Is Company Culture Meaningless in the Freelance Economy?

As the economy has evolved in recent years, conversations about employee expectations have changed along with it. Elaborate offices boasting ping-pong tables and free lunches, many of us now agree, mistake perks for culture.

There is a growing focus today on the more human aspects of work – things like alignment with the company culture, philanthropic opportunities, feeling like part of a team, and working toward a more meaningful purpose than the bottom line. According to Glassdoor research, higher-earning employees report increased job satisfaction when they feel more positive about company culture and values. Receiving appreciation is also a top driver of employee satisfaction. Salary is still relevant, but cannot serve as a company's sole differentiator in the talent market.

Decades ago, employees could trust their employers would help them meet their needs through clear, albeit bureaucratic, promotion paths and annual raises. Back then, market trends changed more gradually, making this stable approach to employment possible. However, technological advances in the 1980s – and ever since then – have caused the market to change at a more rapid pace. In response, organizational structures have changed.

The pace of change and the corresponding decrease in job security has radically changed what the workforce has come to expect from employers. Many companies are no longer able to promise job stability. Further, given all the public scandals, the high-profile corruption, the all-too-common inequality, and the pervasive abuse, the workforce is growing increasingly skeptical of corporate intentions. Perhaps to compensate for all of this, employees are demanding more from their employers and from organizational leaders.

Today's workers look beyond surface-level perks, which is why company culture has become a key talking point for recruiters, HR pros, managers, leaders, and scholars. It is a point of differentiation in the talent market, and its impact on performance has been heavily researched and discussed.

But the business world finds itself facing yet another transformation. Even as company culture remains a hot topic, leaders are growing concerned that the shift toward an on-demand workforce in the global economy will impact the cultures they have worked so hard to cultivate.

More and more professionals are opting out of traditional full-time work in favor or part-time or contract opportunities. Also called the "gig economy" or "freelance economy," this new workforce impacts more than ridesharing apps. Companies from a wide variety of industries now hire contractors, part-timers, and project-based employees who have no intention of taking full-time or long-term jobs.

On-demand work gives people greater flexibility and the chance to earn more. It is no surprise, then, that on-demand workers are projected to outnumber traditional employees in the U.S. by 2020. How will this massive wave of freelancers and gig workers affect the carefully crafted company cultures of today's businesses? Have business leaders mistakenly placed too much emphasis on building corporate cultures just to hire employees who don't work full-time?

In an ongoing workforce pulse survey from Waggl, many respondents have signaled their concern about "lack of connection" and cultural misalignment in the freelance era. Cultural alignment is related to engagement, and engagement is linked to performance. Therefore, some leaders and workers fear that if gig workers do not feel connected to a company culture, those gig workers will not perform at high levels. Other company leaders have begun to wonder if the material perks of their offices – those ping pong tables and free lunches –will impact freelance employees' motivations and engagement.

The question, ultimately, is this: Can companies shift yet again to meet the needs of this growing segment of our workforce? And if they can, what should that shift look like?

A version of this article originally appeared on the Waggl blog.

Waggl is the most human way for organizations to crowdsource feedback.