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Virus’ Vitality as a Lesson for GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials & Gen-Z)

India’s gig sector is expected to grow to $455 billion by 2024, at a compounded annual growth rate of 17 per cent. As per some estimates, the US gig workforce already contributes over $1.5 trillion and 80% of large companies plan to actively adopt a flexible workforce.

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A tiny piece of nucleic acid surrounded by a little coat of protein is all that a virus really is! That makes it the smallest of all microbes, devoid of cells and unable to stay stable, grow or generate its own energy.

No wonder then, it needs a host organism to thrive in. It is still a matter of debate whether it is living or non-living or whether it pre-dates humans. This complexity earns viruses, their own classification outside the five ‘kingdoms’ we were taught in middle-school biology. They have got a lot of rap as pathogens, but actually perform a range of little-known useful functions, from making some plants drought or cold resistant, to killing tumour cells in mammals.


This article is certainly not about viruses or their evolution. It is just that the Gig Economy, Millennials & Gen-Z (GEMZ) are in a somewhat similar situation of not being fully understood, yet much discussed and debated and sometimes neglected as “those youngsters”; and there are parallels to draw, interestingly, from what we know of viruses.

We can agree that the Gig Economy is a free-market system in which companies look to work with independent freelancers, as opposed to hiring full-time workers. India’s gig sector is expected to grow to $455 billion by 2024, at a compounded annual growth rate of 17 per cent. As per some estimates, the US gig workforce already contributes over $1.5 trillion and 80% of large companies plan to actively adopt a flexible workforce.

But the unasked question is this: “does gig working promote flexibility, empowerment and entrepreneurship at work, or is it really a form of opportunistic exploitation?”

We cannot discuss the Gig Economy without bringing Millennials and Gen-Z into the picture. As per studies, Millennials would account for 75% of the global workforce by 2025 and 64% of full-time Millennial workers globally, want to have at least some participation in the gig workforce. India has the world’s largest youth population with Gen-Zs expected to contribute the most significantly to the demographic dividend over the next few decades. This discussion then becomes even more meaningful for us to ensure India does justice to its natural advantage.

Millennials and Gen-Z come into the workplace with a different world-view and expectations. But once again, the jury is out on whether they are an ambitious and entitled lot, always in search of ‘what’s in it for me’, or if they will break the shackles of the legacy-organisations. It is Millennials and Gen-Z who will soon lead every aspect of life. There are a few lessons business leaders and HR experts will do well to learn fast - if they have to survive and thrive in the new world order.

Get ‘acellular’ and agile with structures

The Gig Economy, Millennials, Gen-Z and subsequent generations will force organisations to move towards ‘acellular structures’, with complete flexibility and agility.

Meaningful work that fosters a sense of purpose and values, will trump titles and job descriptions for the gig generation. This will happen more and more as gig talent is deployed more strategically across roles, functions and industries, and not only as a low-cost short-term measure. In response, HR will need to enable goal-driven, flexible, team-based, hierarchy-agnostic and remote working structures, through transfer of ownership and control to business.

Lead with learning content, not calendars

This may seem far-fetched today, but learning does not seep into the organisation, often because it is another chore and performance indicator for all. The present as well as future workforces will need unlearning, reskilling, multi-skilling and lifelong-learning, more than ever before.

The HR (hard reality) for the Human Resource function is for them to quickly be the strategic enabler of efficient business growth. They need to get focus on training for how to use the available resources, how to get line managers to mentor and how to create experiences that enable learning, rather than enforce it with success metrics.

Human beings, much like viruses, operate on the principles of natural selection. Only those who have strong ‘mutation’ capabilities’ and lack rigidity, will survive in the long run. Those wired for this natural selection will automatically adapt – HR’s ‘learning calendar’ notwithstanding!

Simplifying things does not make them simplistic

Today, viruses are so small and simple, they can’t even replicate on their own, without living inside the host.

In a manner of speaking, HR needs to be that deeply embedded in the business. It needs to stop using the ‘corporate custodian’ mindset to issue complex and rigid systems; and instead, operate like a service provider that needs to achieve the customer’s goals and yet do what is right.

Here is a simple three-point idea :

· Wear only the lens of the customer; in this case business; and design based on that (we don’t need complex design-thinking lessons for this).

· Set goals of employee experience and engagement for all processes – all other metrics will fall in place as an outcome.

· Integrate all people processes with one unified language and philosophy – from recruitment and onboarding to succession and transitioning-out.

Hero to anti-hero

This is where the hero of our story starts to become the anti-hero and we focus on the two things it is simply notorious for – fairness in choosing the host organism, and growing a culture.

If you didn’t know this already, unlike bacteria, viruses cannot be grown in a synthetic culture, unless the animal host cells are first grown in a synthetic medium.

Obsess with fairness and mental health

We have already seen what happened in the UK with Uber, with rulings in favour of drivers, making them entitled to minimum wages and benefits. In India, consider just this – according to estimates, 135 million people stand to lose their jobs due to the pandemic. Add to this the impact of exponential technological changes, resulting from Artificial Intelligence and automation, which in IT and ITES alone are expected to impact 65% of the four million jobs, you can nearly guarantee that the next pandemic facing us is of mental health.

Affirmative action from corporations, fair play and protection of social contracts between the organisation and the gig workforce will be an integral part of HR’s mandate. Employee Relations, carrying the baggage of the industrial era, and one of the least preferred career choices within HR today, will soon be back in fashion as organisations will want to be best employers for not just their permanent workforce but gig workers as well.

Find redemption in Culture

It’s the one subject that’s been done to death, but the only one that HR needs to be custodian of. What do we mean by culture, though? Nothing beyond what we already know – the shared practices, rituals, habits, beliefs and values that organisations are made of. What they hold dear and what they abhor.

Throughout the pandemic, organisations have demonstrated incredible agility in changing business models and operating processes. Embedding this will be vital, as we move forward.

The Gig Economy is attracting Millennials and later generations because it offers them flexible work arrangements, the ability to work from home, a variety of experiences, and a sense of meaning. Acceptance and encouragement of this micro-entrepreneur culture, mobility and diversity is something HR will need to nurture – both for those already inside and desirous of becoming part of the gig workforce, and those out there already-gigging.

Providing consistent and constructive feedback to fuel growth, as well as seeking feedback to provide a sense of value, will be differentiators of organisational culture in the times to come.


The disruptions of a changing marketplace for both employers and employees means organisations need to create transformational talent management strategies and operating models to identify, select and manage the best talent from multiple sources.

HR will need to imbibe and display three core behaviours – Anticipation and Adaptability to the new models, Agility in thought and action, and Accountability to deliver tangible business impact. Act now!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Bhawana Mishra

People Practice transformation advisor

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