Thursday 28 Sep 2023
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 20, 2021 - September 26, 2021

The gig economy rose to prominence this year as the need to address the shortfall in earnings became more acute. WORQ co-founder and CEO Stephanie Ping says the availability of technology and digital tools helped propel the gig economy globally, especially since the pandemic forced a change in the way companies and people operate.

As more challenges arise from Covid-19 and its effects on the economy, Ping says there will be business opportunities. She believes that new business models and more start-ups will keep emerging and people will always find new ways to earn a living.

“Based on findings provided in ‘The Future of Employment — 30 Telling Gig Economy Statistics’, the future of the gig economy in the US is bound to increase steadily. Only time will tell, but it is likely that the workforce may evolve into a more distributed format.

“This means there will be more hybrid offices, gig employees as well as freelancers in Malaysia’s workforce. The ‘traditional’ route of a graduate entering the workforce is likely to look very different in the next five years, just like the workplace arrangements,” she says.

Business matchmaking is all about connection and serendipity, she says, especially during the pandemic, where physical face-to-face meetings are not allowed, causing many events and business networking opportunities to disappear. Connections are important in business, she adds, but more so for freelance and gig workers.

“Most would agree that it is during casual meetings over coffee and cigarette breaks that brilliant business ideas are formed. The informal environment is where the serendipity happens. Tapping a community helps them connect to a larger pool of talent and opportunities,” she says.

As the gig economy rises, businesses are watching for ways to contribute to it and leverage where possible. Ping believes that, with the right information and education about how companies can benefit from the gig economy and how flexi-hires or flexi-work can help them save overhead and operational costs, most businesses will come on board.

To facilitate and bridge that imminent gap, Ping says, the co-working space will leverage community initiatives such as bonfires, town hall meetings and even virtual fireside chats with industry experts to get the word from pillar to post.

“WORQ’s vision and mission focus on community building, as we believe everyone can benefit from leveraging the community’s strength to prosper by working together. This pushes WORQ to think further, extending community building from the physical space to the digital realm and beyond WORQ’s community.”

SPARQ-ing the gig economy

Not long after the government-sanctioned lockdowns were imposed because of the pandemic, Malaysians around the country made efforts to help businesses survive this rough wave. Ping wanted to do something for the community at WORQ as well.

With connection and serendipity in mind, the company initiated SPARQ, a community project by the members of WORQ who wanted an open platform for anyone to reach out or offer help. Ping says WORQ took it upon itself to use SPARQ as an opportunity to connect not only the local community but also those from other parts of Malaysia.

“Before the launch of SPARQ, community members would have to rely on their community managers for help and they would have to be part of WORQ to access them. We wanted to find a way to scale this so that we could provide a solution for the whole of Malaysia,” she says.

“We see a future in which both online and offline platforms work together to generate more accessibility in the gig industry. While the proliferation of digital platforms has helped with accessibility, the need for human connection will accelerate more as we start to work and live remotely while business communities spread out.”

SPARQ has grown into a collaboration app with a smart matching artificial intelligence (AI) system that acts as a digital community manager, connecting businesses with the right collaborators. The matching algorithm connects individuals based on their needs, interests and expertise, says Ping.

She adds that it is also being used to match job opportunities and events that users might be interested in. SPARQ keeps track of users’ engagement activities to determine their influence and expertise on the platform. The more they contribute to the community, the more likely they will be recommended.

“SPARQ is an extension of the community in the digital realm. It carries the same mission to facilitate connections and collaborations. Through the engagement features, users participate in discussions, share opportunities and reach out to connect with others. This is where ‘connection and serendipity’ occur.”

SPARQ has four main features, the first being smart business matchmaking by the digital community manager. Unlike a phy­sical community manager in the co-working space, SPARQ works 24/7 online to help users find the right collaborators and opportunities for their projects. Ping says the app is able to recommend experts from a wide range of industries.

Next is the “discover and connect” feature, which allows users to meet people from different industries and expertise. After connecting on SPARQ, users will be able to contact connections directly.

Users can also use the SPARQ app to ask for help, offer help or start a discussion. Ping says the AI system will recommend experts to help users, providing an opportunity for ideas and feedback to be shared.

Lastly, SPARQ can be used as an e-business card, where users can display their portfolio, expertise and experiences for personal branding. The app is available for Android and Apple users, the WORQ community as well as the wider business community.

Ping says the company is looking to introduce geolocation to improve pairing, as well as the use of more advanced data analytics to help improve the experience and effectiveness of engagement that it facilitates across communities.

Relevance of co-working spaces post-pandemic

Malaysia’s co-working landscape is still wide open, says Ping. There is competition in the industry but the number of big-box players is not significant and she does not see an overly competitive market.

This is in comparison to competitive industries such as restaurants, where the number of establishments cannot be quantified. Co-working is not there yet; it is still a growing industry that has potential.

For now, the co-working industry is still new, says Ping, and there are many ways of innovating it to the point where it stabilises. But she does foresee the landscape becoming more competitive as the market matures.

“Our advantage is that we are one of the first movers and are committed to innovating and building our core competencies,” she says. “At the same time, it is important to build a business sustainably, one that supports long-term growth and has a strong position in the market. A sustainable business will always win and has the highest probability of weathering major industry changes or economic downturns.

“It also puts us in a position to grow fast and aggressively during these negative periods, because we have the infrastructure and core competencies to capitalise on any opportunities. Fund managers always say, protect the downside of a business and the upside will take care of itself. This parable is true and tested and, therefore, being sustainable is an integral part of growing.”

The change in the future of the workplace will continue to influence the operations of co-working spaces, says Ping, as there is a higher demand for a more flexible and decentralised workstyle. Companies are rethinking their real estate, adopting pay on-demand workspaces.

On top of that, Ping says WORQ is expecting multinational companies to announce flexi-work styles, which will then prompt many (smaller) companies to follow in its footsteps.

“In 10 years’ time, 30% of the workspace will be converted into flexible workspaces, according to a report by Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. A distributed work style and remote working will attract gig workers to work in Malaysia via the Malaysia Tech Entrepreneur Programme,” she says.

Offices will not disappear, however, as people will still yearn for social interaction. She says people may opt to work in satellite offices near home, where co-working spaces can act as a landing pad for collaborative discussions, brainstorming and engagement.

“People will need a productivity space to get work done. This is a form of ‘escape’, especially for working parents. These spaces will need to have access to high-speed internet and office facilities (printer, scanner and photocopy machine) to get work done,” she explains.

“These factors themselves tell us that the demand for co-working [or possibly flexi-working] will be an inevitable need that will see market growth and meet demands.”

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