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The needs of freelancers and the characteristics of ‘gigs’: Creating beneficial relations between freelancers and their hiring organizations

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More and more workers in Western economies are operating as freelancers in the so-called ‘gig economy’, moving from one project—or gig—to the next. A lively debate revolves around the question as to whether this new employment relationship is actually good for innovation in the 21 st century economy. Proponents argue that in this gig process valuable knowledge is created and transferred from one organization to the next via freelancers through their sequence of temporary gigs or projects. Antagonists reason that freelancers are only hired as one-trick ponies on a transactional basis, where knowledge is neither created nor shared. In this study, we focus on the characteristics of gigs. Which project characteristics lead to increased engagement of freelancers, and hence to knowledge-sharing behavior? Our study suggests that the gig economy can indeed lead to increased knowledge sharing by and engagement of freelance workers, provided that organizations and freelancers structure and shape gigs in such a way that they: (1) not only suit the task requirements at hand and (2) fit with the acquired skills of the freelancer, but that these gigs also (3) leave ample of room for the freelancer’s individual growth and development of new skills. This suggests that innovative organizations will need to shape gigs in such a way that freelancers are not only hired for their expertise, but rather that gigs also provide a learning opportunity for freelancers.
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RESEARCHARTICLE
The needs of freelancers and the characteristics of ‘gigs’:
Creating beneficial relations between freelancers and their
hiring organizations [version 1; referees: awaiting peer review]
MelodyBarlage , ArjanvandenBorn , ArjenvanWitteloostuijn 3
DeBijenkorf,Amsterdam,TheNetherlands
JheronimusAcademyofDataScience,TilburgUniversity,Tilburg,TheNetherlands
SchoolofBusinessandEconomics,VrijeUniversiteitAmsterdam,Amsterdam,TheNetherlands
Abstract
MoreandmoreworkersinWesterneconomiesareoperatingasfreelancersin
theso-called‘gigeconomy’,movingfromoneproject—orgig—tothenext.A
livelydebaterevolvesaroundthequestionastowhetherthisnewemployment
relationshipisactuallygoodforinnovationinthe21 centuryeconomy.
Proponentsarguethatinthisgigprocessvaluableknowledgeiscreatedand
transferredfromoneorganizationtothenextviafreelancersthroughtheir
sequenceoftemporarygigsorprojects.Antagonistsreasonthatfreelancers
areonlyhiredasone-trickponiesonatransactionalbasis,whereknowledgeis
neithercreatednorshared.Inthisstudy,wefocusonthecharacteristicsof
gigs.Whichprojectcharacteristicsleadtoincreasedengagementof
freelancers,andhencetoknowledge-sharingbehavior?Ourstudysuggests
thatthegigeconomycanindeedleadtoincreasedknowledgesharingbyand
engagementoffreelanceworkers,providedthatorganizationsandfreelancers
structureandshapegigsinsuchawaythatthey:(1)notonlysuitthetask
requirementsathandand(2)fitwiththeacquiredskillsofthefreelancer,but
thatthesegigsalso(3)leaveampleofroomforthefreelancer’sindividual
growthanddevelopmentofnewskills.Thissuggeststhatinnovative
organizationswillneedtoshapegigsinsuchawaythatfreelancersarenotonly
hiredfortheirexpertise,butratherthatgigsalsoprovidealearningopportunity
forfreelancers.
Keywords
Gigeconomy,freelancers,project-basedwork,knowledgesharing,and
engagement
ThisarticleisincludedintheResponsible
gateway.Management
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Referee Status: AWAITING PEER
REVIEW
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)https://doi.org/10.12688/emeraldopenres.12928.1
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)https://doi.org/10.12688/emeraldopenres.12928.1
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Emerald Open Research 2019, 1:8 Last updated: 28 FEB 2019
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ArjenvanWitteloostuijn( )Corresponding author: a.van.witteloostuijn@vu.nl
 :Conceptualization,FormalAnalysis,Investigation,Methodology,Writing–OriginalDraftPreparation; :Author roles: Barlage M van den Born A
Conceptualization,DataCuration,FormalAnalysis,FundingAcquisition,Investigation,Methodology,Supervision,Writing–Review&Editing;van
:Conceptualization,Investigation,Methodology,Resources,Supervision,Writing–OriginalDraftPreparation,Writing–Review&Witteloostuijn A
Editing
Nocompetinginterestsweredisclosed.Competing interests:
Theauthor(s)declaredthatnograntswereinvolvedinsupportingthiswork.Grant information:
©2019BarlageM .Thisisanopenaccessarticledistributedunderthetermsofthe ,whichCopyright: et al CreativeCommonsAttributionLicence
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BarlageM,vandenBornAandvanWitteloostuijnA.How to cite this article: The needs of freelancers and the characteristics of ‘gigs’:
EmeraldCreating beneficial relations between freelancers and their hiring organizations [version 1; referees: awaiting peer review]
OpenResearch2019, :8( )1https://doi.org/10.12688/emeraldopenres.12928.1
28Feb2019, :8( )First published: 1 https://doi.org/10.12688/emeraldopenres.12928.1
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Emerald Open Research 2019, 1:8 Last updated: 28 FEB 2019
Introduction
More and more workers in Western economies are operat-
ing as freelancers in the so-called ‘gig economy’, moving from
one gig—or project—to the next. The status of such gig work-
ers is under debate (Kuhn & Maleki, 2017), and the exact
number of freelancers is difficult to estimate with the existing
sources of government data. However, their numbers seem
to be increasing exponentially. Recently, according to the
independent research firm Berland (2014), an estimated
53 million Americans—more than one in three workers—were
already freelancers in the early 2010s (see also Cappelli &
Keller, 2013). With the rise of the gig economy, growing num-
bers of professionals no longer hold long-term connections to
organizations. Rather, much employment is arranged through
temporary contracts with the help of employment agencies such
as Randstad and online staffing platforms such as Elance. More
than ever before, organizations tend to hire temporary expertise
on a project basis. This is not limited to generic and low-value
skills, as was the case in the 20th century, but increasingly
also extends to very specialized skills offered by valuable and
scarce knowledge workers.
It is by no means clear yet, though, whether the expansion of
these new forms of temporary labor is positive for individu-
als, organizations, and/or the economy as a whole. For instance,
Friedman (2014) argues that “While the rise of this ‘gig’ econ-
omy is praised by some as a response to the wishes of a more
entrepreneurial generation, it is more likely that it is driven by
the concerns of businesses to lower wages and benefit costs.”
