Participation in the gig economy has grown rapidly over the past few years, and expanded exponentially since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, due in part to the increased reliance on gig workers to home-deliver necessities to consumers. Furthermore, the crisis has upended the traditional 9-5 working world and caused many blue- and white-collar employees to pursue gig work for additional – or even primary – income during these unprecedented times.

As the world starts to more fully embrace this new way of working, which will undoubtedly continue to grow post-pandemic, talent leaders must plan for this inevitable shift and find new ways to support workers to ensure the gig economy’s long-term viability.

While there is no universal definition of a gig worker, making them a difficult cohort to categorize, some estimates predict that gig workers represent around 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2020, up from between 14 and 20 percent in 2014. That means roughly 57 million Americans currently engage in some type of gig work that contributes more than $1 trillion to the U.S. economy annually. Those figures are only expected to grow, with some predicting that freelance workers will make up more than half of the U.S. workforce by 2023.

However, these estimates were made before COVID-19, and it is important that we understand and plan for how the world of work and the gig economy will fundamentally change post-pandemic:

Job Flexibility Is More Appealing, and Potentially More Necessary, Than Ever

One of the biggest benefits of the gig economy is the flexibility it offers, both in terms of working hours and the types of jobs that workers can take on. In fact, before the pandemic, around 70 percent of gig workers reported that they participated in the gig economy out of choice and because it provided more flexibility, and sometimes more income, than a full-time job. While this flexibility has always been appealing, since the start of COVID-19, it is likely that many full-time employees have had to reluctantly join the gig economy out of necessity.

Given that the pandemic has forced many offices and schools to close their physical doors, working parents have been forced to become both remote employees and homeschool teachers during the day. Without the option of having someone watch their children, many parents – and especially working women – have had to leave their 9-5 jobs to care for their families and have taken on gig jobs.

Gig work allows individuals to focus on their families during the day and pick-up work where and when it best fits into their schedule. How this trend could impact full-time work remains to be seen, but traditional employers may need to adapt and offer increased flexibility to full-time employees who have become accustomed to more flexible gig work arrangements during the pandemic.

Competition for Gig Work Has Increased

Although demand for gig workers has accelerated since the start of the pandemic, competition for gig jobs has also increased. Workers who participate in the gig economy as their sole source of income must now compete with one another, as well as previously full-time employees who have been forced into gig work. Additionally, as more and more Americans turn to the gig economy, workers face challenges in securing the benefits they once enjoyed. While this may be a cost advantage for some businesses that rely on gig talent, workers themselves will have to strengthen their personal brand and expand their skill set to secure the most viable opportunities.

A Strong Social Contract Will Become a Requirement

The global health crisis we are living through has placed even greater emphasis on the rights, benefits and protections that businesses offer to their workers, otherwise known as the social contract. While many American gig workers choose a more flexible lifestyle and don’t wish to be hired as full-time employees, debate continues around what benefits and protections businesses should offer to all workers in their organization.

This was the crux of the recent Prop 22 vote in California, a measure which allowed businesses to classify gig workers as independent contractors, but required them to provide those individuals with a healthcare contribution subsidy and 120 percent of the local minimum wage. This maintains the flexibility that gig workers value, but also highlights the need for protections like health coverage, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

It is likely that other states will follow California’s lead as gig workers and the public at large put increased pressure on businesses, especially large tech companies, to take better care of their people regardless of their employment classification. Providing both the flexibility and protection that gig workers want will likely require collaboration among employers, workers and state governments to be successful.

It is undeniable that the gig economy has become an integral part of the American workforce, a trend that has only been accelerated during the pandemic. Millions of employees are deciding to pursue a working arrangement that better fits with their lifestyle than what current full-time work often provides. However, the growth of the gig economy also raises important questions about the protections its workers are entitled to, and the long-term viability of this working arrangement if those protections aren’t provided.

Now is the time for businesses to reevaluate the role gig workers play in their organization and create a plan to retain them in the future. While their growing ranks may provide workforce agility and cost efficiency, as the economy looks to improve in 2021, employers will have to consider how to retain the best gig workers to help their organization accelerate recovery efforts in the months and years ahead.

*By Rebecca Henderson, Forbes*