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Fall/Winter 2020 issue

Words by Melissa Rolfe

Whether it’s ride-sharing, food delivery, coding or freelance writing, a December 2019 Statistics Canada report found 8.2 per cent of Canadians were employed in piece work, or gigs, in 2016.

Measuring the Gig Economy in Canada Using Administrative Data describes gig workers as “usually not employed on a long-term basis by a single firm; instead, they enter into various contracts with firms or individuals (task requesters) to complete a specific task or to work for a specific period of time for which they are paid a negotiated sum.”

Some workers enter the gig economy when they can’t find a full-time job and need to string together an income. Others join by choice, tempted by the flexibility, undeterred by the risks.

What’s in it for the gig worker?

According to three Bissett School of Business experts, gig work can pay off, but it takes planning and a shift in thinking about how successful careers are defined.

“You get to use a variety of your skills and abilities when you’re working in different contexts and with different people,” says Melanie Peacock, PhD, associate professor of human resources. The gig economy allows people to be autonomous, test their expertise and manage their own motivation.

While the idea of being their own boss might appeal to many, those who actually take the plunge tend to have an entrepreneurial spirit and an ability to drum up business, says David Finch, PhD, professor of marketing and the associate director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“What we find in the gig economy is the classic hunter-gatherer profile,” he says. “People who are hunters love business development. They’re extroverted and they’re networkers. There’s a natural fit there.”

Other gig workers are introverted specialists, he says. “Their work speaks for them. As they move on in their careers they become recognized for their expertise and the business comes to them.”

Co-working arrangements in shared office spaces are becoming more common for gig workers, allowing for the spreading out of resources and the capitalization on different personality profiles.

Alumni getting “giggy” with it

Photo of Mackenzie Bedford

Words by Ruth Myles

Mackenzie Bedford

Bachelor of Business Administration
— Marketing, 2018

It took landing — then losing — a full-time position over the course of a few weeks for Mackenzie Bedford to fully embrace her commitment to the gig economy.

Bedford left a rewarding position as community manager with Rainforest Alberta in October 2019. She went out on her own as a designer, illustrator, animator and writer. Things went well initially, then slowed down. She got nervous.

“I caved. I applied for jobs and I got one. I was going to be doing events and branding. Then, a week and a half into the job, everyone got laid off because of COVID-19,” Bedford says matter-of-factly. “I took it as a sign to commit even harder to freelancing and not give up. I have leaned into the entrepreneurial side and it’s starting to pick up again.”

The gig economy of today has evolved from the side hustle of the past as a response to the digitization of services and disenfranchisement from corporate work settings, she says.

“A lot of people are starting to see that their skills don’t have to go through a company to find value. People are starting to take the reins themselves. And in Alberta, especially, the gig economy is prevalent because people are sick of that boom and bust cycle.”

The 28-year-old loves the flexibility of calling her own shots. That applies to when and where she works, as well as what type of work she accepts. She specializes in package design, presentations, and reports and social media content, in addition to marketing collateral.

“I find in the gig economy if you are clear about what you are selling, you can get some really cool projects. If you are unclear, that is where it gets tough. I like being able to tell people what I’m worth and not have to negotiate it.”

Bedford, the recipient of a 2018 Jason Lang Scholarship, says Mount Royal provided the foundation for the work she’s doing today.

“Mount Royal was so great about how to move past the school setting and into the job market. It was ‘This is how you get the interviews, this is how you market products.’ I was able to apply a lot of that to my art.”

The downside

The most obvious drawback to gig work is instability.

“To live in the gig economy, you’ve got to accept risk,” Finch cautions. “The narrative sounds great: be independent, travel whenever you want, you’re your own boss.”

But the reality can be far more challenging.

“In a gig economy, your safety net is yourself. Period.”

“At the first downturn a person experiences, depending on their comfort level with risk, what I see is they either double down and say ‘I’m going to make this work’ or they start looking for something else.”