The then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
recently added to this: “This on-demand or so called ‘gig’ economy
is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation,
but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protections
and what a good job will look like in the future” (Rogers,
2015). Paul Osterman, professor at MIT Sloan Business
School, argued that if the jobs “meet people’s needs for flexible
employment and provide learning real skills and pay decent
wages, then they are certainly a positive for the economy” (Rogers,
2015).
To get a better understanding of the gig economy, and particularly
its true impact on individuals and organizations, we need to dig
deeper by focusing on the micro level of the individual
freelancer, and her/his attitude vis-à-vis the hiring organization
(cf. Kuhn, 2016). To this aim, the current study is the first, to
the best of our knowledge, which seeks to analyze ‘gigs’ in
detail empirically, and by doing so, to examine the micro-level
building blocks of the macro-level gig economy. Can a series of
gigs constitute a good job? Do these gigs engage and develop
individuals, or are individuals merely used and exploited
by hiring organizations to bring in their expertise? This
study focuses on three aspects relating to these questions:
(1) freelancers’ individual growth opportunities provided by gigs;
(2) engagement of freelancers with projects and organizations;
and (3) knowledge sharing of freelancers with their hiring organi-
zations. With our focus on this set of three aspects, we examine
what we believe may well be the essential freelancer—
organization relationship’s core that may turn out to be mutually
beneficial beyond the isolated transaction of a single gig.
Given that we are entering into new territory here, we opted
for an exploratory research design. Specifically, we decided to
conduct a survey study in a Dutch convenience sample, with 928
usable responses. After reviewing related literature, we adapted
validated scales to fit with our specific gig context. Additionally,
we developed new scales where we could not find appropriate
ones in the extant literature. Our study suggests that the
gig economy can indeed lead to increased knowledge sharing
by and engagement of freelance workers, provided that organi-
zations and freelancers structure and shape gigs in such a way
that they: (1) not only suit the task requirements at hand and
(2) fit with the acquired skills of the freelancer, but that these
gigs also (3) leave ample of room for the freelancer’s individual
growth and development of new skills. Under these three spe-
cific conditions, freelancers learn from gigs and are engaged
with the contractors, and share their valuable knowledge with
these temporary hiring organizations. Then, we have a win-win
that benefits both individuals and organizations.
Literature
Despite the fast and unprecedented growth of the gig econ-
omy, and hence of the freelancer community, and the associated
increased relevance of project-based work, research into
project-based organizations and their temporary workers is still
scarce. Research on the self-employed is plentiful (for recent
examples, see, e.g., Lechmann & Schnabel, 2014; Spanjer &
van Witteloostuijn, 2017; van Praag et al., 2013), but many of
our organizational theories are still based on the notion that work
is permanent and not temporary, rather than on the insight that
this work is rapidly changing and organized in the form of
temporary contracts in the context of projects. Two notable
exceptions are the studies of Lundin & Söderholm (1995) and
Whitley (2006), who both have developed insightful theories
on project-based organizations.
This is not to say that no research has been conducted on
project-based work—quite the contrary. For example, topics such
as learning and innovation within project-based organizations
have become notable subjects of research. Insightful studies on
project learning and innovation are, for example, Prencipe &
Tell (2001) and Brady & Davies (2004) on learning processes
in project-based organizations, or Keegan & Turner (2002) on
the linkage between innovation and project management prac-
tices. However, these studies often focus on the organization
rather than the freelancer (i.e., organizational learning or
organizational capability development), and are set in organiza-
tions where full-time employees are executing the work. In the
current study, we are instead interested in projects executed
by a temporary, professional workforce that moves from one
gig to another, with a focus on the freelancer’s perspective.
Freelance careers: the art of stylishly building portfolios
Although freelancing has gradually increased in importance
over the last two decades, there is still limited empirical work
on freelance careers. Interesting exceptions are van den Born &
van Witteloostuijn (2013), Fraser & Gold (2001) and Platman
(2003). In these studies, the freelance career is often seen as the
archetypical portfolio career. Frameworks such as DeFillippi
& Arthur’s (1994) model of the boundaryless career or
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Hall’s (2004) concept of the protean career are frequently
used as the lens through which to describe and examine the
challenges and paths of the freelance career. Interestingly, many
studies of the freelance career are set in the creative indus-
tries. This is understandable, as most creative vocations, from
actors to designers and from musicians to translators, earn their
living by moving from gig to gig. Careers in the creative indus-
tries are centered around portfolios of gigs. The gig is both
the vehicle for creative output, as well as the channel that gives
shape to the freelance career. Examples of relevant work in
these industries are Faulkner (2003) on the careers of composers
in the feature film industry and Haunschild (2003) in repertory
theatres, and Weissman (2011) and Armstrong (2013) on musi-
cal careers. We refer to DeFillippi (2015) for an overview of the
work on careers in creative and cultural industries.
One of the key career challenges of every freelancer,
regardless of industry, is how to cope with the tendency to type-
cast (e.g., Zuckerman et al., 2003). This is the tendency of hiring
organizations to prefer professionals with similar prior experience
and an unambiguous career path (Jones, 2002). O’Mahony &
Bechky (2006) argue that freelancers face a career progression
paradox. While learning is central to their livelihood as knowl-
edge workers, hiring organizations do prefer one-trick ponies
with extensive experience in one key area. Freelancers recon-
cile this career progression paradox by pursuing “stretchwork”.
O’Mahony & Bechky (2006, p. 924) define stretchwork as:
“work that largely fits with an individual’s previous work experi-
ence but introduces a small novel element that extends his or her
skills in a new direction.” Stretchwork facilitates freelanc-
ers to obtain new knowledge, skills and abilities, which later on
can be marketed as relevant experience, so extending the
portfolio of what they have on offer.
