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Brianna Caza, Associate Professor, Business Administration

The Brave New World of Work

Surviving and Thriving in the Gig Economy

January 30, 2018 — 

While some of us look at our careers as a long, steady climb up the corporate ladder, a growing number of us are pursuing careers that plunge us instead into a game of snakes and ladders.

According to a researcher at the Asper School of Business, this is because the nature of work itself is changing. Around a third of Canadians are now employed in this “new world of work” – a world defined by multiple short-term contracts or “gigs”, often across different workplaces and industries, and occupying wildly diverging roles with unique skills, practices and goals.

Younger workers, such as students and recent graduates of schools like Asper, are far more likely to find themselves in just such a position now and into the future. Analysts predict the gig economy will grow substantially in the coming years and eventually dominate the work landscape.

The ambiguous, precarious, dynamic, and complex nature of this new world of work, also known as the “gig economy”, challenges workers to navigate a complex and ever-shifting set of demands, impacting not only how we make a living, but also the ways we think and feel about our work, and ourselves.

“Who am I?”

Brianna Caza, an associate professor at the Asper School, says building a broader understanding of the gig economy and its impacts on workers and their relationships with others is crucial to meeting these challenges head on and on time.

In a groundbreaking study published in Administrative Science Quarterly with Sherry Moss and Heather Vough last September, she and a team of researchers interviewed 48 people several times over the course of five years to find out how they manage the logistical demands of working multiple gigs.

“What we found was the logistical challenges of trying to survive in an era of precariousness were real, but only part of the story,” Caza says. “What really challenged them was how to feel and appear authentic while occupying more than one occupational role. When you think about it, what we do for a living is so central to our identity. Who am I, then, when I’m more than one thing at the same time?”

Reporting on their research in a Harvard Business Review article in October, Caza and her team offered three pieces of advice to those engaged in the gig economy:

First: “Be selective in your feedback, at least at first.” Second: “Focus on each job until you gain confidence, but then forge connections. And finally: “Embrace yourself as being composed of multiple (sometimes distinct) identities.”

Caza and her co-authors say the bottom line is to not assume that consistency is the benchmark of authenticity, and can actually serve as a barrier to authenticity, especially in the current economy. “We are, as human beings, many things. Regardless of whether you are holding one job or five, it is likely that you would also be better served if we focused on the process of authentication as opposed to the state of authenticity.”

Caza’s research has since gained traction on social media and in several online gig communities such as says the research’s findings“really resonate with those who navigate the tension between work plurality and authenticityon a day-to-day basis.”

The power of resilience

Caza’s research on gig workers has continued to progress on several fronts.

First, in collaboration with researchers Sue Ashford from the University of Michigan and Erin Reid from McMaster, Caza is launching a set of studies aimed at empirically investigating the resources and processes that allow younger workers to survive and thrive in the gig economy.

Earlier studies and reports already suggest that gig workers face occupational strain on four fronts: professional identity, financial instability, role conflict and complexity, and precariousness of work. Yet, currently,”little systematic, empirical research has looked into the psychological and emotional responses to gig work,” Caza explains. “We’re drawing from theory on resilience – the ability to adapt successfully to disturbances – to build up our understanding of why some gig workers thrive while others struggle.”

To do this, Caza, Ashford, and Reid will conduct several studies looking at the unfolding nature of adaptation over time, and the impact of families, communities and organizations. They hope their work will not only build theory in this area, but also offer principled, specific advice on the steps students and graduates entering the new world of work should take.  

As well, Caza says she’s interested in exploring how people can develop authenticity as a moral virtue at work. To undertake this second branch of research, she’s working with two separate teams.

First, she is working with Patricia Hewlin from McGill University in Montreal and Laura Morgan Roberts from Georgetown. “We’re looking to generate insights across the various studies we have each conducted separately in order to dispel myths about authenticity and to understand how we can help people not put up facades under the guise of ‘professionalism’.”

Second, and closer to home, she is working with Kelly Main (a professor of marketing at Asper) and doctoral candidate Anastasia Sizykh to understand how others perceive those with multiple gigs. Through several experiments, they have found that there is a clear social cost to multiple jobholding.

“Across professions,we have found that multiple jobholders are seen as less authentic, less committed to their job, and are ultimately evaluated more poorly.”

But the news is not all bad. Their findings also suggest that there are small things individuals can do to mitigate and even reverse what they call the “plurality penalty”. Specifically, they are finding evidence that the way in which they talk about their career mosaic can influence others’ evaluations.

Teaching students to “gig”

In addition to researching the experience of gig workers, she is working with Arran Caza, an associate professor in the Department of Business Administration at the Asper School of Business, to develop ways to teach students to thrive in the gig economy. They’ve recently begun preparing a conference paper exploring how management educators can better prepare students for the gig economy.

“We’ll discuss the nature of the changes in the world of work, their implications, and then brainstorm ideas for adapting our classroom practices to address these issues,” she says.

Discussions such as these are vital because “for many of our students, their career future will be one of short-term engagements across a variety of different jobs and even different industries.”

Contrary to what they studied in business school, many graduating students won’t have the opportunity to climb a stable career ladder within an organization. Instead, many may have to shift in and out of short-term positions indefinitely.

“This kind of juggling will demand different skills, practices and goals, and we suspect that we need to do more to prepare our management students to not only survive but thrive in such a world.”

Caza shares a telling example from human resource management. The discipline almost always teaches that the talent management cycle is one of recruitment, selection, training and development. “But how does this cycle apply in the digital economy of short-term contingent workers?” she asks. Workers aren’t the only ones who may find themselves struggling. “How do managers develop a workforce that is in a constant state of flux?”

Likewise, organizational behaviour classes often assume that workers and organizations share the goal of a mutual, long-term commitment. Caza asks, “How can we teach our students to be engaged workers, or managers leading engaged workers, when they may only work there for a few months? How should we teach core topics such as mentoring and motivation in ways that account for the declining role of stable organizational membership?”

Helping students develop the core skills and capabilities required to thrive in the gig economy will prove vital to preventing burnout and lost productivity. As of yet, there exists no consensus on what those skills and capabilities might be – which is why Caza’s research, and the discussions she hopes to foster, are so important.

One thing is certain: the answers to Caza’s questions may not only help graduates create and sustain fulfilling careers; they may also give leaders what they need to help a contingent workforce thrive as the brave new world of work continues to evolve.

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