All by Myself: How to Survive and Thrive in the Gig Economy

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Gig workers now make up 34 percent of the American workforce, and that number is expected to reach 43 percent by 2020, according to a recent report from CNN Money. However, many of these workers struggle to maintain their well-being. Life in the gig economy is quite different from traditional employment, posing new sets of challenges for many who choose to go that route.

Marion McGovern knows a thing or two about thriving in the gig workforce. She founded M Squared Consulting, one of the first gig economy talent intermediaries. McGovern is also the author of Thriving in the Gig Economy , a book all about how gig workers can achieve success.

McGovern recently agreed to share some advice with our readers via email. What follows is a transcript of that email conversation, minimally edited for style and clarity. Your book suggests that gig workers should have a “company culture of one.” What does this mean?

Marion McGovern: The concept is really that no company is too small to have a defined culture. For large companies, culture can be the guiding light, a rallying cry that inspires employees and encourages effort and achievement. Culture can do that for small companies, too – even a company of one.

RC: How can gig workers determine what elements to take or leave for their own individual cultures?

MM: Your company culture needs to be authentic to you, which makes the question of what elements should or should not be part of your culture easy to answer.

To the extent that your culture is a reflection of your values, think about doing a values screening. For example, everyone wants to do good work – I hope! But what makes your work good? It could be creative, innovative, provocative, analytical, validated, time-tested, far-reaching, precise, on time and budget, colorful, humorous, thorough, or insightful. An innovator may need to have a culture that incorporates time for inquiry and experimentation, whereas someone who delivers precision may need to have a much more structured way to go about their work.

The other thing to consider is the reason you are freelancing. There is a great book, Start With Why  by Simon Sinek, which is about how “Why?” is really the most important question for companies and great leaders.

Sinek sets up the framework of “The Golden Circle,” which describes the balance and progression in everything from the angles in the columns of the Acropolis of Athens to the petals on a lily. The Golden Circle, Sinek suggests, is similar to the balance relationship that is a necessary component of being a great leader, where concentric circles of “how” and “what” build up to an interior focus on “why.” This “why” is the essence of everything. Apple is the poster child for Sinek’s thesis. Customers buy Apple products because they believe Apple thinks differently; they believe in the “why.”

FrisbeeFor freelancers, the question is: What is the “why” for you?

RC: What tools should independent workers invest in to help provide the best solo work experiences for themselves?

MM: The tools needed by an independent worker depend on the nature of the work done by that worker. Professionals – whether in the creative, technical, or analytical spaces – will want to adopt a financial system. These can be systems that handle time and billing as well as expenses, like Freshbooks, or just basic accounting systems like Intuit. Those who plan to do all their work through a digital talent platform may not need the invoicing and time-tracking features.

There are apps to assist with proposals, like Proposify, and others that handle contracts, like Bonsai. Painless 1099 is another great tool that helps soloists manage their quarterly tax filings.

Time management is another area that is often worth an investment. Apps like Wunderlist and Teux Deux are examples here. Collaboration tools like Dropbox or project management assistance like Evernote can also help busy freelancers manage their gigs.

RC: Many gig workers just work at home from an office, at the kitchen table, or on the couch. How does the physical workspace affect the self-employed worker and their productivity?

MM: Studies say that space matters a lot. For the independent worker, the space is not just a question of the surroundings most conducive to good work – it is also a question of cost. More precisely, the question is, “Is it worth it to pay for an office-sharing experience versus working out of my home office?” Home can be full of distractions, which may offset the added expense of an office space. For some, the energy and social dimension of coworking spaces make the cost worth the investment.

Beyond cost, the space should have good lighting and a variety of work spaces. There should be comfortable seating for deliberation and reading, as well as desk structures for keyboard work. Clutter is a negative factor in a work environment. Try to keep your work space as free from extraneous items as possible. Your mom was right – there actually can be a value to being tidy.

RC: What are the pros and cons of shared workspaces?

MM: The biggest con of the coworking movement may be the cost. Putting cost aside, however, the real question is the benefit to your business that the space may provide.

Some people cannot work at home because they have a hard time separating themselves from the distractions that may be at home. Others live in environments that may be too noisy or hectic to accomodate any productive work.

Those considering coworking or shared spaces need to evaluate the options with the potential productivity benefits in mind. WeWork has built its reputation on the mingling of its members and the potential networking opportunities its locations afford. Other firms have different models. Canopy, which runs shared spaces in San Francisco, does not have spaces in downtown areas. Rather, Canopy’s spaces are located in more residential areas. Its model is to appeal to boomers who live in the neighborhood and would prefer not to deal with the hassle of commuting downtown and paying exorbitant parking fees. Similarly, The Hivery  in Mill Valley, California, is a shared space facility for women. It offers not only coworking space, but also classes and programs for members.

Most coworking spaces operate on an à la carte menu when it comes to fees and services, so be sure to understand what comes with your membership level and what does not.

The best option for some may be to try out coworking before fully committing to anything. Most facilities have flexible contracting options. A few require longer time commitments, so be sure to read the fine print.

By Jason McDowell