This implies that freelancers require projects with some
degree of novelty, whilst hiring organizations do largely
prefer those individuals who demonstrated extensive experience
and commitment in a certain field of (rather narrow) speciali-
zation. The hiring organizations expect freelancers with a high
degree of specialization to do a better job. This tendency to hire
specialist experts only may not motivate freelancers to do their
utmost best for the hiring organization, notwithstanding the
fact that learning and overcoming challenges are crucial to both
their happiness (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikzentmihaly, 1991)
as well as their careers (Leung, 2014). Freelancers may retali-
ate by ‘not going the extra mile’, but by only delivering what is
agreed upon – and not by providing anything else or something
extra. In terms of psychological contracts (Rousseau, 1990), one
may argue that the hiring organization signals a purely transac-
tional contract by offering no developmental possibilities, and
by only looking for the perfect project-person fit. The freelancer
accepts this transactional proposal by offering just the required
services, and nothing more. While this ‘contract’ may be
suitable for many gigs, one may argue that this will hamper the
essence of why freelancers are brought in: transferring their
external expert knowledge to the organization and bringing the
organization to the next level.
Mutual beneficial relations: buyer–supplier relations versus
employee relations
In this study, we do not examine the career path of freelanc-
ers, but we rather focus on features of the gigs: i.e., (temporary)
projects performed for hiring organizations by an external work-
force. Under which conditions do these gigs lead to innova-
tion for the organization, and growth and development for the
freelancer? That is, when are these gigs beneficial for both worker
(i.e., freelancer) and (hiring) organization? As is almost always
the case with studies on freelancers, much inspiration can be
found in two sources: the literature on employees and the lit-
erature on entrepreneurs, as the freelancer is a hybrid with both
employee and entrepreneurial features (see van den Born &
van Witteloostuijn, 2013). In this instance, we can build on the
literature on employment relations, on the one hand, and that
on buyer-supplier relations, on the other hand. Together, both
strands of literature can provide a good starting point for this
study.
Interestingly, both the literature on buyer–supplier relation-
ships and that on employee relations distinguish between ‘close’
versus ‘distant’ (or ‘arms-length’) types of relations. For instance,
Wuyts & Geyskens (2005) study the formation of buyer–supplier
relations and the conditions under which close relationships
are formed, as well as when detailed contracts are drawn.
This is not so different from human resource management
models such as those of Tsui et al. (1997) or Lepak & Snell
(1999), distinguishing between internal developing and exter-
nal contracting, or the psychological contract literature that
differentiates between relational and transactional relationships.
In a meta-analytical review of the literature on buyer–
supplier relationships, Terpend et al. (2008) conclude that
buyer–supplier relations have deepened over the past two dec-
ades: buyers have come to expect more of their suppliers.
This suggests that there is merit in close buyer–supplier rela-
tionships. This is also clear from various empirical follow-up
studies on the matter. For example, Revilla & Villena (2012)
reveal that buyers that integrate knowledge with suppliers show
improved efficiency as well as innovation. But in a study on the
dark side of buyer–supplier relationships, Villena et al. (2011)
report that not only insufficient social capital hurts the buyer–
supplier performance, but that too much social capital is also
detrimental. In a recent overview of the literature, Wang et al.
(2013) confirm this view. Nurturing buyer–supplier relationships
can culminate in significant performance improvement, yet
these relationships may also lead to damaging results as a
consequence of partner opportunism. They argue that firms
should improve their use of social capital to curb the harmful
effects of opportunism.
The literature on employee relations and the impact of such
relations on outcomes dwarfs the literature on buyer–supplier
relationships. For the sake of parsimony, we restrict ourselves to
the psychological contract work that we believe is particularly
relevant in our context. In this literature, the distinction between
transactional and relational contracts is well established, and
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many performance outcomes of such relationships have been
studied. While most of the studies are aimed at investigating
the effects of contract breach, many studies have also reported
on the impact of the relational vis-à-vis transactional aspects of
contracts. Meta–analytical studies of the empirical literature on
psychological contracts (e.g., Agarwal, 2014; Zhao et al.,
2007) show that relational contracts typically correlate positively
with commitment, trust and job satisfaction, whereas transac-
tional contracts tend to be associated with lower commitment,
trust and satisfaction.
Related to the above, many studies examine the psychologi-
cal contract of temporary workers. These workers typically are
not freelancers as they do not work for themselves, and gener-
ally do not have the high-value skills that many freelancers can
bring to the table. Nevertheless, both types of temporary work-
ers share many of the same characteristics, such as a tempo-
rary contract and having relations with various employers at the
same time, and sequentially. One of the earlier studies on psy-
chological contracts and contingent workers is that of Pearce
(1993), who found that commitment was not different between
full-time and contracted engineers, counter to her hypothesis.
In this argument, transactional contracts are equaled with tempo-
rary (often part-time) work, and relational contracts with a per-
manent (often full-time) job. While this seems plausible, many
studies have shown that this simplification is besides the mark
(e.g., Guest, 2004). Temporary work arrangements often have
relational characteristics, and permanent employees may feel that
they have a fully transactional relationship with their employer.
Moreover, relationships of temporary workers often start off
transactional, but over time become significantly more relational
(Lee & Faller, 2005). It is therefore no surprise that research,
by and large, does not find differences between temporaries and
permanents on aspects such as satisfaction, commitment, and
self-rated performance.
Knowledge sharing
That knowledge of outsiders is important for organizational inno-
vation and knowledge development is by now well established.
Especially the work of Chesbrough (2006), and subsequent
studies on open innovation (e.g., Dahlander & Gann, 2010)
and external knowledge (e.g., Lichtenthaler & Lichtenthaler,
2009; Zhou & Li, 2012) have clearly demonstrated the value
added of bringing in external knowledge into the organization’s
innovation process. However, most of these papers have studied
this value added in terms of consumer or supplier knowledge;
and none of these studies have included freelancers in their
design as a potential source of external knowledge.
Equally, that knowledge sharing cannot be taken for granted
is firmly established by now. For example, Parke et al. (2014)
reveal that face-to-face meetings are important for effective
knowledge sharing, even in virtual teams. The literature shows
that motivation, ability, and opportunity all play an important
role in knowledge sharing (e.g., Reinholt et al., 2011; Siemsen
et al., 2008). Interestingly, much research demonstrates the
crucial role of reciprocity (Chiu et al., 2006; Lin, 2007). Recip-
rocal benefits are positively and significantly associated with
knowledge-sharing behavior in a variety of contexts (e.g., in com-
munities of practice, as well as in organizations). This all sug-
gests that hiring organizations that invest in the relation with
their freelancers will benefit from increased influx of knowledge
sharing from their freelancers.
