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How the Gig Economy is Changing the Role of the Project Manager

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

The growth of what is commonly called the “gig economy” is emerging all over the globe as the fastest-growing job market. The typical operators that perform “gigs” are classified as freelancers, independent contractors, and consultants that organizations hire for temporary projects and campaigns that are primarily working in remote locations. I have been a Project Manager for several years now working with multiple freelancers and contractors all over the world…without leaving my office in Chicago.

In addition, many gig contractors are based in developing nations such as Brazil, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines as well as in many underutilized communities throughout the United States.

Due to the growing number of resources that are working remotely, and many of which are not full-time employees (FTEs) and the nature of the projects is transitioning to a greater level of ownership, the traditional role of the Project Managers has begun to evolve into that of a Product Manager. Moreover, the tools that Project Managers are using are designed to seamlessly integrate cloud-based project management platforms with collaborative production applications designed to track and report the performance and deliverables of multi-functional teams. Platforms such as Slack, Monday, JIRA, and Asana have become the standard tools for Project Managers to build and own development projects for companies with project resources located all over the globe (Nowogrodski, 2008).

Asana was created by a Facebook Co-Founder, Dustin Moskovitz, and ex-Google-and-Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein, based in the United States while working with contractors in India and Europe (Visitacion, 2016). Fundamentally, Moskovitz and Rosenstein were Product Managers’ on this new endeavor to launch the Asana platform, but the tool itself was initially designed to simplify the growing challenges, Project Managers. And personally, this is my favorite cloud-based project management platform. While Jira by Atlassian has become the primary tool used by consultancies such as Tata Consultant Services for their contractors to collaborate with their global clients.

The Project Managers role is developing into a specialized skillset due to the changing nature of the projects, where mangers must own deliverables in areas that are rising in-demand such as digital marketing, as well as Internet-of-Things (IoT) disciplines such as search engine marketing, advertising, and optimization (commonly simplified as SEM, SEA, and SEO respectively). Other practices like web development and sales/retail analytics are requiring more skills in these areas to better understand if the products and deliverables are pushing the strategy of organizations aligned with the changing landscape. Many Project Managers that are taking these initiatives are now considered Creative Project Managers because of the knowledge that is required to efficiently manage and lead the team’s specialized skills and collaborative nature.

Either comprised of small agencies, sub-contractors, or freelancers the project teams that Creative Project Managers are leading have produced some of the most notable products that consumers commonly use, the Groupon platform, iHeartRadio app, and Airbnb website upgrades were developed on projects where the team was made up of freelancers or “giggers” recruited on the creative gig platform Upwork (Deutschkron, 2018). The greater dependency on the “gig” economy will be explored and how this dependency will continually change the role of the Project Manager and the Project Management framework will need to evolve as well. Including the changes in how the lines are blurred between Product Managers and Project Managers as well as the importance of specialized skills are creating a new form of project management; Creative Project Management.

Managing Projects in the Gig Economy

The gig economy is changing the overall economy and the way we consider, strategize, and manage business and resources. A greater amount of people going are utilizing gigs as additional streams of income or building a profession from independent, impermanent work. This is due to two primary factors: (1) the rising costs of living while salaries lag and (2) uncertainty of employment (Morley, 2018). The possibility of a vocation forever now feels like a relic — expanded work portability, mechanical changes, and moves by the way we see business are for the most part fueling the monstrous upsurge in self-employment. Organizations are adjusting as well, utilizing specialists, gig workers, and an on-request workforce to assist them with meeting the difficulties of the ever-changing world of almost every industry.

The gig economy is made up of three main components: the independent workers paid by the gig (i.e., a task or a project) as opposed to those workers who receive a salary or hourly wage; the consumers who need a specific service, for example, a ride to their next destination, or a particular item delivered; and the companies that connect the worker to the consumer in a direct manner, including app-based technology platforms. Companies such as Uber, Airbnb, Lyft, Etsy or TaskRabbit act as the medium through which the worker is connected to — and ultimately paid by — the consumer. These companies make it easier for workers to find a quick, temporary job (i.e., a gig), which can include any kind of work, from a musical performance to fixing a leaky faucet.

