some may focus on small or local clients, others count huge national and international companies and nonprofits, and even traditional PR agencies, among their clients. These solo PR professionals and micro-agencies are typically senior level professionals who are often go-to subject matter experts in particular areas such as media relations, influencer relations or crisis communications.
One of the biggest challenges, especially for those in public relations, is being overlooked or underutilized by hiring entities. Companies may often overlook solo PR professionals in their search for agency support. When searching for help to develop thought leadership programs, manage a speaking program for executives or increase visibility with target audiences, decisions may be driven by size rather than expertise.
Recognizing the breadth of those that work in the gig economy can yield tremendous benefits to companies. Solos and micro-agencies work closely with clients and have a deep knowledge of overall operations. This affords them an opportunity to provide strategic counsel that sees the big picture but also understands the details. As everyone struggles to find top talent, a micro-agency may be the secret sauce that offers top talent who can move your communications programs forward.
Karen Swim is the president of Solo PR Pro (www.soloprpro.com).