Work engagement
Practitioners often recognize that engagement and “going the
extra mile” are important for work performance. Since Kahn
(1990) described engagement as a unique and important moti-
vational concept, the popular press and many HR consultants
have declared that engaged employees will create a competitive
advantage for their organizations. Lately, these strong claims
have been backed up empirically by a number of studies. One of
the first of these studies is Saks (2006), revealing that engage-
ment is strongly related to concepts such as satisfaction, intention
to quit, and commitment, arguing that more academic research
should look into the concept of engagement. Since then,
a series of studies have confirmed these positive effects of
engagement. For instance, Rich et al. (2010) show convincingly
that engagement is a much stronger predictor of task perform-
ance than other, more traditional measures such as motivation,
satisfaction, and involvement. In a meta-analytical study on
the antecedents and consequences of engagement, Christian
et al. (2011) conclude that engagement has a strong relation
with both task as well as contextual performance.
Engagement is an active expression of employee wellbeing,
which combines pleasure with dedication and activation. This
suggests that engagement has a stronger relation with inno-
vation than traditional subjective performance measures of
wellbeing, such as job satisfaction. In this respect, Bakker (2011)
argues that engaged workers are more open to new informa-
tion, are more productive, and are more willing to go the extra
mile, and Salanova & Schaufeli (2008) show the importance of
engagement for proactive behavior of employees, a well-known
determinant of innovativeness of firms. To date, the impact of
engagement on innovation has scarcely been studied, however,
with a few recent exceptions. For example, Bhatnagar’s (2012)
study reveals strong empirical relationships among work
engagement, innovation, and turnover intention. The study of
De Spiegelaere et al. (2014) uncovers the strong relation between
work engagement and innovative work behavior. This all
suggests that if freelancers are hired to bring ‘newness’ and inno-
vation to companies, the hiring organizations need to invest
in creating engaged freelancers.
Predictions
Much has been written about employee engagement in the
human resource management and organizational behavior lit-
eratures. In the context of our exploratory study into gigs from a
freelancer perspective, we cannot but engage in cherry-picking,
focusing on a few insights from this huge literature that we
believe are highly relevant in a freelance setting, too. Engagement
is commonly found to be positively related to job satisfaction,
organizational commitment, lower intentions to quit, and organi-
zational citizenship behaviors (Saks, 2006). It is therefore a
desirable trait in employees that organizations strive for, and
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several studies have offered suggestions as to how engage-
ment can be achieved. For instance, Hicks et al. (2014) find that
employees experiencing a “good fit” with their work environ-
ment become more engaged. This applies to both task engage-
ment, which is the engagement toward the tasks that the employee
executes, as well as organizational engagement, which refers
to the investment of the organization in its workers. If there is a
misfit between the employee and the environment, disengagement
occurs. If a professional is not challenged enough by the envi-
ronment, bore-out occurs; in the reverse case of too much
challenge (and hence stress), the likelihood of burn-out increases.
Although the literature refers to employees, we believe that
the above logic does also squarely apply to the independent
professional. In the case of a freelancer, the task relates to the
project s/he is hired for to execute. So, in analogy to the task
engagement concept, we introduce project engagement, tailored
to the role of the freelancer. Similarly, organizational engage-
ment refers to the hiring organization. This gives the following
pair of benchmark Hypotheses 1 and 2.
Hypothesis 1 (H1): Freelancer–project fit is positively
associated with project engagement.
Hypothesis 2 (H2): Freelancer–project fit is positively
associated with organizational engagement.
This pair of hypotheses can be argued to be tautological. After
all, measures of a ‘fit’ will have a positive association with the
outcome variable – engagement, in our case – by the very defi-
nition of the ’fit’ concept. So, of course, Hypotheses 1 and 2 are
empty without a detailed specification of what fit entails in our
specific context. Hence, we detail what we mean by fit in our
setting of freelancers in a series of four propositions. In these
propositions, we focus on one attribute of the freelancer, and
one characteristic of the gig: professional motivation and project
environment, respectively. We argue that highly motivated profes-
sionals prefer high-opportunity projects (and, mutatis mutandis,
that lowly motivated professionals have a preference for low-
opportunity projects).
Proposition 1 (P1): If the independent professional is highly
motivated, then a high-opportunity project will result in a fit.
Proposition 2 (P2): If the independent professional is highly
motivated, then a low-opportunity project will result in a
misfit.
Proposition 3 (P3): If the independent professional is little
motivated, then a low-opportunity project will result in a fit.
Proposition 4 (P4): If the independent professional is little
motivated, then a high-opportunity project will result in a
misfit.
When employees believe that their organization cares about
their wellbeing, then they are likely to respond by attempting to
fulfill their obligations to the organization by becoming more
engaged (Saks, 2006). Related to this, organizational support
will be positively related to job engagement and organizational
engagement (Saks, 2006). Such (perceived) organizational
support signals to the employees to care about the interests
of the organization, and to help to achieve the organization’s
goals (Rhoades et al., 2001). Mutatis mutandis, this applies to the
context of freelancers, too, with the difference that a freelancer
is concerned with (perceived) project-related organizational
support – not overseeing the whole organization, but being in
close contact with the hiring organization’s supervisor of the
project at hand. We coin this supervisor support. This gives our
next pair of Hypotheses 3 and 4.
Hypothesis 3 (H3): A caring organizational environment
is positively associated with organizational engagement.
Hypothesis 4 (H4): Supervisor support is positively
associated with organizational engagement.
The relation between task-related (or project-related, in our set-
ting) engagement and organizational engagement has not been
studied before. Given the temporary nature of freelance work
within an organization, we argue that professionals will not feel
engagement toward a hiring organization ex ante. However,
ex post, next to fit and the organizational environment, the pro-
fessional may derive organizational engagement from the
project engagement s/he feels. Professionals who sell their knowl-
edge are often part of larger investment projects within the hir-
ing organization, implying that their engagement with the project
may well result in successes for the organization as a whole,
beyond the project at hand. This suggests Hypothesis 5.
Hypothesis 5 (H5): Project engagement is positively associ-
ated with organizational engagement.
