04 November 2022

How the gig economy is reshaping the future of customer experience - guest blog by Jonas Berggren

How the gig economy is reshaping the future of customer experience

What does the gig economy mean to you? Most people will immediately think of modern services such as UberAirbnb, and food delivery apps like DoorDash Driver App or Deliveroo. The gig economy has enabled all of these service innovations by allowing people with available time to use these platform services to locate tasks.

This is the positive view of the gig economy. It has allowed many new innovative services to be created by building gig platforms that connect people who need a service - like food delivery - with people who are waiting for tasks. But the gig economy also has many critics. Gig work is, by its very nature, short-term. It is unpredictable and precarious. It is almost the complete opposite of a job where you are paid a regular monthly salary for a set number of hours. For this reason, some critics have argued that legislation is required to prevent the proliferation of the gig economy. The US Department of Labor is currently undergoing a consultation process that will lead to a statement early in 2023 on how the US Federal government considers the status of gig workers in relation to employment law. 

But the reality is that over 58 million Americans are now engaged in gig work. This is rapidly becoming the preferred way of working for most people. The US has a very flexible labor market with few restrictions, but the same attitudes towards flexibility are spreading globally. Many companies in India are struggling to cope with employees who actively want to work for multiple companies at the same time - it doesn’t fit with traditional ideas of a career or an employment contract.

The gig economy is also entering the customer service environment. A May 2022 report on GigCX by Limitless suggested that 96% of customer service agents working using a gig model are satisfied and happy to continue working in this way. 40% have full-time jobs and are fitting some gig work around their regular job. GigCX is becoming a flexible way to add agility to a CX solution.

Let’s explore how work itself is changing and how this may create both a more flexible work environment for employees and more flexible resource for employers, without the precarious nature of the traditional gig economy - how can we get the best of both worlds?

The future of work

Our first challenge is the terminology. The gig economy describes everything from a pizza delivery to a highly skilled speechwriter delivering a service to a senior executive or politician. Any project that has a defined scope and is not ongoing employment can be included under the gig economy umbrella, so this includes both highly skilled work and work that requires very little training.

In a recent interview, Barry Matthews, the CEO of Open Assembly, said that the discussion around the gig economy is really all about the future of work. He said: “Skills are universal, right? They exist everywhere in the world, from rural India to London to Brazil. There's brilliant people everywhere, but opportunities have always been limited to big cities like London or New York or Silicon Valley. So, many people have missed out on those job opportunities. I have seen the next wave of the future of work, which is a way to democratize employment and to enable anyone with a laptop, an internet connection, and a skill to find opportunity.”

This is an incredibly important point. Work itself is changing and employee expectations of how they work are evolving. It’s worth stepping back to consider what has happened in the past couple of years.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced all office-based workers to switch to working from home almost overnight. Some found this difficult because they lacked private space at home, but for those who could easily work from home, there was a revelation - they could be just as productive from home as from the office. Evidence for this has existed for at least a decade, but it took the forced situation of a global pandemic to move executives beyond small pilot studies. Once workers were based at home, and avoiding their daily commute and office interruptions, there was a new development - their working hours did not need to conform to the traditional daily 8-hour shift. The option to be more flexible with working time becomes possible without the need to commute to a workplace.

Even in the early days of the pandemic, back in 2020, it was clear that most office-based workers appreciated this new flexibility. Many reported that they wanted to maintain this style of working once the pandemic subsides. As the danger from Covid declined, and national governments reduced the travel restrictions on people working together, many companies continued to offer flexible work arrangements. People changed. 

The business media was filled with news of the ‘Great Resignation.’ Millions of people were changing job, or even quitting their job with no new job lined up. Some of this activity was driven by the release from restrictions - it was almost impossible to change job during the pandemic - but researchers found that there was a dramatic change in expectations of employers that was driving some of this activity. Employers that were not embracing the new expectations of flexibility, by demanding a return to pre-pandemic work practices, were losing their people.

Bloomberg reported in 2022 that this trend has continued. There has not been an acceptance that life has returned to normal and therefore employees must accept the working practices of 2019 once again. People want more flexibility over where and when they work and how much control they have. Working all day in the same place every day is no longer seen as desirable - or acceptable.

Work in the customer service industry has traditionally been very flexible and attractive for younger people and it has evolved throughout the pandemic. Most customer service specialists have not returned to pre-pandemic operations. Many customer service workers remain working from home - if that is their preference. The big question now, for the customer service industry and beyond, is how to build this new flexible work environment. How do companies embrace the fact that many of their employees have hobbies and interests they are passionate about and want to integrate with their job? 

Is there an opportunity to combine employment with interests? Could people with a personal interest in gaming work on projects where they are supporting gamers, or people with an interest in fashion support retail customers with fashion questions?

McKinsey has written extensively about the merger of the gig economy concept with customer service processes - the GigCX operational model. Access to customer service agents with very specific expertise is one of the key advantages outlined in their research: “Companies can also tap domain experts (such as brand advocates) to interact with customers, creating a more informed and enthusiastic service environment. Workers, for their part, get the opportunity to work with multiple client companies simultaneously, which can translate into broader exposure, potentially higher earning potential, and greater scheduling flexibility.”

How does technology change everything?

The gig economy is powered by innovation. It requires the connectivity that technology platforms can create instantly. The biggest difference between a taxi driver cruising the streets looking for customers and an Uber driver is that the platform shows the driver exactly where to find the next customer.

This flexibility can also be applied to the customer service environment with several important benefits to the traditional work environment. By creating a technology platform that connects the customer with the customer service agent - rather than requiring a physical contact center - there are immediate advantages:

  • Hire from anywhere: skills and expertise can be located anywhere. Great people with required skills are not always within commuting distance of an office or contact center. There are many skilled people living in rural or remote locations that can work productively if they are permitted to work from their home. This creates many opportunities for people in diverse locations to work productively and it allows employers to cast the net far beyond their office - to seek out the best people for their team.
  • Seek out expertise: as customer service teams require greater expertise in the products and brands being supported, there is an opportunity to search for people with very specific skills. For example, a consumer electronics brand may actively look for people that are already fans of their products. By finding people that already support the brand they can build a network of very strong advocates engaging in customer service processes.
  • Encourage diversity: hiring from anywhere allows a selection of people from diverse locations, but the ability to work flexibly from home also makes this work attractive for many other groups of people. A physically disabled person who avoids long commutes can now work productively from home, likewise for someone with anxiety who prefers short working days. People that have retired and would like to work part-time can use their skills and deep experience. Those with parenting or caring responsibilities can fit working time around their family responsibilities.

By blending the best of the gig economy flexibility with the security and reliability of a traditional job, CX providers are building a flexible future jobs for customer experience employees. Are there any other benefits or drawbacks of using the gig economy for customer experience that I haven’t mentioned?

First published on LinkedIn by Jonas Berggren, October 2022.