Some are able to ride out the ups and downs because a spouse or partner has a full-time job.

“When someone else is there with a stable income, it’s far more enjoyable. The minute it’s about paying the mortgage and feeding the children it becomes much less fun.”

As Finch notes, “In a gig economy, your safety net is yourself. Period.”

Burnout is another occupational hazard, according to Peacock, who received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the 2020 Canadian Human Resources Awards this year. She says gig workers are often reluctant to say no and will take on more work than they should. They may even put their own health at risk.

“If people don’t have benefits, will they be as willing to take care of themselves?” she asks.

Ormhel Manuel has a front-row seat to shifts in how we work. As an advisor with Platform Calgary — an organization that supports entrepreneurial, technical and innovation capacities — Manuel observes these changes in their infancy as clients create frameworks for how they’ll operate their startups.

For example, one of the organizations he’s working with is fine-tuning a hybrid model. In it, gig workers and traditional employees share the work environment, uniting two streams that are usually separated.

“It brings together so many people with such different skill sets that it creates a rich environment. It’s really dynamic,” Manuel says. “Moving forward, the gig economy is something that I think will be more widely accepted, even in organizations.”

In addition to his advisory role and his work as a freelance product designer, Manuel has served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Mount Royal for the past two years. The 25-year-old advises students that being nimble and open to new ways of working are skills that will serve them well.

“It feels like consultancy and the gig economy is blending together,” Manuel says, who supplemented his degree with concentrations in finance and innovation and entrepreneurship.

Manuel started a cleaning company with his partner in his first year at MRU (which they later sold to a property management company), thinking of the venture as a problem-solving exercise. An entrepreneurship course in his third year opened doors to additional possibilities. In 2017, he earned $30,000 in Mount Royal’s JMH LaunchPad competition for an idea that became CarBerri, an online vehicle buy and sell service. He also took home $8,000 at Calgary’s Innovation Rodeo the same year.

Manuel made the hard decision to shut down CarBerri in the fall of 2019, but celebrates the skills and connections he forged along the way. Today, his work as a freelance product designer puts him at the “intersection of business and design.” He finds solutions for his clients’ business challenges while also addressing issues such as usability.

“I’ve had to work in a lot of areas. Working at a startup, my own as well as others, you are forced to wear so many different hats,” he says. “I have lots more to learn. One thing about the gig economy is that you are really only limited by yourself.”

How to succeed

It takes more than a good idea to be successful. The fundamentals, Finch says, are experience and connections.

“The things that predict success in the gig economy are evidence of quality in a portfolio of past projects and the ability to build a business because you’ve got a roster of clients for consistent project work.

“Walking out of a university and into a gig is a very difficult thing to do unless you have those two ingredients in place already.”

Instead, he advises younger workers to build up their credentials through different jobs for several years and then freelance.

“Gig work sounds good on paper — and it can be — but it really needs a lot of strategic planning and forethought.”

The successful gig worker also needs time-management skills, and the ability to negotiate and communicate well with clients, Peacock says. “You have to be very careful and understand the parameters of what is expected. It’s about setting boundaries and a lot of self care.

“Gig work sounds good on paper — and it can be — but it really needs a lot of strategic planning and forethought,” she adds.

That includes some basic business planning, according to Nicole Edge, PhD, assistant professor of accounting.

“That can seem really daunting for folks, but it comes down to: ‘What do I need to earn? Who are my potential customers? How much can I charge? What can I generate? Can I actually make a living from that?’ There is something that is truly freeing about seeing it in black and white in front of you.”

Edge recommends keeping it simple, especially in the first year. Don’t buy insurance, register as a business or get a GST number unless required. “You can earn a certain amount before you have to charge GST and for the vast majority of (early) gigs I don’t think you need to go to that level.”

When it comes to compensation, people often pay themselves what’s left over after covering their costs, but Edge says that’s not a strategy for the long term.

