Flexible Work Can be Fulfilling Work, Too

For many of us, there comes a point in our lives when holding down a 9–5 (or longer) job becomes impossible. Whether it’s because we have kids or aging parents who need our help, or we want to pursue a passion that doesn’t pay the bills (yet), at one point or another it makes sense to find work that has flexible hours and/or work-at-home options.

Unfortunately, this often means making a compromise: taking work that is lower paid, or beneath your skill set or level of education. (This point was driven home to me recently when my checkout guy at Trader Joe’s told me he was a PhD candidate in math). Those trade-offs are particularly hard-felt by older workers who may have decades of experience in their field, but need to augment up their retirement income with extra work.

Part-time work is on the rise

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data (January 2016) shows that 18.2% of employed workers are part-timers. That percentage doesn’t even include independent workers in the burgeoning “gig economy,” or self-employed independent contractors who work part-time. The percentage of workers that work part-time shot up in 2010 during the Great Recession, but the ratio of part-time to full-time work has continued to rise, despite the economic recovery.

The need for a flexible schedule has driven many older workers to part-time jobs that are physically demanding

As our economy becomes more service-oriented, and so many traditional job functions become automated, the trend toward part-time work and multiple “gigs” will continue to grow. But there is no reason why part-time work should equal less-valuable work, or why making meaningful contributions to an organization must entail sitting at a desk for 40–60 hours per week.

A “gig” with purpose?

When we started Zum, an on-demand ride service for kids, we knew that our success would depend on finding exceptionally responsible, professional, and personable drivers to work with the busy families who entrusted us with their children. That meant going way above and beyond the standard screening and interview procedures to find the highest quality candidates. This would be a two-way street, though. In order to hire great caregivers, we would offer above-average pay, flexibility, and control over one’s schedule. More than that, we would give our drivers (“Zumers”) the chance to forge meaningful relationships with clients, by assigning them to a consistent group of families.

We hypothesized that there were high-quality candidates out there, who were holding out for opportunities that would give them flexibility, better pay and a sense of purpose. But we’ve truly been overwhelmed by the number of amazing Zumers who have helped us grow from 10 to 100 providers in only six months. Our team of Zumers includes teachers, nurses, stay-at-home moms, grad students, and even part-time professionals.

One Zumer, Naira, appreciates the flexibility and also the opportunity to grow:

“Zum lets me choose my hours and has also given me a growth path to work on recruiting and training other Zumers.”

The same feedback loop that keeps our quality standards high also brings a sense of fulfillment to Zumers — many report that when they receive positive feedback from clients, it lifts their spirits and boosts their confidence in their other endeavors.

The “gig economy” is likely here to stay — but that doesn’t have to mean that work has to become impersonal and commoditized. After all, technology is most successful when it connects people to create value that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Workers who need flexibility are a rich, largely untapped resource, and employers would be foolish to marginalize them with low pay and shoddy benefits. They are also valuable members of our communities, which are strengthened when we’re all able to find fulfilling and respected work.