Our ‘always-on’ culture has only been made possible by shifting the norms in the way businesses are run and the way in which people work.
Much less formalised work patterns have led to the creation of the so-called gig economy, a flexible ‘ad-hoc’ workforce model that has many advantages but by the same token has blurred the employer-employee relationship and what that represents in legal terms.
So organisations have been left wondering: when is an employee not an employee?
The legal issue has been tested at employment tribunal in a string of cases involving firms such as Addison Lee, Deliveroo and Uber. These have centred on the question of whether its workers are self-employed contractors or employees entitled to basic workplace benefits such as minimum wage or paid holiday. I suspect we have not seen the last of these cases.
Significantly, with the emergence of this new way of working, we have also seen a new trade union – the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain – set up to represent people in the gig economy.
This is a challenge to established trade unions and their models of collective bargaining. And it will be interesting to see whether they will have to move away from their principles on collective bargaining to attract workers from the growing gig economy where union membership is not as popular as in other industries.
Practically speaking though, while the legal definitions on employment status continue to be fiercely debated both in and outside of the legal arena, does this really mean that a worker should be treated differently when it comes to line management?
The law should not feature in the relationship between a worker and their manager. Good relations are vital and so is engagement, regardless of the legal status of any individual.
However, remote management of people, different work patterns and the diverse nature of those workers do require different thinking from organisations.
At the heart of this, and the way in which they engage with their people, must be inclusivity. Particular groups should not be isolated because of their perceived legal status.
Strong line managers make a positive impact on productivity and organisational success. Enlightened organisations not only understand this but also invest in the skills and behaviours of their managers so they can lead effectively. Given the changing nature of the workforce, managers have to be equipped to manage an ever- increasingly diverse workforce and be able to empathise with people’s different needs.
The gig economy, however it may adapt in future years or however it may be badged, is here to stay because consumer habits indicate it is unlikely we will see a reversal in on-demand services.
With this in mind, the HR profession has a responsibility to make sure that the legal status of different groups of workers does not translate into a polarisation of the workforce and the creation of groups who feel they are ‘less than’.
This can only be achieved by valuing all your people and treating them fairly and equitably rather than relying on the law to determine how they are managed.
Andy Cook is CEO of Marshall-James
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