There can be little doubt that the gig economy was unprepared for the new normal and the speed with which it came about. Zero hours and freelance workers saw their prospects evaporate, often in the same afternoon, as company after company decided that the realities of lockdown couldn’t be reconciled with the retention of this sizeable demographic.
Living with the possibility of cancellation isn’t new to temps. Indeed, it’s par for the course. Maybe due to competition with other temps, or the client cutting back on expenditure, temps are psychologically prepared – or should be – for never having a secure income in the same way as permanent employees. As such, openness to new clients and personal development should always be in the back of the mind of a realistic and proactive temp.
Unfortunately, the present circumstances have created a situation in which many temps have lost both the opportunities for work with other companies, as well as the traditional temp fallback option of the hospitality sector. Though most temps view a return to bar and restaurant work as something of a backward step, especially financially, it’s nevertheless a safety net they formerly had at their disposal to make it through the lean times. For the moment that safety has gone, as have many other short-term options which they could slip into were they not confined to their homes and essential travel only. For those workers who temp to subsidize a vocation, for example the performing arts, the triple blow of seeing that industry grind to a halt, with all future work on indefinite hiatus, has created a situation in which for the first time in these people’s lives they are faced with the reality of having literally no immediate prospects.
Given this, the question must be asked, is there despair? The answer, after hundreds of confirmations with our own agency workers, is no. Or rather, not really. Of course, for some the shock has been considerable. But any tears shed are quickly consoled by the recognition that what’s going on is happening to everyone. It isn’t punitive or discriminating. They’re all in it together.
Aside from the prospect of support from the Job Retention Scheme, the temps out of work have proved themselves to be highly entrepreneurial, a trait they have always needed to have to survive a life of ever-shifting sands. To start with, the creative community (to which not all temps belong of course) is extremely supportive of itself. In the present time, the outpouring of online forums to share stories, experiences, and solutions has spiked to reflect escalated needs. It’s also been interesting to note the number of temps keen to pursue NHS volunteering, and who sought advice about how to go about it ahead of the government’s announcements on the subject.
But that’s not all. It wasn’t long before we had to field questions about what temps can do to make themselves more competitive, and better improve their future prospects. Across London, temps are improving their Excel skills, refreshing their PowerPoint knowledge, and seeking training on whatever sector-specific software they can. They want to know what expense software our clients use in case there’s a backlog; what Events or Marketing tools they should familiarize themselves with now that they have some time on their hands. Temps are survivors and innovators, and it’s striking that not one VWA temp can be classed as a “wallower” with regards to their present circumstances.
However, and most importantly, it’s important to keep in mind that their immediate prospects aren’t necessarily as bad as social media hyperbole might suggest. With respect to VWA’s client base, it would be entirely wrong to suggest that the need for temps has dried up. Many temps – and by no means am I referring to temp-to-perms – were lucky enough to be retained at the time of the lockdown as they were in essential roles. More importantly, en masse the clients demonstrated the ease with which they can set-up temps to work virtually.
Across London, temps attached to specific projects, performing interim covers, and providing overflow support, are still busy beavering away Monday to Friday alongside their permanent colleagues. And whilst they might be thanking their lucky stars that they weren’t just booked in for holiday cover or to sit on reception – both mainstream reasons for temp work which have seen a significant reduction – their retention explodes the longstanding myth that temps can’t work remotely. Quite clearly if they’re deemed essential, they can.
Herein lies the real question we must ask ourselves: exactly how temporary is this new style of temping? Even if the current pandemic abates in a timely manner, are we all going to return to the pre-lockdown status quo? Of course, we will all go back to using offices. But will hiring managers be as wary of remote working as they once were? It’s hard to see how they could be.
Furthermore, if the pandemic does drag on for longer than we currently expect, how long can clients go before they’re forced to reconsider their mode of work across the board? In this scenario, it may well be necessary to use remote temps to cover sickness, annual leave, overflow administration, or any other project which the existing permanent staff simply don’t have capacity to absorb. Although the current virtual temps were all inhouse when the lockdown started, that cannot remain the case indefinitely. Client need will surely force the pursuit of temps who are virtual from Day One, and VWA already has a queue of such candidates who are the strongest the market has to offer. They’re just waiting for the call…