How Gigwork enables self-determined careers in the digital age

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The 21st century labour landscape is undergoing radical change (De Vos & Van der Heijden, 2017). New careers have emerged that are less linear, less predictable and not tied to one employer (Arthur, 2008). One example of such a new, modern form of career is gigwork. Researchers at BFH Business School and the University of Bern are investigating this form of work in a project.

Gigwork is work that is arranged via an online platform such as Uber, Upwork or Fiverr, and in which freelancers and clients or companies are brought together for a short period of time and on a project-related basis – for a gig. Gigwork is very different from traditional employment relationships such as permanent employment with an employer. For example, online platforms use algorithms to match workers with clients and employ performance management through publicly accessible online rating systems (e.g. clients/organisations can rate gig workers) (Meijerink & Keegan, 2019). In addition, pay and benefits are digitally designed to motivate desirable behaviour (e.g. automatic withholding of pay for insufficient work performance) and the organisation of work allows for flexibility in terms of time and content (e.g. the ability to work whenever employees want) (Meijerink & Keegan, 2019).

Insights into the working world of Swiss gig workers

Gigwork has gained popularity in recent years, but is also the subject of repeated controversy and negative headlines. The main points of criticism are often the insecurity of working conditions, the lack of social security and inadequate pay (Caza et al., 2021).

We asked ourselves the specific question: What are people’s experiences of gig work, and what is the initial career trajectory of gig workers?

In 2021 (January to April), we conducted interviews with 45 people from Switzerland who work on online platforms. The aim of the interviews was to record their experiences and first professional steps with gigwork. The average age was 36 years (spread between 21 and 51 years). Most participants only worked via a single platform and for an average of 24.5 hours per week. While 62% worked on site (e.g. handyman services), 38% worked online (e.g. video editing, marketing). On average, they had almost 2 years of experience with gigwork and had already completed an average of 45 gigs. In addition, most had a university degree (42%), followed by 36% with a vocational qualification. Gig workers earned an average monthly net income of 2,514.60 Swiss francs, which is significantly lower than the income of self-employed people in Switzerland (4,392 Swiss francs; FSO, 2023).

Phases in the professional development of gig workers

Our interviews show that the initial professional development of a gig worker takes place in three phases: Establishment phase, Retention phase, and Expansion phase. Each phase is characterised by specific triggers, such as job applications and profiling. In addition, we identify challenges in each phase and the transition between phases, including associated behaviours and emotions.

Gigwork Bild2

Illustration: Career learning cycle of gig workers with the three phases: Establish phase (“Establish”), Embed phase (“Embed”), and Expand phase (“Expand”).

Establish stage: In this stage, gigworkers* register on a platform for the first time and, as newcomers, have to set themselves up on the platform and get used to the new environment. Gig workers learn how to use the platform’s functions and receive enough reviews to be recognised by clients (“Newbie Challenge”).

“And when you start as a newbie on the platform […] it’s very difficult to get the first projects because you don’t have much to show or you don’t have a portfolio and there are no reviews on your profile yet.” (Online gig worker)

The establishment phase involves exploring and experimenting in order to get the first gigs and reviews and thus be recognised by other customers. Gig workers experience mixed feelings ranging from enthusiasm to frustration. The enthusiasm stems from the initial attractiveness of the platforms, which offer them easy access to work and seemingly unlimited employment opportunities in their personal areas of interest compared to traditional employment relationships. Respondents emphasise that there are minimal restrictions when applying and that you can apply without the required education. They also believe that uploading a CV is simple and efficient, as there is no lengthy selection process or interviews. On the other hand, frustration also arises from the feeling of “being rejected again and again” and realising that “itis particularly difficultto be seenat the beginning“.

Embedstage: In this stage, gig workers are faced with a highly competitive platform environment after their first successful assignments. They face the challenge of positioning themselves and building trusting customer relationships (“Positioning and Relational Challenge”).

“Some people who start their own projects at the beginning know how to communicate and how to express themselves well in writing. I’m always nice to clients and try to establish good communication [with clients] because that’s important.” (Online gig worker)

In this phase, strategic profile adjustments and personal branding (developing your own brand) are crucial in order to stand out from the competition. In particular, this phase requires skilful communication in order to build customer relationships. Emotionally, this phase is characterised by gratitude for relationships with customers and feedback, but also by anger in conflicts and the feeling of being exploited.

