The rise of New Zealand’s “Gig Economy,” and how it’s changing the way we do business


Over the past few years, an evolution has occurred. New Zealand has begun playing virtual host to a large number of international platform businesses.

We’ve taken to our Lime scooters, grabbed our Onzo bikes, and ride-shared in our Ola cars. We’ve shopped online and used Afterpay to make transactions.

These ‘platform businesses’ we’ve embraced with such enthusiasm operate 24-hours, every day of the year. They rely on people who can work in different time zones - offering skills from the very technical, through to customer support, logistics, and fulfilment. In short, they rely on the “gig economy.”

This new demand for flexibility has changed the very nature of “work.”

We’re seeing contemporary business models move away from traditional hiring structures - enabling them to meet expansion demands, acquire short-term specialist skills, or meet peak-period demand.

But while these large multi-national platforms can only exist due to the ever-expanding market of flexible workers, record-low unemployment and inadequate pipelines of applicants in growth sectors mean New Zealand businesses are struggling to find great talent.

At the same time, the number of skilled workers looking for more flexibility has never been higher - with a ‘portfolio’ style of working in hot demand from students, parents, entrepreneurs, semi-retirees, and anyone with other commitments outside of work.

If they’re to tap into this deep pool of talent, businesses need to change.

With the exception of businesses with set physical opening hours, most modern companies have few structural reasons for retaining staff on a standard 9-5pm, 40-hour week. In fact, many of the specialist roles required by businesses - including cloud integration, digital marketing, customer management, sales, social media marketing, and logistics - are often better handled by a workforce who don’t have a typical 9-5pm role.

That means there is the opportunity for businesses to create new models of hiring, and new ways of thinking about employment that appeal to those seeking more flexibility in their work.

And it seems some businesses are taking note, with New Zealand beginning to see a rise in remote or flexi-working, co-working spaces, portfolio careers, and even four-day working weeks - all in response to the “gig-economy.”

With critical shortages of available candidates, businesses have begun broadening their view of employment contracts to include the ability to work offsite, work ‘school hours’, work evenings, or work seasonally. This significantly opens up the job market to a larger number of people and increases the likelihood of finding great candidates.

They say the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing, expecting a different outcome.

But in spite of the changes afoot, many employers still work on the basis that employment must be tied to set hours and time sheets - rather than factors like productivity, business needs, and the needs of employees.

If the knowledge, skills, and capabilities of your teams are based upon only hiring staff who meet a narrow and traditional definition of “employment,” then that very rapidly reduces the pool of applicants.

51% of the New Zealand workforce are now millennials, and millennials want flexibility.

This group are the most likely to ask for flexible work hours in their employment contract, are much more likely to want to work for an organisation who are ‘digital-first,’ and respond best to digitalised and cloud-based systems and processes.

The shift driven by millennials is unlikely to slow, as by the end of 2020 - in just over one year’s time - 36% of the global workforce will be made up of the post-millennial Generation Z. A generation who were just children when the first iPhone was released.

These demographic changes represent more than increased dominance of youth in our workplaces. They also mean that, soon enough, a majority of the New Zealand workforce will be made up of those whose expectations will raise serious questions around legacy structures and outdated practices.

Change is hard, but the alternative could be even harder.

It often feels easier to deflect new ways of doing things. It’s easiest to focus on what has always worked, rather than overhaul what is no longer functioning to respond to a highly disruptive world.

Despite this, there are businesses out there who are actively responding to change, deploying ‘talent champions,’ or ‘Heads of People’ - whose job is to curate and compile their future talent needs, and plan for how these skills will be sourced or developed. Whether measures like these are enough remains to be seen.

In the meantime, many still like to imagine the world we know, rather than the world that could come next. To imagine the next generation of staff will reflect the same skills and capabilities we’ve been hiring for years.

Businesses who choose to think this way may soon find that more of the same doesn’t cut it in today’s world. Because diversity of ideas, skills, backgrounds, age, and ethnicity are all critical to an effective response to changing expectations.

Legacy has become a business liability. Rather than keeping it safe, holding on to the way things have always been done could make an organisation an easy mark for obsolescence.