Motivating a Contingent Workforce

Most of us work because we must. There are bills to pay. How well we perform, however, is another matter. Our performance at work will depend on many factors, some of which are beyond our control. Do we know what is expected of us and why this matters? Do we understand what excellence looks like in our job? Do we have a boss who appears to know how we’re performing and reflect this understand in the sanctions we face? And so on.

Credible research indicates that these environmental factor account for something like 30% of performance. Even a well skilled and enthusiastic employee can underperform in a sub-optimal environment. It’s hard to kick goals, obviously, when the goal posts are shifting. Similarly, it’s tempting to settle for ‘good enough’ without a clear picture of ‘exemplary’ for which to strive; or the boss doesn’t seem to care about the scoreboard anyway.

Traditionally it has been up to managers to set goals and performance standards; and they’ve also been accountable for monitoring employee performance and providing feedback. In so doing, they’ve shaped the work environment – some for better and some for worse – but the traditional workforce model is becomes less common.

As a self-employed management consultant I have many bosses rather than one. I work on the basis of a contract with each client that stipulates performance outcomes. Standards can be harder to specify, but we generally get to these during the project, and feedback is provided thereafter at a de-brief session. So I work in an environment that allows me to construct the conditions needed to motivate my performance. I wonder, though, who holds this responsibility with respect to Australia’s growing contingent workforce; and how these employees and/or contractors are likely to perform as a consequence.

There are many risks associated with a contingent workforce: misclassification of jobs leading to legal action; questions about employer-offered benefits and workers compensation depending on the type of worker hired; non-compliance with governmental taxes, such as payroll taxes; inadequately executed contracts between either the contracting vendor or the individual worker; contract workers being less willing to share their knowledge in order to maintain their contract status; co-employment – ensuring workers aren’t working for multiple organizations that create legal conflicts; or animosity from the regular employees that view the contingent worker as possibly getting better work or working conditions.

I suspect that a further risk deserves consideration: the performance leakage that follows a failure to create a motivating environment.