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How Workers with a “Gig Mindset” Can Help Your Company Thrive

How Workers with a “Gig Mindset” Can Help Your Company Thrive

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The pandemic has shown that companies need to be proactively resilient — to use the crisis as a learning experience and an opportunity to transform into something new and stronger. Flexible companies can assemble teams quickly, draw on collective knowledge and find expertise inside and outside of the organization, communicate strategic messages to the workforce, and collect information from employees in the field in real time. To build those capabilities, constant learning needs to be part of the company’s culture.

Large-scale change or learning programs aren’t the answer. While they’re well intentioned, they’re generally structured from the top down, and the majority of them fail because they don’t enable people to take individual initiative.

Instead, companies should enable employees to become “gig mindsetters”: what I call a bold new breed of full-time, salaried employees who think and act like freelancers. Gig mindsetters are constant learners — they self-manage, take spontaneous initiative, focus on skills more than roles, feel free to shortcut processes, and don’t hesitate to question the status quo. They share what they learn with others, take ownership of their own personal growth, and feel confident in their ability to influence people.

A gig mindset learning culture starts within individuals and grows to serve both people and the organization. Here’s what we can learn from two very different companies that cultivated gig mindset learning cultures by putting people in control while maintaining a complementary focus on the organization.

Learn, Apply, Share

I talked with Dany De Grave, senior director of digital transformation at Sanofi, a diversified global health care company present in more than 170 countries. With the help of a few colleagues, De Grave developed a “learn, apply, share” strategy. People who want to kick off their own learning actions are asked to complete a formal but simple one-page document that poses six questions:

Formalizing the individual initiative on paper makes it part of the job, not a sideline or after-hours task. People are encouraged to share their learning in a dedicated Yammer community and in local onsite communities.

How Workers with a “Gig Mindset” Can Help Your Company Thrive

A “learn, apply, share” initiative can help organizations retain talent, as illustrated by the path taken by an ambitious employee who decided to learn new skills on his own with the intention of changing companies for a new job. De Grave told me:

Sanofi retained a talented employee by supporting his learning officially and enabling him to apply and share it within the company.

Lifting Engagement Internally and Externally

Nishith Desai Associates (NDA), a 31-year-old international law firm with 120 employees and a presence in Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America, was recognized by the Financial Times as “India’s most innovative law firm” for six years. They provide strategic advice in future-oriented areas of law, such as blockchain and virtual currencies, internet of things, artificial intelligence, privatization of outer space, drones, robotics, virtual reality, and nanotechnology.

Nanda Majumdar, leader of strategy and transformation, explained how the gig mindset became part of the company’s culture: “We embraced the gig mindset starting in 2016 by shifting from a traditional partnership hierarchy to a networked leadership model, based on self-responsibility and self-management.”

Nonstop learning is important, and NDA is often described as a “law school after law school” where each employee is required to do one hour of learning every single day. During the pandemic, NDA developed a Client Continuing Education Program (cCep), which extended beyond clients and potential clients to include other professionals like lawyers, accountants, bankers, and the larger community, including law students. It was designed specifically to offer guidance during the challenging conditions people were experiencing and included online webinars, such as “Covid-19: Force Majeure — Can Parties Renege from Their Contracts?,” “How Do We Accelerate Drone Deliveries During Lockdown?,” and “How Would Covid-19 Affect Acquiring Distressed Businesses in India?”

cCep, which ran for approximately 300 episodes until the end of lockdown, benefitted NDA internally by lifting engagement, focus, and unity, and externally by supporting clients, many of whom were in deep flux and distress. According to Majumdar, “Clients have been able to benefit from our expertise and that of people in our network, such as top politicians, bureaucrats, economists, policy makers, investment bankers, venture capitalists, industry experts, entrepreneurs, and domain experts.”

The result? Today, NDA is a thriving contributor to the vast regulatory, industry, policy, and government firmament in India, and the employees have a reinforced sense of purpose.

People want a sense of purpose more so today than ever before. A gig mindset work culture lets purpose come alive for individuals and organizations.

Company Self-Assessment

To determine whether your organization has a gig mindset learning culture, think about these questions, discuss with others, and discover action areas for yourself and your organization.

Flow of information and ideas

Teams and experimenting

Horizon scanning

Retaining Gig Mindsetters

Fostering a gig mindset learning culture is a retention issue — if gig mindsetters encounter repeated obstacles, they may decide to look for more fulfilling places to work. This is easier to do now that established organizations are actively seeking new talent and small businesses and startups abound. One employee in a 100-person startup told me: “We just got a new guy in our company. He’s about 35 or so and used to work pretty high up at [name of globally famous company]. He resigned and came here. He’s making much less money, he says, but the work is more interesting, and he’s enjoying himself much more.” And this, from a senior manager at a large company: “If I as a manager don’t encourage the gig mindset, I will lose both the motivation and in the end the best people.”

The paradox for leaders is that gig mindsetters behave in ways that can appear deviant. Challenging the status quo is a big deal in most organizations and can carry professional risks for employees if managers feel threatened. Gig mindsetters can encounter problems at work because managers see their behaviors as disrespectful, undisciplined, and self-centered. Those managers don’t understand positive deviance, where the so-called negative behaviors actually bring benefits to the organization as a whole. As one research participant told me, “The gig mindset includes a level of loyalty to the organization and not the process. It is a willingness to make things better.” The following table shows how behaviors that may be perceived as deviant are actually beneficial to the organization.

See more HBR charts in Data & Visuals

Success in today’s fast-changing world requires organizations to be in a permanent state of flexibility, able to react quickly when necessary. Sanofi’s and NDA’s innovative learning initiatives illustrate how a gig mindset learning culture offers employees a chance to think about their purpose and define new roles. At the same time, they result in a culture of continual learning with engaged employees, making organizations stronger and proactively resilient.

Author’s Note (1/28/22): The cases above are based on interviews with Sanofi and NDA in April – May, 2020.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to clarify that the cCep program has ended.