Why the gig economy will have to be the saviour for the UK’s SMEs

by Justin Small, Founder of The Future Strategy Club

Over the course of the last three months, the private sector has undergone a seismic shift with an anticipated 531,000 businesses in the US set to go under in 2020 and a fifth of all small businesses in the UK to fail during the COVID period. With overstretched budgets and the streamlining of teams, it has become a luxury for a company affected by COVID to afford high-end, permanent talent. Freelancers provide a vital lifeline for those who are in dire need of expertise without long-term commitment during the potential uncertain period. 

With business survival one of the key performance indicators of the health of the economy post-COVID, many companies that have needed to scale back in order to survive will still need to invest in talent, even if it is on a part-time or short-term basis. 

The perception of freelancers and gig economy work has long needed an overhaul. Historically, freelancers have been excluded from the benefits of the permanent workforce including workplace culture, socialisation and support networks. Now, with the turbulence caused by the lockdown crisis, the private sector’s reliance on flexible workers will not only become apparent but crucial to its survival, delivering a positive step for the gig economy and its importance to the wider economy as we grow out of the COVID-19 period.

Many businesses have had to, or will need to, pivot quickly and effectively to remain competitive in the market post-lockdown; so experienced talent will be required to help achieve these. Businesses of all sizes, but particularly SMEs, will need to embrace the gig economy quickly to pivot, retrain staff and rebuild their business model to help them to survive and then to thrive, as the economy begins to bounce back.

Along with a new role for the gig economy, many employed workers are still keen to explore more flexible working options similar to their freelance counterparts. There are many reasons for this including childcare and family commitments; a situation that many Brits have found themselves in, delicately balancing home and work under one room. 

Having this flexibility garners trust from manager to staff and for freelancers, allows them to work around other projects or commitments. For employed staff, there is still a disconnect between managers and staff. In fact, nationally representative research commissioned by The Future Strategy Club across 2,000 UK workers shows that 51% of Brits believe that decision-makers in the workplace are out of touch with the processes that allow teams to work effectively and productively. Working from home, therefore, may have even allowed some to be more productive, especially if they are completing tasks during the hours that suit them best – allowing for flexibility around childcare, for example.

Business owners and managers will have found that over the past few months, working from home has allowed their employees to clearly separate their work and personal life in a way that suits them;  perhaps dedicating the morning to homeschooling and spending the afternoon and evening focused on their work tasks, for example.

Now, as many begin to return to their workplace, employers should encourage the more flexible approach that has been taken during lockdown to continue moving forwards. As discussed, our research shows that over half of UK workers feel the decision-makers in their work environment lack an understanding of the methods that actually allow teams to operate effectively. As long as work is completed and contracted hours fulfilled, having changeable work hours is feasible and may even boost productivity by keeping employees happy and allowing them to work when they feel most motivated. 

This research demonstrates another clear pull from the gig economy for many highly-skilled workers, as they can choose to work whenever they need to or would like to. For business leaders, while many traditional leaders may have wanted their teams in the office whenever they are working, this hasn’t been possible over the last quarter. Therefore, the period has inadvertently pushed managers towards a style of flexible working that they haven’t dealt with before. Now, these people are realising that, so long as their teams complete the work on time, clocking off at 4pm to sign back in at 7.30pm once the kids are in bed is perfectly acceptable. This has been spearheaded by gig economy workers who have proven this to be fruitful and drive productivity both from their team and the business as a whole. By adopting these techniques, the gig economy will continue to help SMEs survive and thrive out of this period and develop in a post-COVID economy. 

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