“Work it backwards,” she says. “If you know you need to work 10 hours in order to pay your rent, that puts you in the driver’s seat. That’s the key to doing this kind of work: knowing what you need to do. That reverse engineering is a more helpful way to look at it.”

Photo of Jacinthe Koddo

Jacinthe Koddo

Bachelor of Applied Interior Design, 2006

A love of learning partnered with design thinking has taken Jacinthe Koddo to the forefront of the gig economy.

After graduating from Mount Royal, Koddo followed her interests and forged a path that eventually led her to co-found Tandem Innovation Group. The Vancouver-based company is an affiliate firm of independent controllers, bookkeepers, chief financial officers and more, and is representative of a new kind of gig economy.

“We help companies from startup to exit through a financial lens. We have two main groups: companies and entrepreneurs who don’t have that finance or businessperson on their team yet, and our Tandem network who are contract controllers, CFOs, CMOs, HR and more,” explains Koddo, who is also Tandem’s director of client experience. “We’re a matchmaker for companies.”

Tandem’s network of 154 members perform as though they’re internal to their client companies, but serve in “fractional roles.” Most of the members are experienced entrepreneurs or have spent time in startups, so are familiar with the dig-in-and-get-going culture.

Before Tandem, as a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” Koddo launched her first venture in 2008. It was a reaction to being laid off from the junior interior designer position she landed in Toronto after graduating from Mount Royal. A government program gave her a grounding in business as well as provided ongoing mentorship as she built a prepared meal delivery service. After moving back to Calgary, she picked up more entrepreneurial knowledge while working for a small business.

Through it all, Koddo pushed herself to learn new skills and to constantly network. Those traits served her well when she relocated to Vancouver. A stint with a creative leadership school helped her see herself — and her skills — through a new lens.

“Because of my design thinking background, I look at the world and say, ‘Oh, that’s a problem that I can solve,’ or ‘I wonder how it would turn out if we tried this.’ ”

While attending a brush-up bookkeeping course for entrepreneurs, she met her current business partners, Tania Lo and Sean Hodgins. Koddo started to work with Hodgins’ business, Tandem Accounting Group. From there, she expanded her skillset and Tandem Innovation Group was launched in October 2018. Koddo is also a member of Tandem’s expert network. She’s a contract CFO/COO for a number of companies and runs her own consulting business.

For her, the ability to choose on what and with whom she works is the real upside of the gig economy. “I have to really believe in the project and be values-aligned with the founder to join the team.”

Simple, unshaded, cartoony computer illustration of people on the screens of different digital devices. There is one person with a cat on an iPad and an animation connects his screen to others as they pop in.

The future of gig work

What’s predictable about gig work is that it’s here to stay. “More and more of us are going to have to face this as a long-term reality of earning a living,” Edge says.

“In our culture we have this story that we like to tell that if you work hard, get an education, you’ll get a job and be set for life. What we’re facing, and have been facing for a long time, is that’s not the reality anymore.”

Both Edge and Peacock say it’s time for some of the rules to change to make gig work a more viable option for more people.

“In our culture we have this story that we like to tell that if you work hard, get an education, you’ll get a job and be set for life. What we’re facing, and have been facing for a long time, is that’s not the reality anymore.”

Peacock recommends employers reconsider the terms they offer part-time workers and potential obligations to provide overtime pay, benefits and holiday pay. This will provide more stability as people venture out on their own to generate the remainder of their income.

Edge says policies and tax structures are lagging and need to be updated, too. “We’re still buying into that myth of the 40-hour work week, set-for-life-salary kind of position. We’re missing the opportunity. We’re missing the upside.”

When people succeed at gig work, society as a whole benefits, too, according to Edge.

“If we think that work has to be done in a certain way, it inhibits our ability to innovate,” she says. “And if we think that we can’t afford to do gig work, then it inhibits our ability to take on those risks.

“Those risks are the places where I believe our community will end up benefiting — those creative ideas that come from stringing things together.”

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