New Research On The Gig Economy Could Offer Insights For Independent Workers


New research on the gig economy has the potential to help show people how to thrive as independent workers, according to researchers Sue Ashford from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD, a French business school, and Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University. Those who work in the gig economy are paid by companies for specific tasks on a contract basis (freelance work).

“There’s a sense of precariousness with independent work and, given their freedom to make whatever they wish in whatever way they wish, the work also feels quite personal,” says Ashford, professor of management and organizations at the U-M Ross School of Business. “These conditions create the more extreme highs and lows that come with being on their own rather than in a company.”

Independent workers who are drawn to the freedom and flexibility of the gig economy face challenges that are different from those who have a company to support their working identity.

The research revolved around the question: How do you make a work life work when you have to set it up yourself? The researchers interviewed people who had worked independently for years in order to get an idea of what it is like. By using their experiences, they attempted to get insights on how they created a success. The study was published in Administrative Science Quarterly.

Ashford says that companies and organizations help center people psychologically because they create a holding environment for the individuals’ work identities that offer them a sense of place and value.

“We wanted to know how independent workers achieved that same sense while working on their own and with a lot more uncertainty and shifting emotions,” says Ashford. “What we found was that a great place to work can be made, not just joined.”

The study concluded that independent workers create their own holding environment by making four distinct connections: personal routines, physical places, people, and a broader purpose.

The study found sticking to a daily and personal routine helps individuals to set boundaries of working time and can help when motivation lags. Additionally, a number of participants reported forming deep bonds with specific spaces that help to confine and bolster their work self and shelter them from distractions and distress.

Every participant in the study also revealed they rely on others for reassurance and encouragement, reaching out to specific people to help with creativity, productivity, and sanity. The final connection, a broader purpose, was noted as something that focused and elevated individuals and helped them to see their work as connected to the world at large.

“These connections don’t make the tension associated with independent work disappear, but the holding environment they create keeps it tolerable and helps them manage the work day,” says Ashford. “As one of our participants said, ‘There is no arriving, that’s a myth.’ But when they create this work holding environment for themselves, the tensions become a source of learning and motivation. It makes their precariousness tolerable, something they can live with and even thrive on.”

As the gig economy grows, Ashford and her team hope their research helps newly independent workers learn from those who have been successful in the past.

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