Digital & Insights

The Gig Economy: Connecting with Contractors in the Time of COVID-19

With most of the U.S. nearing its second month of lockdown, many companies have established their public messaging around COVID-19. Commercials have aired featuring home videos and shots of employees on the front lines; donations have been made supporting medical and other causes; press releases have gone out emphasizing commitments to communities and more.

But, voicing support and actually providing it are two different things. In many cases, essential workers have said they are not getting the hygiene products or support they need to do their jobs safely during the pandemic. Workers have struggled to get sick pay or unemployment, citing insufficient communication as a source of frustration. This disparity between official company communications and what workers are saying is especially prevalent in the gig economy, where ridesharing or delivery companies are particularly in the spotlight.

Dangers of the Disconnect

When a company’s external narrative differs dramatically from the experience of the workers it can lead to dangerous reputational outcomes. Gig contractors have recently voiced dissatisfaction to the media and have organized on social channels to advocate for safer working conditions. Instead of internal discussions about these issues that then (hopefully) get addressed at the appropriate levels, the concerns of contractors (true or not) have been arbitrated in a very public forum – the internet. A recent survey by FTI Consulting found nearly 8 in 10 Americans are paying more attention to company actions during the pandemic (specifically, 89% of Americans surveyed said they were paying at least somewhat more attention than usual to how companies care for their employees’ safety and well-being). What is more, neglecting employee needs during the pandemic stood out to Americans almost five times more than government missteps.

Negative stories gaining traction on social is always concerning for companies and their reputation, but it has become an even bigger threat during COVID-19. FTI Consulting found that half of the American public is reporting significant increases in social media usage, suggesting stories have greater potential to be shared and viewed by a wider audience. Using digital analytics platforms, FTI found that for top gig economy companies providing essential services, average Facebook shares for negative stories were 1.9 times higher than for positive stories, and 84% of these stories centered around worker relations.

Every essential worker needs support and appreciation, but the gig economy has additional employee-relations challenges. Contractors may feel less connected to companies, making it easy for them to go work for a competitor, voice dissatisfactions to the media or organize movements online and off. During a recent interview with Democracy Now, a member of the Gig Workers Collective said that as the pandemic has progressed, he’s felt more “expendable” than essential. This fatigue will only continue to grow after Stay at Home orders are rescinded but people continue to rely on deliveries and personal shopping to mitigate their own risk of exposure.

Contractors Need to Be Heard and Valued

To lessen the chance of a disconnect with contractors, gig economy companies ensure they are communicating directly with workers and making them feel heard and valued, especially as the pandemic normalizes. When it comes to engaging positively with gig economy contractors, companies should consider:

  • Equipping the right people with the right information: Gig economy companies need to provide their workers with supplies consistently and put forth targeted communications to ensure their widespread workforce knows how and where to get PPE. Companies should employ geotargeted advertisements and email communications to inform workers how and where to pick up equipment in their specific geography, rather than communicating to the masses.

They should also look to partner companies for sourcing and digital tools for information sharing. Fashionalcohol and beauty companies are increasingly shifting production toward equipment for essential workers, and provide an opportunity to source PPE from local operations, cutting down on transportation time

  • Promoting Pride by Crowdsourcing Content: User-generated content (UGC) lets individuals create content that shapes public perception of a brand. While placing the brand in users’ hands sounds scary, it can build strong emotional connections between users and brands. In the case of the gig economy, companies can crowdsource footage from contractors at work to highlight to the public how their workers’ lives have changed during the crisis. Companies can celebrate their workers by putting together a montage of thank you videos from the people who have used their services.

UGC ads proliferate. To ensure messages reach the desired audience, digital advertisements should be specifically targeted to contractors. This creates a virtuous cycle of feedback – gig economy contractors get to share their stories, and see those stories being shared back with them and the American public. This enables companies to not only forge a stronger bond with their existing workers but also inspire potential new workers to join and help provide solutions during the crisis.

  • Staying vigilant and responsive: Throughout the pandemic, Twitter and Medium have been primary channels for employees to voice their need for greater support – keeping an eye on these platforms can help companies stay on top of areas for improved worker relations before concerns make their way to news outlets.

When it comes to successful relations with gig economy workers, communicating clearly, following through with promises, celebrating contractors and ensuring their struggles are heard (and addressed) will help companies earn favor both internally and externally. As digital disruptors, gig economy companies are poised to weather COVID-19 more successfully than other industries – if they continue to keep their workers happy and safe.


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