Next to having positive relations with such concepts as job
satisfaction and the intention to stay, engagement has been
found to be positively associated with knowledge sharing: Work
engagement is an important predictor of knowledge-sharing
behavior. It is believed that without engaging in tasks, employees
are unlikely to share task-related knowledge proactively (Chen
et al., 2011). This is because a lack of engagement with the task
has been found to limit proactive behaviors, amongst which
knowledge sharing is a key one. As explained above, we argue
that where work engagement applies to employees, project
engagement will be a valid concept in the context of
independent professionals. This provides Hypothesis 6.
Hypothesis 6 (H6): Project engagement is positively associ-
ated with knowledge sharing.
Organizational engagement has not directly been linked to
knowledge sharing, to date, but has been shown to be related to
a component of organizational citizenship behavior in the form
of the willingness to take the time to help others who have
work-related problems (Saks, 2006). Logically, sharing knowl-
edge would be part of such an activity (Ford, 2008). From this,
we have Hypothesis 7.
Hypothesis 7 (H7): Organizational engagement is positively
associated with knowledge sharing.
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Emerald Open Research 2019, 1:8 Last updated: 28 FEB 2019
Finally, Cabrera et al. (2006) find that a person will be more
inclined to exchange knowledge with others to the extent that
approval from supervisors is expected. We predict that this will
also be the case for independent professionals, who have a tight
connection to their supervisors in the hiring organizations to
execute projects correctly and properly. This gives our final
Hypothesis 8.
Hypothesis 8 (H8): Supervisor support is positively associ-
ated with knowledge sharing.
Figure 1 visualizes the full conceptual model, with references
to our four propositions and eight hypotheses. Note that we refer
to propositions regarding professional motivation and project
environment, instead of hypotheses, as a comparison of the
scores for this pair of variables will feed into the fit measure, as
explained below.
Methods
Data
The research was executed in the Netherlands, a country that
has seen a recent surge in independent professionals, especially
those who have received higher education. The data was collected
through online surveys. Potential respondents were approached
via email, through the network of an online freelancer community
(i.e., Dutch Network Group) and a company that mediates
between independent professionals and hiring organizations
(i.e., HeadFirst). The freelancer network published the link of
the survey and communicated the research widely within their
community. This triggered 531 fully completed responses. The
intermediary organization targeted 11,730 independent profes-
sionals, which generated 397 useable responses. The useable
response rate is about 4%, which is quite good for online surveys.
In total, we have 928 responses appropriate for data analysis.
Of course, the above implies that ours is a convenience sam-
ple, associated with many well-known downsides. Specifically,
we have no way of knowing whether our sample is representa-
tive for the wider population of Dutch freelancers, and to what
extent our sample is plagued by endogeneity as a result of selec-
tion (i.e., response) bias. Moreover, to increase the likelihood of
response, we deliberately developed a very short survey instru-
ment (see below), with 38 questions only (12 involving multiple-
item scales). As our study is exploratory in nature, being the first
of its kind, to the best of our knowledge, we believe that both
choices are defendable. Of course, this implies that all our find-
ings must be interpreted with caution, and that much replication
work (with expanded surveys and other samples, also from
Figure 1. Conceptual model.
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Emerald Open Research 2019, 1:8 Last updated: 28 FEB 2019
other countries) is needed to further examine the internal and
external validity of our results, as well as to extend what we
do here.
Measures
We developed an online survey with 38 questions, including
all measures for all variables needed to examine Figure 1’s
conceptual model. A few elements that were included in
the questionnaire—e.g., the scale for the Big Five personal-
ity traits—turned out to be of psychometrically very low qual-
ity (results available upon request). Hence, these were not added
to our empirical model. Below, we only introduce the variables
that could be used for empirical analysis. The full data are acces-
sible through Barlage (2019), and the full survey (originally in
Dutch) is in the Extended data (Arjan, 2019), translated in
English and organized per variable (see below). To the extent
available, we adopted and adapted validated scales from the lit-
erature – e.g., regarding engagement and knowledge sharing of
professionals. Additionally, we constructed several tailor-made
items and scales, which were pilot-tested with knowledgeable
freelancers. This is a contribution of our study in and of itself.
Professional motivation. We measure a freelancer’s profes-
sional motivation by means of a scale with eight items, tailored
at a freelancer’s project work, which was used earlier in
van den Born (2009) and van den Born & van Witteloostuijn
(2013). Respondents had to indicate on a five-point Likert-type
scale to what extent they look for various aspects in their projects.
Examples of items are “I am an independent professional because
I have more flexibility to schedule my work” and “I am an
independent professional because I can make more money”.
An exploratory factor analysis produced a single factor with an
Eigenvalue larger than one and explained variance of 55.72%,
which includes the following three types of professional moti-
vation: (1) autonomy and professionalism; (2) variety and per-
sonal development; and (3) work-life balance and flexibility. The
factor with three items is associated with acceptable (just)
reliability, with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.60.
Project environment. To measure the key characteristics of the
project (i.e., gig), we developed a new scale of twelve items
based on interviews with several freelancers. Respondents had to
indicate on a five-point Likert-type scale to what extent their cur-
rent gig had a pre-specified list of characteristics. These project
characteristics had to do with clarity of deliverables, income
security, monetary rewards, visibility, fit with resumé, fit with
current competences, possibility to increase network, level
of autonomy, level of flexibility, and distance from home, all
reflecting key attributes of the project environment. These were
all important aspects related to the project as revealed by various
freelancers in a series of pilot interviews. An exploratory factor
analysis generated a single factor with an Eigenvalue larger than
one and explained variance of 54.17%, including the following
five key attributes of a project: (1) the project offers challeng-
ing work; (2) the project offers opportunities for getting a similar
project in the future; (3) the project strengthens my visibility and
reputation in the market; (4) the project is a clear asset to my
resumé / portfolio; and (5) the project strengthens my network.
With a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.77, the five-item scale’s reliability is
good.
Organizational environment. Comparable to the measurement
of the project attributes, we also aimed to measure sponsor
attributes – or organizational environment. To capture the key
characteristics of the sponsor (i.e., hiring organization), we
developed a new scale of twelve items, again based on pilot
interviews with several freelancers. Respondents had to indicate
on a five-point Likert-type scale to what extent their current
project was associated with a pre-specified set of characteris-
tics, all relating to the hiring organization’s environment. These
characteristics involved monetary rewards, fairness, reliability,
security, procurement processes, growth opportunities, educa-
tion, image, social climate, and work-life balance. An exploratory
factor analysis gave a single factor with an Eigenvalue larger than
one and explained variance of 52.17%, capturing the following
four attributes of the hiring organization: (1) the organization has
an attractive image; (2) the organization offers a pleasant work
environment and engaging colleagues; (3) the organization takes
my private circumstances into account; and (4) the organiza-
tion does not differentiate between employees with temporal or
permanent employment status. The reliability of this four-item
scale is acceptable, with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.69.
