New Research Debunks Big Assumptions About Gig and External Workers

Findings offer guidance for managers, HR and organizations seeking to recruit and retain external talent

June 24, 2019

LAS VEGAS, June 24, 2019—New research conducted by SHRM and SAP SuccessFactors suggests that some common thinking about external workers, widely referred to as "gig workers," simply doesn't hold up. Despite the popular perception that most external workers can't find a steady full-time job, the majority (74 percent) indicated that is not the case.

In fact, nearly 1 in 5 external workers prefer external work, and about one-third reported earning more money as an external worker. When asked what persuaded them to become an external worker, respondents cited three top reasons:

  • Setting my own schedule (49 percent)
  • Choosing how many hours I work (40 percent)
  • Working from any location (33 percent)

Notably, workers and organizations shared two major reasons for their interest in external work: autonomy and flexibility. Workers want flexibility in hours and location; employers appreciate the flexibility to increase and reduce their workforce based on business demands.

"This research is, by far, the broadest examination of external workers to date," said Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SHRM's chief knowledge officer. "By collecting and incorporating multiple perspectives, we produced a unique view of external workers and identified not only how they are misunderstood at present but also how they might be managed better in the future."

The research also found that both managers and HR may not really understand what motivates external workers and makes them feel most positive about work. Managers and HR both overestimated the extent to which the opportunity for an internal position motivated external workers and somewhat underestimated external workers' interest in bonus compensation for good work.

When asked to speculate on which benefits might attract external workers to their organizations, managers and HR overestimated the value of both health care and paid time off to these workers. Retirement benefits, on the other hand, were far more important to external workers than either HR or managers believed.

Surprisingly, external workers reported "being recognized for contributions at work" as the factor that most encouraged them to perform their best and said that being thanked—more so than a bonus or being paid on time—was the factor that made them feel the most positive about a work experience.

"The size and importance of the external workforce continues to grow. As a society, we need to create conditions where external work is a more viable work arrangement for businesses and workers alike," said Autumn Krauss, principal scientist, Human Capital Management Research, SAP SuccessFactors. "The first step in doing this is understanding all stakeholders' points of view, which we've done with this research program. Our research with SHRM will help organizations increase the maturity of their approach to external workforce management through better cultural integration, total workforce practices and technology applications, resulting in a positive external worker experience and business impact."

Also of note were the legal challenges faced by human resources in dealing with external workers. Nearly three out of four HR professionals reported concern about the legal landscape of external workers. To address these and other concerns, SHRM and SAP SuccessFactors are publishing a toolkit on the employment of external workers this September, which will help business leaders and HR professionals to use external workers strategically and effectively while complying with regulatory limits.

Hear from the research report authors at SHRM's Annual Conference & Exposition: The survey findings will be detailed in the concurrent session "Talent Strategies for Employing Contractors & External Workers," from 10:45 to 11:45 a.m. PT on Tuesday, June 25, in Las Vegas.

Press Briefing: Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SHRM's chief knowledge officer, and Autumn Krauss, principal scientist, Human Capital Management Research, SAP SuccessFactors, will present research findings at SHRM's Annual Conference & Exposition in room N263 of the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, June 24, from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. PT. Press briefing is available by conference call; contact SHRM Media Relations for dial-in information.

MEDIA: For more information about the research project or to schedule an interview, please contact Cooper Nye at 248-756-1123 and Cooper.nye@shrm.org or Vanessa Hill at 703-535-6072 and Vanessa.hill@shrm.org.

Methodology: The survey of managers, external workers and internal employees was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. More than 1,700 interviews were collected in April 2019 using the Amerispeak® Panel and were supplemented with 102 interviews from a nonprobability sample source, Lucid. Data were weighted to reflect the population of U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately plus or minus 4 percentage points. The survey of 1,178 HR professionals randomly selected from SHRM's membership was conducted in March and April of 2019. It has an approximate margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. 

About SHRM

SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, creates better workplaces where employers and employees thrive together. As the voice of all things work, workers and the workplace, SHRM is the foremost expert, convener and thought leader on issues impacting today's evolving workplaces. With 300,000+ HR and business executive members in 165 countries, SHRM impacts the lives of more than 115 million workers and families globally. Learn more at shrm.org and on Twitter @SHRM.

About SAP SuccessFactors

SAP SuccessFactors is one of the largest cloud-based human capital management (HCM) providers in the world. The SAP SuccessFactors HCM Suite helps customers deliver exceptional workplace experiences at every moment that matters, use intelligence to strengthen engagement across the entire workforce, and join a community defining the future of work. The industry-leading SAP SuccessFactors solutions help more than 6,700 customers around the world turn purpose into performance.


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