Expansion stage (Expand stage): Building customer relationships leads to an increase in orders and the need to prioritise incoming orders according to quality (content) and quantity (time required) (“balancing challenge”).

“[Clients often ask:] Could you do a few little extra things for me? Nowadays I always ask the question: What are these little things? How much are these little things worth to you? I think you have more and more decisions to make, and they’re not always the easiest. You can really rack your brains.” (Online gig worker)

Gig workers are more responsive to their needs when choosing their assignments and learn to deal with technical limitations or platform restrictions. In this phase, they develop more emotional stability and confidence in dealing with customers, especially in conflict situations.

Our results show that the success of gig workers depends largely on their ability to adapt to platforms, clients and new tasks. e mastering these challenges leads to greater self-efficacy, skills development and ultimately to better positioning and choices in gig work.

“I always thought I wasn’t good with people. I thought I was an introvert. […] Working on the platform has shown me that I’m very, very good with people. That I’m very communicative, that my clients and colleagues are happy with me.” (location-based gig worker)

What can platforms and career counsellors do?

Based on the experiences of gig workers described above, platforms are tasked with providing targeted support to their gig workers in the various career phases. For example, platforms could make it easier to get started by offering induction programmes and giving new gig workers the opportunity to present themselves prominently on the platform to make it easier for them to get started, even if they do not yet have any reviews. In order to strengthen clients’ trust in new gig workers, a differentiated online reputation system could be introduced, as well as, for example, a digital CV that transparently presents the specific services and value that gig workers have provided for their previous clients or employers (Rosenblat et al., 2017). Such a system could significantly support the building of trust, especially at the beginning of the collaboration. Furthermore, career counsellors should support gig workers in developing key skills, especially in areas such as communication and branding. These skills are crucial for starting and maintaining a successful career in gigwork.

Thus, it stands to reason that a successful gigwork career depends not only on individual skills and efforts, but also on supportive structures and tools that should be provided by platforms and counsellors.

Summary and outlook

It is clear that gigwork is a self-directed form of career. The three phases of the career cycle – establishment phase, commitment phase, expansion phase – reflect the challenges and development steps that gig workers have to face. These phases are characterised by constant learning and adaptation. The results emphasise the importance of skills such as communication, building a personal brand and overcoming initial challenges for success.


    1. Arthur, M. B. (2008). Examining contemporary careers: A call for interdisciplinary inquiry. Human Relations, 61(2), 163-186.
    2. Caza, B. B., Reid, E. M., Ashford, S. J., & Granger, S. (2021). Working on my own: Measuring the challenges of gig work. Human Relations, 75(11), 2122-2159.
    3. De Vos, A., & Van der Heijden, B. I. J. M. (2017). Current thinking on contemporary careers: the key roles of sustainable HRM and sustainability of careers. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 28, 41-50.
    4. Federal Statistical Office, Switzerland (2023).
    5. ILO. (2013). Global Wage Report 2012/2013: Wages and equitable growth. Geneve: International Labour Office.—dgreports/- –dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_194843.pdf
    6. Meijerink, J., & Keegan, A. (2019). Conceptualising human resource management in the gig economy. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 34(4), 214-232.
    7. Rosenblat, A., Levy, K. E. C., Barocas, S., & Hwang, T. (2017). Discriminating Tastes: Uber’s Customer Ratings as Vehicles for Workplace Discrimination. Policy & Internet, 9(3), 256-279.

The publication

The authors have published their research findings in this paper: Zwettler, C., Straub, C., & Spurk, D. (2023). Kicking off a Gig Work Career: Unfolding a Career Learning Cycle of Gig Workers. Journal of Career Assessment, 0(0).

BFH researches gig work

Together with the University of Bern, Coople and the Syndicom trade union, researchers from the New Work Institute are investigating the relatively new phenomenon of platform work in German-speaking countries. The research project “Platform Work in Switzerland” is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation as part of the National Research Programme 77 on Digital Transformation.

Creative Commons Licence

AUTHOR: Caroline Straub

Prof Dr Caroline Straub researches and teaches at the Institute New Work at BFH Business School. Her research topics are platform work (gig work), digital HRM, work-life integration and flexible work organisation.

AUTHOR: Clara Zwettler

Clara Zwettler is a lecturer at the BFH Business School and a pre-doctoral student at the Faculty of Work and Organisational Psychology at the University of Bern. She is working on the SNSF project: Platform-based work.

AUTHOR: Daniel Spurk

Daniel Spurk is Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology at the University of Bern.

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