(Photo: HT)
(Photo: HT)

Opinion | Time to evolve rules for the engagement of free agents

Freelancers are by design highly skilled and focused, and can get on to a job with little or no training

By now we have all the confirmation we need that India is in the midst of a serious jobs crisis. First came the leaked National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data with the hard numbers. Expectedly, it was refuted by the government with an eye on the elections. But following its resounding win, one of its first moves after returning to power was the setting up of a cabinet committee to prioritize the creation of new jobs. It was a tacit acknowledgment of the problem of joblessness.

But while the government may have quietly accepted that job creation is a priority, is it even a realistic goal? The fact is even the fastest growing countries are not generating new jobs of the conventional kind, and that’s because post-2008, multinational companies have veered around to temporary or project-based hiring without creating overheads that become a long-term burden.

Data from the Annual Survey of Industries (ASI) shows a surge in the use of contract workers in the organized manufacturing sector in India. The share of contract workers in total employment increased sharply from 15.5% in 2000-01 to 27.9% in 2015-16, while the share of directly hired workers fell from 61.2% to 50.4% over the same period. Over half of the increase in total employment from 7.7 million to 13.7 million between 2000-01 and 2015-16 was accounted for by contract workers.

It is tempting to believe that this trend is restricted to older, blue-collar workers in traditional industries. Not quite. Freelancing is fast becoming the norm among millennial workers across the world. Human resources consultant Randstad estimates that freelancers now comprise 35% of the US workforce, adding up to over 55 million Americans. According to industry publication HR Dive, the number of temporary and independent workers continues to rise in the US as more job seekers look for flexibility. What’s more, data suggests that independent work has not replaced traditional roles, but has created a separate resource of workers (https://www.hrdive.com/about/).

India hasn’t been immune to this rising tide of free agents. A 2018 Future of Jobs report by Ficci-Nasscom and EY, says: “With 24% share of the global online gig economy Indian freelance workers are charting new work arrangements." Commenting on the findings, Anurag Malik, partner, people and organization advisory services, EY India, said: “India is seeing the emergence of gig economy with Indian companies beginning to use online labour. This trend suggests the changing nature of employment in the IT-BPM sector and it is reaffirmed in the report stating that 45% of the survey respondents viewed new ways of working, such as freelancing, as an important mega trend shaping the industry. Hence, we should incorporate online economy resources as part of HR department manpower planning strategies."

According to the 2013-14 Economic Survey, more than 64% of the workforce in India is millennial, described as those between 20 and 35 years of age. Like their peers across the world, this group of people itches to be its own master and work on its terms without the claustrophobic rules that come with full-time work. The trend is already in evidence in sports, with many global cricket stars giving up domestic careers and the chance to play for their countries to turn freelancers, playing for one of the many T20 cricket leagues, around the year.

In the corporate sector, too, the focus is now on delivering a particular product or a service, and the more specialized it is, the lower the chances that such employees will work full-time at a company. In recognition of the changing dynamics of talent, companies like Google, Whole Foods, Apple, Starbucks and IBM have already done away with the requirement of a college degree for some of their top jobs. As an inevitable next step, they are also accepting that such people may choose to operate from outside the purview of formal corporate structures.

The rise of such workers presents unique challenges from a regulatory as well as corporate perspective. While the risk for companies on account of factors like data security and confidentiality issues goes up manifold, handling interpersonal issues as well as physical workplace dynamics (“Where do I sit?", “Why is his cabin larger?") becomes a less onerous burden. Traditional Indian firms with their hidebound attitudes towards work may find the move disconcerting as freelancers shun by-the-clock working and don’t spring to attention when the boss is in. But as work gets broken up into discrete outsourceable tasks, the sheer flexibility that freelancers offer is increasingly breaking down these corporate barriers. Since such freelancers are by design highly skilled and focused, they can get on to a job with little or no training, saving expensive man-days for companies. Indeed, for time-bound, sensitive tasks, a team of specialized freelancers is often the best bet.

Instead of viewing freelancers as avant-garde dilettantes who don’t have any corporate ambitions, companies would do well to look upon them as hospitals do consulting doctors who can be assembled rapidly for an emergency requiring diverse skills ranging from plastic surgery to anaesthesia; and once the patient has been attended to, as swiftly disbanded. Over the next 10 years, a majority of the work in companies may be performed by freelancers. It is time for companies to evolve new rules of engagement for them