Supervisor support. We follow the same procedure as
Eisenberger et al. (2002) to measure perceived supervisor sup-
port by adapting the eight-item Perceived Organizational Sup-
port (POS) scale (Shore & Tetrick, 1991) to relate this to a
freelance setting. Example items are “My supervisor appreciates
my contribution to the goals”, “My supervisor genuinely cares
about my wellbeing” and “My supervisor is proud about my
performance”. A confirmatory factor analysis reproduces the
measure, with a single factor with an Eigenvalue larger than one
and explained variance of 51.90%. The reliability of this
eight-item scale is very good, with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.86.
Project engagement. We use the five-item scale of Saks (2006)
to measure project engagement, with “job” referring to the
freelancer project (rather than employee task) context. Again,
respondents had to indicate their assessments on a five-point
Likert-type scale. In a confirmatory factor analysis, the five
items of this scale load onto two factors, while there should only
be one, according to Saks (2006). We decided to remove two
items, implying that a one-dimensional project engagement
three-item scale remained with an acceptable Cronbach’s alpha
of 0.68, an Eigenvalue larger than one, and explained variance of
60.93%. The three retained items are “I really throw myself into
the job”, “Sometimes I am so into my job that I lose track of
time” and “This job is all consuming; I am totally into it”.
Organizational engagement. To measure organizational engage-
ment, we also used the scale from Saks (2006), with six items
and a five-point Likert-type scale. In a confirmatory factor anal-
ysis, all six items load onto a single factor with an Eigenvalue
larger than one. Example items are “Being a member of this
organization is very captivating”, “I am not really interested
in the course of events in this organization” (reverse-coded),
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Emerald Open Research 2019, 1:8 Last updated: 28 FEB 2019
and “I am highly engaged with this organization”. The reliability
of this six-item scale is good, with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.82.
The explained variance is 55.13%.
Knowledge sharing. Finally, we adjusted the scale from
Bock et al. (2005) to measure knowledge sharing in the free-
lancer project context, with four five-point Likert-type items. A
confirmatory factor analysis confirmed this scale, generating a
single factor with an Eigenvalue larger than one and explained
variance of 70.95%. Example items are “I share all implicit
knowledge with my client, free of additional charges” and “Shar-
ing knowledge is good for me and my client”. The reliability of
this four-item scale is very good, with a Cronbach’s alpha of
0.86.
Fit. The fit measure is constructed on the basis of items related
to the variables Professional motivation and Project environment.
We constructed a dummy measure referred to as Fit, where a fit
is given a 1 and a misfit a 0. To do so, we first categorized the
Professional motivation score into high and low motivation, and
the Project environment measure into high and low opportunity.
Average scores above 3 for both variables are considered to be
high, and 3 or below to be low. We chose 3 as the threshold to
distinguish high from low because of the nature of the associated
five-point Likert-type scales. With average scores above 3, respond-
ents agreed (considerably or fully) that their professional motiva-
tion or the project environment features a certain characteristic,
while with average scores of 3 or below they are neutral or disa-
greeing. Furthermore, the attributes of the scales of Professional
motivation and Project environment consist of multiple items
each, decreasing the probability of having scores of exactly 3.
Only 6% of all respondents had an average of 3 on Professional
motivation, and just 3% of all respondents rated an average
of 3 for Project environment. Hence, most observations fall
easily above or below the threshold of 3.
In Table 1, we list all measures used in subsequent analyses,
providing Cronbach’s alpha and explained variance per scale.
In the Extended data (Barlage, 2019), all the retained items are
included (i.e., all with factor loadings larger than 0.46, after
reversing negative items), translated from Dutch into English. In
all analyses below, we take the average score across all remain-
ing items per scale as our dependent or independent variables,
with the exception of Fit, which is a 0-1 dummy.
Analysis
We apply path analysis in the form of a series of Ordinary Least
Squares (OLS) regressions, using Stata 13. A path analysis
is like a structural equation model, but without the latent vari-
ables. Several equations are estimated simultaneously, creating
measures of model fit or explained variance for the full model.
Stata 13 reports direct and indirect effects, as well as total effects
and their standard errors. We estimate the standard errors using
the Huber-White sandwich estimators. Such robust standard
errors are appropriate when the data are associated with minor
concerns about failure to meet the standard OLS assumptions,
such as non-normality, heteroscedasticity, and few observations
exhibiting large residuals, leverage or influence.
A final methodological remark relates to our single-respondent
design. Because all data are self-reported and all data are
collected through the same questionnaire during the same
period of time with a cross-sectional research design, common-
method variance (CMV) may cause systematic measurement error,
further biasing the estimates of the actual relationship among
our theoretical constructs. CMV involves variance that is attrib-
uted to the measurement method rather than the constructs of
interest. Method variance can either inflate or deflate observed
relationships between constructs, thus leading to both Type I
and Type II errors (Podsakoff et al., 2003). We took precaution-
ary measures to prevent CMV, such as guaranteed anonym-
ity for respondents (Chang et al., 2010). Moreover, it is very
unlikely that respondents’ implicit theories include the complex
effects of fit as predicted by Hypotheses 1 and 2 (Siemsen et al.,
2010). Still, after data collection, Harman’s one-factor test was
conducted on all questionnaire items to test the potential presence
of a common-method effect (Podsakoff et al., 2003). The result
from the factor analysis is that at the most 20.24% of the vari-
ance can be attributed to one factor. Hence, none of the factors is
responsible for the majority of the variance. From this, we can
conclude that the data are unlikely to suffer from a common-
method bias.
Evidence
The mean age of the sample is 50.82, 76% is male, and 99%
is highly educated (50% holding a university degree).
The descriptive statistics in Table 2 reveal that most profession-
als’ motivations are in line with the project environment: most
of the time, they are highly motivated and find themselves in a
challenging project environment. For 18% of the profession-
als, there is a misfit: about half of the time, the professional is
highly motivated but not challenged by the project environment
(bore-out); and in the other half of the observations, the mis-
fit is reversed (burn-out). Overall, freelancers rate their projects,
supervisors and organizations with an above-neutral score.
