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Alice and the Gig Economy

By Robin Gerrow

When it comes to workplace legal issues, not much changes as quickly as the topic of “gig” workers these days. Teaching the next generation of business and industrial-organizational leaders about the subject requires being as nimble in the classroom as businesses must be to keep up with new regulations.

Alice Brawley Newlin, Ph.D., wants to make sure tomorrow’s leaders understand the implications of the gig economy. So, she created the senior capstone class “The Gig Economy” that she has been teaching since 2018 at Gettysburg College as part of the Organization and Management Studies major.

“The class covers what the gig economy is—often defined as some variation of ‘a situation where short-term contracting work is common’—and introduces relevant employment classification and legal frameworks, and surveys the wide variety of gig work platforms,” she said. “We also talk about how the gig economy is representative of many trends in the workforce.” 

As an example of how quickly this field is emerging in I-O, the topic “Gig Economy and Contract Work” has moved up six spots in one year to the fourth most important trend on SIOP’s “Top Ten Workplace Trends.” It changes so rapidly that Brawley Newlin said her class reading list isn’t really finished until the end of the semester.   

“We branch out into covering more particular issues like the day-to-day experience of being a gig worker, how to accurately measure the size of the gig economy, concerns about equal access and evidence of discrimination, impacts on other industries, and questions of ethics,” she explained. “We close out the class by thinking about what management disciplines as a whole have to offer – and to learn – from the gig economy.”

Brawley Newlin sees this branch of I-O psychology as a real opportunity for researchers to explore a rapidly evolving workforce.

“We’ve studied variations of gig work, like contingent and freelance work for a long time,” she said. “The new twist with the gig economy is that we have workers in the same form of employment, but with an app as their ‘manager,’ and that calls into question so many fundamental assumptions about work – what does that mean for leadership, for teamwork, for motivation? Do our current theories apply? How about our measures?”

She continued, “These are questions that I find intriguing, but it's also important that we think about them so that our science can stay relevant to what work is really like for a good portion of the workforce now.”

The first step in advancing the literature on the subject may need to be simply defining what “gig economy” means.

“There's no set definition of the gig economy!” she said. “I can't emphasize how much the definitions vary from source to source, and that's going to be critical as we move forward on trying to reach some consensus about understanding and improving gig work.

“We have a long history of researching alternative work arrangements, multiple job holders, effects of tech on work, etc., but that's not always 100 percent generalizable to gig work,” Brawley Newlin continued. “For example, when we conceptualize contingent workers, often those are workers who still have a physical work space and a relatively long employment contract, compared to someone who drives for Uber – they have no separate workspace from their personal vehicle, and their ‘working’ status can change minute by minute.”

She is concerned that I-O psychology may be a bit behind the curve on this subject and sees that other fields of study have a jumpstart on research when it comes to the gig economy.

“While I-O has a solid history of researching contingent and alternative work arrangements and we have been some recent theoretical works and calls for more research on the gig economy from I-Os, we're years behind other fields like computer science and those studying human-computer interaction who have been thinking about gigs as work, and building up a literature for a long time,” she said. “Between looking at other disciplines and sometimes even citing news articles since they move much faster than peer review, I would say we're looking at some very non-traditional sources to start building our digital gig literature on.”

Keeping up with the evolving legal issues around gig work can be dizzying. Recently, California passed Assembly Bill 5 that would push companies to classify workers as employees rather than contractors.

 “Companies like Uber, who currently classify their rideshare drivers as contractors, could be facing major cost increases when the law goes into effect in January,” she said. “But it's not necessarily settled. Depending on how this pans out, this could trigger a sea change in gig working conditions across other states and gig platforms; or it might be another entry in the long list of appeals and exceptions made and settlements happening with labor laws in light of the gig economy.”

As the gig economy is one of her primary areas of research, Brawley Newlin is looking forward to the broad array of inquiry the topic offers.

“I've studied a variety of topics, including job satisfaction, work motivation, turnover intentions, economic dependence, and occupational stress and health,” she said. “My latest research in this area is looking mainly at the occupational health outcomes of gig work, as well as getting more into the details of accurately measuring these workers' financial dependence. Within the occupational health area, I'm working on investigating the work-family interface as well as experiences and effects of work stressors among gig workers.”

The current—and growing-- reading list for her class is available on her course website and she can be reached via email or her website.

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