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Whether you thrive on autonomy or just need something temporary until your next full-time job, gig work is becoming more commonplace. Research by Gallup found that 36% of U.S. workers have a gig work arrangement of one form or another, and 64% say they like it that way.
Years ago, Sue Ashford, chair of the management and organizations group at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, became interested in why some gig workers flourished while others struggled. At the time, she was living next door to a successful ceramicist.
“I thought, ‘How does she do it?’ On a dark January morning she’d go to the studio even though no one was expecting her and no one was giving her a raise,” says Ashford. “It struck me that an organization has structures that facilitate and support work, and provide a work identity. People who work independently don’t have that.”
Ashford says we all want to know who we are and where we fit in, and an employer answers those questions for you. “‘I work for Ford’ or ‘I work for Google,’” she says. “You may not love the answer, but it’s an answer. It gives you an identity, and you’re expected to show up. With independent workers, no one will care or wonder or expect something of them if they don’t show up.”
Intrigued about what makes some succeed in this environment, Ashford studied successful gig workers and found four key connections that replace what an employer traditionally provides.
1. Connection to people
Successful gig workers build routine contact with other humans into their day, says Ashford. It could be a client, colleague, or even a spouse–but most people need someone to talk with routinely who gives them reassurance on a bad day and reminds them that what they’re doing is important.
“It’s someone who encourages them to be bold, to go further,” says Ashford. “If they didn’t have them, they would be lost.”
2. Connection to place
Successful people who don’t go to an office are often thoughtful about their workplace and how they set it up. Ashford interviewed an independent software developer who described his work world as a “battle” to get clients and get paid.
“I asked him to describe where he works, and he said he has it set up like the cockpit of fighter jet plane, all of his equipment at the ready,” says Ashford.
It’s all about finding what works for you. A screenwriter worked in bed where he felt safe and warm, and his mind could wander. And a writer worked in a six-by-eight-foot shack on his property. “Any bigger and I lose focus. I need a small space to keep me contained,” he says.
3. Connection to routines
Gig workers also create routines that help them transition between home and professional life. “Many told me they get up every day, shower, pray, make coffee, and then go into their office,” says Ashford. “Then they have a routine for transitioning back to family life at the end of the day.”
Patterns are important for everyone, but especially those who have autonomy. “Routines are the wardens of accomplishment,” says Ashford.
4. Connection to purpose
The final thing that helped gig workers thrive is having an underlying purpose. “Purpose gives you resilience for the ups and downs,” says Ashford. Having a clearly defined goal can help you decide what jobs to take–and which ones to skip. For example, one filmmaker Ashford studied chooses to make movies that support women. “If she got other pitches, having a purpose made it easy for her to say ‘no,’” says Ashford.
These four types of connections is crucial, Ashford believes. “Missing one or two can cause anxiety, and an inability to stay focused on doing the work. The four connections are necessary for staying productive when no one is telling you what to do.”