One of the main differences between a gig and traditional work arrangements, however, is that a gig is a temporary work engagement, and the worker is paid only for that specific job. But what gigs where the producer is on an assignment and working as a resource for a larger client; these resources require a Project Manager to oversee that the deliverable is provided as expected. Traditionally the Project Manager is an FTE, but there are occasions where they themselves are external resources and contracted for a specific project. By 2020 gig workers will comprise half the workforce, according to Peter Miscovich, Managing Director, Strategy + Innovation, JLL Consulting which also has a business unit designed for contract project management. Furthermore, enterprise “Liquid Workforce” platforms such as Asana, JIRA, and Monday will be based upon the emerging “Hollywood Model” of working where agile project management and platform knowledge workers will be intelligently organized via the Internet on a project basis much like Hollywood movies are made today. The future Liquid Workforce will be organized via crowdsourced “uber-like” cloud-based work platforms providing greater workforce and workplace efficiency (Morley, 2018). In simplified terms, project resources will be sourced from platforms such as Upwork and Freelancer while their tasks, deliverables, and even compensation will be managed through solutions such as Oracle NetSuite and Monday.

From Morley’s report, he expanded on the reasons for the growth of the gig economy and how the changes bode well for both workers and organizations alike. Benefits of the gig economy for workers Benefits of the gig economy for corporations:

The way people “normally” work has forever changed due to the growing workforce being made up of younger generations specifically Millennials and Gen Z, that no longer want to be tethered to a desk all day, working for the same company for years on end — also because they do not see the long-term benefits of this type of “career”. In particular, Gen Z has grown up in a world shaped by the internet and mobile technology, with no connection to a time before it. The chances of this generation embracing a way of working rooted in the twentieth century are virtually nil. Organizations have been forced to adapt to the current climate of workers and are still adapting to how to manage and maintain productivity. In the light of constant change, organizations will be forced to become more flexible, agile, and streamlined placing a greater investment on tools that are designed to manage agile projects such as Asana and JIRA.

When you bring all of this together, it’s clear that the gig economy will continue to grow, one estimate is that the gig economy will make up as much as 80% of the workforce in the US alone (Morley, 2018) meaning that within the next decade the end of full-time positions as the prevalent mode of employment is very much expected. Organizations will function on a skeleton staff of decision-makers and leaders, very well could be considered Product Managers, dipping into the global talent pool of gig workers to fill in the gaps. These workers will be drafted into work on projects, with short-term contracts lasting days, weeks, or months, led by either FTEs that are Project Managers. Success in the gig economy will all come down to having the relevant skills as a Project Manager to manage, monitor, and control the teams of specialized skilled resources, enter the need for Creative Project Managers.

The Gig Economy's Impact on Project Management

The discipline of being a Creative Project Manager is not strictly about leading a process, it’s about working with a team to come up with a structure and approach that works for everyone. It is far more collaborative than the traditional concept of what a Project Manager “actually is”. Leading the skeleton or “mercenary like” teams specialized skilled talent on small, yet integrated projects will continue to grow as more resources are identified and assigned from talent pool platforms such as Upwork, Freelancer, and Fiverr as well as traditional staffing agencies simultaneously. The more workers that directly enter the gig workforce as they leave trade schools, skilled degree programs, and apprenticeships, the greater demand will be on Project Managers that understand how to identify talent, test the deliverables for quality, and build high-performing teams.

How Gigs Are Transitioning Project Managers into Product Managers

While Product Managers drive the development of products, wherein they prioritize initiatives (multiple projects like an organization’s program or even a portfolio of projects) in order to make strategic decisions about what gets accomplished (Aston, 2019), to some groups the Product Manager is considered to be the CEO of a product or brands. On the other hand, Project Managers, often oversee the execution of plans that have already been developed and approved which fit into and are designed to drive the strategy (Burgoyne, 2015). A Product Manager is the person that identifies what the customer needs and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, a high-level strategic viewpoint, and articulates what success looks like for a product, then rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality. Many current Project Managers’ are being asked to do this and the demand for Project Managers to understand, communicate, impact, and build on the strategy of the organization — so working in reverse starting in a role of a junior Product Manager (high-level, strategic vantage point) to Project Manager (implementation of the activities to accomplish strategic goals). So how is this impacted by the gig economy? More established companies are building portfolios of projects created to reach business goals, specifically to combat the disruptive nature of start-ups, are recruiting Project Managers from platforms such as Upwork and Freelancer that have specialized skills in the fields of UI/UX, digital marketing, eCommerce, web development, etc. and making them owners of projects to lead the execution of these initiatives. Essentially transitioning traditional Project Managers into Product Managers. While many start-ups, especially those with significant financial backing or supported by incubators, are bringing in Project Managers to serve as product management consultants.

With a significant difference between the roles of the different types of “PM” there is, of course, software appropriately designed for each role, but the platform could also be the same just the way the tools are being used are not. Since Product Managers are responsible for the “what?” and “why” of building a product, and Project Managers are responsible for the “how?” and “when?” so the applications being used may be the same, but the expectations will be different.

