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According to a 2016 study, 35 per cent of the total US workforce are freelancing. Another predicts that by 2020, one in two people in the US and UK will be freelance. How will workplace technology evolve?
Whether you see the gig economy as a new era or the progression of long-held labour practices, one thing looks certain: it’s a trend that’s set to stay. Its complex pros and cons have been debated widely by businesses, workers and politicians alike. In 2015, Hilary Clinton summarised them with: “This on-demand or so-called gig economy is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation. But it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”
Up to 162 million people in the US and the European Union already do independent work. This shift is being driven both by businesses looking for more efficiency and flexibility, and employees looking for greater autonomy. Technology is playing a crucial role, accelerating changes to employer-worker interactions. As the gig economy grows and further challenges and opportunities unfold, the demand for smart devices, mobile computing and connective technologies will increase.
From on-demand startups engaging couriers via apps to Fortune 500s using digital talent platforms to recruit specialists for one-off projects, the gig economy encompasses an ever-widening range of sectors and skills. The UK’s Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed predicts that gig economy revenues will reach £9 billion by 2025.
Affordable, high-bandwidth cloud computing and continuing innovation in web applications are key to these developments. They will make gig-based work viable for more businesses and would-be freelancers.
Cloud services spanning e-commerce, analytics, unified communications as a service (UCaaS) and more will proliferate. The trend towards multiple cloud providers is likely to continue. Cloud-based workspaces will play an increasing role, enabling online collaboration through secure mobile access to data and applications. New data-analysis apps will help employers understand how working styles are impacting performance.
The Zurich SME Risk Index found that 26 per cent of UK SMEs already use gig workers. While they’re also aware of potential risks, 38 per cent believe the gig economy gives them the chance to better manage capacity. Lower cost technology – including cheaper cloud computing – and pay-as-you-go workspaces will make it easier for small businesses to launch and manage cash flow. Networks of freelancers, engaged and managed online, will help them reduce fixed labour costs, but debates around worker classification and protection will continue.
The traditional office environment, focused on fixed workstations and telephone handsets, will no longer be the norm. Instead, portable devices, including smartphones, tablets, convertibles and lightweight notebooks, will increasingly connect people working across multiple locations – the office, the home, cafes, co-working hubs and more.
Permanent offices may still exist, but they’ll be designed to suit fluid working styles. Meeting spaces, for example, might host temporary teams comprising contract workers, employees working flexibly and participants abroad. Robust technology will be pivotal, especially rapid, secure connectivity for a variety of devices and a growing range of collaboration platforms.
These may soon include virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), with both destined for enterprise use. VR headsets could offer additional data to colleagues or clients during meetings, and even enable workers to communicate using holographs of themselves.
As a wider range of spaces function as workplaces, the gap between enterprise and consumer tech is likely to shrink. Like VR, innovations associated with entertainment, health and lifestyle applications will enter the world of work.
The internet of things has a potential role to play – smart devices could enhance business intelligence and communication with remote workers. Wearable devices already help employers assess productivity and wellbeing, but business-specific products are also appearing. Potential applications include customer access to on-demand services via wearables. Uber recently announced ride tracking via Garmin wearables. Similar functionality could eventually help gig workers, businesses and recruiters interact through a wider range of devices.
According to a TINYpulse survey, office workers welcome the move away from bricks and mortar, with 91 per cent saying they perform better when they work remotely. Gen Zers are likely to seek even greater control over when and where they work, and as digital natives they’re ideally positioned to embrace emerging mobile technologies. Millennials are also less willing than their predecessors to accept daily commutes and rigid schedules. Technology will be instrumental in making the gig economy a sustainable choice for these cohorts and their clients.