New research shows how independent workers can thrive in the gig economy

February 27, 2018

Professor Sue Ashford and colleagues studied how people find ways to create the structure and identity that companies used to provide.

As anyone who’s worked in the gig economy knows, it can feel awfully lonely out there.

As the gig economy — where companies pay for specific tasks on a contract basis — grows, the independent workers drawn to its freedom and flexibility are met with challenges distinct from those faced by people who work at companies. Without a company to support and affirm their working identity, it can feel as precarious as their economic situation often does.

New research by Michigan Ross Professor Sue Ashford and her colleagues Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD and Amy Wrzesniewski of the Yale School of Management could help show people how to thrive as independent workers. They carefully interviewed people who have worked this way for years to learn what it’s like and, through their experiences, offer insights on how they created an environment for success.

Their paper, published in Administrative Science Quarterly, answers the question: How do you make a work life work when you have to set it up yourself?

Susan J. Ashford

Susan J. Ashford

“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, Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations and chair of management and organizations. “These conditions create the extreme highs and lows that come with being on their own. Without an organization to provide an identity, they often rely on staying productive to provide one and suffer when they cannot stay productive.”

“We wanted to know how they were able to gain the focus and motivation they needed to do the work with all these shifting emotions,” she says. “What we found was that a great place to work can be made, not just joined.”

A company or organization helps center people psychologically because it creates a holding environment for their work identity that offers them a sense of place and value. Ashford and her colleagues found that independent workers create their own holding environment by making four distinct connections:

  • Personal routines. Sticking to daily and personal routines helps set boundaries of working time and can help keep people productive when motivation lags. One worker said, “There are certain routines that I do that make me feel good when I get lost … I run these little routines and that makes me feel like I’m not totally out there on my own.”
  • Physical places. A number of study participants formed deep bonds with specific spaces that evoked their working self. These spaces helped confine and bolster their work self, sheltering them from the distractions and distress that eat into productivity. One software engineer described his home office as a “fighter pilot cockpit,” suggesting what he needed to take on the world as an independent.
  • People. Every participant mentioned people they drew on for reassurance and encouragement. Few were members of peer groups, but all reached out to specific people who helped with their creativity, productivity, and sanity. These essential people helped soothe the anxieties that come with independent work and make the process more joyful and less lonely.
  • A broader purpose. A sense of purpose was an important success factor for independent workers. It focused and elevated their working selves and helped them to see their work as connected to the world at large. This helped them get past the daily struggles and keep their eyes on the broader significance of what they chose to do. One music consultant said, “It was Ronald Reagan who said — actually it was Peggy Noonan who said through the mouth of Ronald Reagan — ‘America is a song culture.’ That’s how we get so much of our values. And I think it’s important that I could influence the culture through good songs.”

“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 so will the need for more insights on how people can build a successful work life in the new reality. Ashford and her co-authors hope their research can help newly independent workers learn from those who have found a way to thrive on their own.

This article was originally published as a Ross Thought in Action article