Especially, they perceive that they share much knowledge with
the hiring organization (a score of 4.17 out of 5), and that their
supervisor is very supportive and understanding. Surprisingly,
professionals do not feel highly engaged with their projects, but
Table 1. Factor analysis results.
Variable Cronbach’s
alpha
% explained
variance
Professional Motivation 0.60 55.72
Project Environment 0.77 54.17
Organizational
Environment
0.69 52.17
Supervisor Support 0.86 51.90
Project Engagement 0.68 60.93
Organizational
Engagement
0.82 55.13
Knowledge Sharing 0.86 70.95
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Table 2. Descriptive statistics.
Variable Mean Std.
Dev.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
1. Fit (= 1) 0.82 0.39
2. Organizational Environment 3.51 0.69 0.06
3. Supervisor Support 3.80 0.61 0.03 0.44
4. Organizational Engagement 3.64 0.63 0.10 0.36 0.31
5. Project Engagement 3.30 0.70 0.09 -0.04 0.00 0.16
6. Knowledge Sharing 4.17 0.57 0.01 0.11 0.23 0.29 0.17
rather are more engaged with the hiring organization than with
the project. The bivariate correlations between Organizational
environment, Supervisor support and Organizational engage-
ment are moderate (0.31) to fairly high (0.44), and the variance
inflation factor (VIF) of 1.24 is well below any worrisome
threshold values.
The result of the regression estimation can be found in
Table 3. Estimations were realized with control variables (age,
gender, and education level), but we found the model to be robust,
and addition of control variables did not improve the model fit.
Hence, we decided to exclude control variables from the model.
The number of observations and the R2 noted at the bottom of
the table are for the full model, as the path analysis estimates
all equations simultaneously. We find that all our hypotheses are
supported. Fit is positively associated with both Project engage-
ment (H1), and the coefficient is marginally significant for
Organizational engagement (H2), although the effects are greater
for the Project engagement. Organizational engagement is also
positively associated with Organizational environment (H3),
Supervisor support (H4) and Project engagement (H5). Organi-
zational environment has the greatest impact on Organizational
engagement. Organizational engagement has the strongest
(and a statistically significant) association with Knowledge shar-
ing (H6), but there is also a positive significant relation with
Project engagement (H7) and Supervisor support (H8).
A path analysis provides information about the total effects
(i.e., the effect of an independent variable on a dependent vari-
able whilst accounting for simultaneity in the system) and
indirect effects (i.e., the total effect minus the direct effect).
Although we have not formulated specific hypotheses about the
total and indirect effects, we briefly discuss these effects below.
Table 4 and Table 5 provide the total and indirect effects,
respectively.
What we can take away from this pair of tables is that the
size of the direct effects is much greater than of the indirect
effects. For example, the total effects of Organizational environ-
ment and Fit on Knowledge sharing are small (although sig-
nificant). They rather partially feed the engine of engagement
that increases knowledge sharing, but do not have impact of
practical significance.
Discussion
In this article, we report the findings from a study into the
engagement and knowledge-sharing behavior of independent
professionals within the organizations that have hired them on a
(temporary) project basis. Engagement and knowledge sharing
have been studied before from an employee perspective, but not
in the context of independent professionals who have temporary
positions within the organization. In so doing, our study seeks to
answer a relevant practical question, too, as firms increasingly
hire highly educated independent professionals for their expertise.
Can the organization engage them and seduce them to conduct
proactive behaviors to the benefit of the hiring organization in
the form of knowledge sharing? We developed a path model of
inputs, such as professional-project fit, the organizational
environment and supervisor support, and find that these all
positively influence project and/or organizational engagement.
These feelings of engagement in combination with perceived
supervisor support positively influence the degree of knowledge
sharing that the independent professional does execute.
As any other study, ours is not without limitations, particularly
given the fact that our study is the first of its kind. Specifically,
the research design is not ideal, as the cross-sectional survey
design implies that the causality between the variables of interest
cannot be empirically established; only theory can help to sug-
gest causal linkages. Moreover, we would have preferred to
have had a larger and representative sample. For future research,
therefore, a longitudinal (preferably, a balanced panel)
design with (many) more observations representative for the
population is to be recommended. Moreover, it would be highly
interesting to include additional personal information about the
professionals, such as their experience, personality and network.
Regarding personality, we attempted this in the survey by includ-
ing the short Big Five personality inventory, but the psychomet-
rics demonstrated that the scales were not reliable enough to be
included in the empirical analyses. Notwithstanding the down-
side of adding substantially to the length of the questionnaire, we
plan to include instead the 60-items HEXACO personality
scale in future work (cf. van Witteloostuijn et al., 2017).
The managerial implications to take from this study are fairly
positive. Professionals who have been hired for their exper-
tise share knowledge to a great extent. This proactive behavior,
which is examined in the literature for (permanent) employees,
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Table 3. Direct effects.
Dependent variables Independent variables Coefficient
Project Engagement
Fit 0.16*
(0.070)
Organizational Engagement
Project Engagement 0.15***
(0.035)
Organizational Environment 0.26***
(0.039)
Supervisor Support 0.19***
(0.042)
Fit 0.11~
(0.058)
Knowledge Sharing
Organizational Engagement 0.19***
(0.037)
Project Engagement 0.11*
(0.031)
Supervisor Support 0.15***
(0.039)
N 693
R20.202
Standard errors in parentheses; *** p<0.001, ** p<0.01, * p<0.05, and ~ p<0.1.
Table 4. Total effects.
Dependent variables Independent variables Coefficient
Project engagement
Fit 0.16*
(0.070)
Organizational engagement
Project engagement 0.15***
(0.035)
Organizational environment 0.26***
(0.039)
Supervisor support 0.19***
Fit 0.13*
(0.059)
Knowledge sharing
Organizational engagement 0.19***
(0.037)
Project engagement 0.13***
(0.032)
Supervisor support 0.18***
(0.038)
Organizational environment 0.05***
(0.012)
Fit 0.04*
(0.016)
Standard errors in parentheses; *** p < 0.001, ** p < 0.01, * p < 0.05, and ~ p < 0.1
(intercept estimated, but not recorded in table).