Additionally, Product Managers are responsible for coordinating with various teams and parties outside of the product team — they have to coordinate with marketing, sales, and as resources are being pulled from various sources the Product Manager’s combination of soft-skills (networking, interpersonal, etc) as well as connect with potential users to get valuable feedback and share it with the project teams. Project managers, on the other hand, work mostly internally with teammates in product and engineering to get the work of building parts of the product done.

Ultimately, the most successful product teams will have product and project managers working closely in unison because their respective skills and scopes will ensure that products are successfully built, tested, and updated to ensure a long lifespan and recurring revenue for the business. And when the projects are significantly unique and require specialized knowledge, the transition from being a traditional Project Manager turns into a specific type of project management.

The Emergence of the Creative Project Manager

Creative Project Managers must be comfortable with using different styles of project management, from directed, team-oriented to self-organizing and placing just as much of an emphasis on their soft-skills as their knowledge of project management practices. Project Management Basics: when defining a project fits directly into the world of creative projects (animation, photography/videography, filmmaking, etc). Creative projects are almost always time-bound, specific periods of time that it isn’t endless; it has a start date and an end date. In addition, they are unique, meaning that it is unlike any other project. It may be similar to other projects, but it is never identical to one. Creative projects are typically distinguished from one another, but the skills needed for instance casting call scheduling, site qualifications, pre/post-production requirements in regard to filmmaking will always be required of the Creative Project Manager. A project is typically unique; but the process is repeatable and strives for consistency, standardization, but there must be a deliverable which means that there has to be an outcome.

A project is defined in the PMBOK by the Project Management Institute (PMI): • is a temporary endeavor with a beginning and an end • creates a unique service, or result, which we call a deliverable • is done for a purpose • has interrelated activities • is progressively elaborated; that is, the distinguishing characteristics of each unique project will be progressively detailed as the project is better understood • must meet specific criteria of quality, cost, and schedule (these three factors are called the triple constraint)

Thus, the principles of almost every single creative endeavor fit into the industry standard of what a project is as defined by the governing body of project management; the Project Management Institute (PMI). Typically, projects where the approach and methodologies are the same from one project to the next, creative projects evolve and change from project to project, while creative projects are well known for switching directions significantly mid-project and with each iteration. There is a growing understanding that the Creative Project Manager will have to possess a strong set of soft skills. A high performing Creative Project Manager is made up of part creative skillset, part effective manager, a combination that produces results. But beyond the details and the tasks inherent in running any product, emotional intelligence is key. Clear and effective communication is also key, more so than just reporting on the status. The challenges and skills needed to effectively execute a project of a Creative Project Manager. When working with creatives, the deliverables are not gears and widgets; they’re creative expressions meant to have an impact and trigger action. A social media platform, feature films, product advertisements are creative projects; therefore, the team will likely be more connected to the product of their work than others might be. Team members will be visual artists, directors, actors, graphic designers, even musicians with emotional connections to all their work.

Empathy and sensitivity, especially when criticizing, is crucial when managing creative teams.

• Clearly defining the product. A creative project, or for that matter any project that is vague, is always going to be challenging. Making sure the product is clearly defined to keep everyone focused is essential.

• Creative project team roles can also be challenging, in that creative roles can be varied and even overlapping constantly (think UI and UX in web development projects), so a key skill for the Creative Project Manager is effectively communicating who is responsible for what deliverables and work package hand-offs from one party to another.

• Creative personalities can be like other project team members, only taken to extremes. Some are too detail-oriented, while others aren’t detailed enough, so be aware of the people on the team.

• Finally, there’s project scope, which can be impacted by creative team members who have their own interpretation of what the project scope is.

Most creative project team members are scattered across a large landscape (one group is located in the US while another is in Japan, but the key stakeholders are in France), so the Creative Project Manager has to have the ability to translate emotions from one culture to another which is not completely unique but taken to a higher level of sensitivity on projects of a creative nature.

As the number of financial investments grows on projects in the entertainment, advertising, and IoT industries and talented resources that are capable of producing high-quality deliverables are more scattered across the globe, yet the means for them to collaborate allow them to transition work seamlessly, the necessity for highly skilled Creative Project Managers will only continue over the decades.

I just completed my Master’s of Project Management graduate program and got inspired to illustrate to my classmates, and professors, about the growing specialization and demand for project managers to work in creative spaces. I hope you enjoy this article, and please comment.


Got questions about branding? Got some knowledge to drop? Hey, stay in touch. Drop me a line. I’m always happy to work with entrepreneurs and help them accomplish their goals. It’s my passion and a part of my brand.

I’m Ehren Muhammad, Founder of EMPro, Ltd

Let’s connect!

EMPro, Ltd — Branding & Digital Marketing

We Help Brands Grow

Chicago, IL



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