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Emerald Open Research 2019, 1:8 Last updated: 28 FEB 2019
Table 5. Indirect effects.
Dependent
variables
Independent
variables
Coefficient
Organizational
engagement
Fit 0.02~
(0.012)
Knowledge
sharing
Project
engagement
0.03***
(0.007)
Organizational
environment
0.05***
(0.012)
Supervisor
support
0.04**
(0.011)
Fit 0.04*
(0.016)
Standard errors in parentheses; *** p < 0.001,
** p < 0.01, * p < 0.05, and ~ p < 0.1.
appears to be quite strongly embedded in the independent (tem-
porary) freelancer as well. Independent professionals can also be
engaged, surprisingly enough not only with their project, but (on
average) even more so with the hiring organization. The results
demonstrate that organizations will likely benefit from hav-
ing the right professional in the right place for the right project.
Fit is key. Although most projects are challenging and require a
highly motivated professional, for those projects that are fairly
simple, and do not contribute much to the portfolio of the profes-
sional, it would be preferable to hire a professional who is okay
with that, instead of an overly motivated freelancer. Also, what is
important, but perhaps more commonly overlooked by organiza-
tions, is to provide a caring organizational environment with high
supervisor support to the freelancer professional. Even though
independent professionals often portray themselves as little
businesses, they very much appreciate being treated as a welcome
temporary member of the workforce. A caring and supportive
environment, where they are treated not much differently from
the employees in the organization, triggers freelancers to engage
with the hiring organization, rather than the project. This may
be beneficial for knowledge sharing, and possibly might make
the hiring organization more attractive to return to in case of
another project.
Ethical considerations
In the Dutch context at the time of the survey, ethical approval
was not needed. Participation in the survey was voluntary,
with their consent implied by their participation. All data were
treated as strictly confidential, which was announced in the
survey.
Data availability
Underlying data
Zenodo: Read me with DOI. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.
2555739 (Barlage, 2019).
Data are available under the terms of the Creative Commons
Zero “No rights reserved” data waiver (CC0 1.0 Public domain
dedication).
Extended data
Zenodo: Gig Survey. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.2566243
(Arjan, 2019).
Grant information
The author(s) declared that no grants were involved in
supporting this work.
Acknowledgements
This paper was presented at the CSRE Global Workshop on
Freelancing & Self-Employment Research, 24-25 November
2016, Brighton Business School, UK. We gratefully acknowledge
the constructive feedback from the participants.
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... are known for their employment flexibility, which is typical for low-skilled peripheral workers (Atkinson, 1984). Due to this ambiguous position in organisations' workforces, freelancers' employment relationships require an alternative inclusive HRM approach compared to traditional employer-employee relationships (Barlage et al., 2019;Borghouts-van de Pas & Freese, 2017;Cross & Swart, 2021;Delery & Roumpi, 2017). ...
... Burke (2019) showed that organisations hire freelancers to organise business activities in more project-based manner enhancing organizational performance and lower financial risks. Freelancers may supplement employees offering flexibility to its workforce (Atkinson, 1984;Barlage et al., 2019;Burke, 2015;Burke & Cowling, 2019), or complement existing organizational human capital by their rich expertise enabling organisations to gain competitive advantage (Barlage et al., 2019;Burke, 2015). ...
... Burke (2019) showed that organisations hire freelancers to organise business activities in more project-based manner enhancing organizational performance and lower financial risks. Freelancers may supplement employees offering flexibility to its workforce (Atkinson, 1984;Barlage et al., 2019;Burke, 2015;Burke & Cowling, 2019), or complement existing organizational human capital by their rich expertise enabling organisations to gain competitive advantage (Barlage et al., 2019;Burke, 2015). ...
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This study aimed to advance our understanding of inclusive human resource management (HRM) in freelance employment. We examined organizational needs and freelancers' psychological contracts with a qualitative interview study among eight dyads of HR managers and freelancers. Although the findings showed that organisations and freelancers have different interests, both parties agreed on what inclusive HRM entails in freelancers' employment relationships. However, within the dyads, the content of the psychological contract was not always viewed the same by HR managers and freelancers. Hence, negotiating mutual expectations when implementing inclusive HRM to avoid psychological contract breach appeared important. Furthermore, organizational needs did not seem to be considered when designing inclusive HRM. Due to this lack of strategic fit, organisations may waste opportunities of tapping into the full potential of hiring freelancers. The findings provide organisations insight in considering freelancers as potential sources of competitive advantage.
... Flexible types of work arrangements have started to increase prior to the pandemic because of the rising cost of the labor force and the stiffening global competition (Zimmerman et al., 2013;Barlage et al., 2019). However, this increase has amplified due to the COVID-19 outbreak. ...
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... Related to this study conducted by many researchers with an approach of remittances impact the economy (Meyer & Shera, 2017) and foreign remittances and economic growth in Pakistan. Many researchers concerning freelancers perception also conducted in past; Commitment and work-related expectations in flexible employment forms: An empirical study of German IT freelancers (Süß & Kleiner, 2010) In search of meaningful work on digital freelancing platforms: the case of design professionals (Nemkova, Demirel, & Baines, 2019) The needs of freelancers and the characteristics of 'gigs': (Barlage, van den Born, & van Witteloostuijn, 2019) and Broadcasting discontentfreelancers, trade unions, and the (Saundry, Stuart, & Antcliff, 2007). In past, researchers independently analyze the behavior and dimensions of freelancers and economic growth. ...
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Bergman and Jean (2016) include freelancers as one of the categories of workers who are understudied in the industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology literature. This neglect is particularly striking given the attention paid by the popular media and by politicians to the rise of the “gig economy,” comprising primarily short-term independent freelance workers (e.g., Cook, 2015; Kessler, 2014; Scheiber, 2014; Warner, 2015). This may be due in part to challenges involved in accessing and researching this population, as discussed by Bergman and Jean, but it may also arise from complexities in defining and conceptualizing freelance work, as well as from misunderstandings about the nature of the work now performed by many people who are considered freelancers. Major topics of interest to I-O psychologists such as organizational attraction, job satisfaction, and turnover may seem at first glance to lack relevance to the study of workers who are officially classified as self-employed. But there is substantial opportunity for I-O psychologists and other behaviorally oriented organizational researchers to contribute to our understanding of the growing number of people who earn all or some of their income by freelancing.