A Digital Renaissance Has Sparked A New World of Possibilities
By Mousa Ackall, Director of Brand Marketing, WorkMarket
tl;dr:As a number of technological, societal, and economic mega-trends converge, companies both large and small have already been massively impacted. Smart businesses are equipping their most important asset — their people — with the tools and information they need to be productive and maximize their value.
When it comes to experimenting with contractors’ behavior, how far do gig-economy companies like Uber go? Pretty far, according to a new in-depth account by The New York Times’ Noam Scheiber.
In a sense, the entire Uber platform is like a Skinner box or ant farm for isolating and examining how different incentives and inputs produce different outputs from riders and drivers. Uber is constantly tweaking the behavior of its drivers, the people formerly known as employees, with gamification-style interface elements — like badge rewards or notifications that pop up to say, “You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?”
Engineer Susan Fowler set off a firestorm last week with a post describing her experiences during a year’s employment at Uber. It was hard to tell which was worse to read about — the incidents of sexual harassment she described, or the inadequate (or nonexistent) response to her treatment by the firm’s management and human-resources team.
Uber, of course, has always been known for a brash, bare-knuckles culture. But Fowler’s account somehow broke through the industry’s indifference with telling, all-too-credible detail. Maybe it was the immunity seemingly granted “high performing” managers to hit on, condescend to, and discriminate against female colleagues; maybe it was the petty stuff, like the time everyone on the engineering team got status-conferring leather jackets, except the women, because theirs would cost a little more.
If civilization is about to get hit by a tidal wave of disaster, the one percent are buying luxurious rescue boats. The tech-industry “preppers” that Evan Osnos’s colorful, disquieting New Yorker piece profiles aren’t certain that the end is nigh. But their cash surpluses are so enormous they think it’s a reasonable hedge to splurge on some “apocalypse insurance” — a personal bunker, some New Zealand real estate, or maybe a luxury condo carved out of a decommissioned Kansas missile silo (with a nearby landing strip for private jets, of course).
We’ve been here before, of course, in the nuclear-spooked ’60s and ’80s. But this time around, the doomsday terror is fueled less by geopolitical crises than by vaguer worries about breakdowns of civility and populist pitchforks. Silicon Valley’s nightmare shambles forth from the deranged substrate of libertarianism: If you start by assuming that selfishness trumps all other human motivations, you end up behind barbed wire with an arsenal, fending off the mob.
Some people work in the gig economy because they want to, others because they have to. In a study of Uber and Lyft drivers, of which there are nearly a million in the U.S. alone, researcher Alex Rosenblat found that the interests of these two groups are different — and sometimes opposed (Harvard Business Review).
Here’s how that works: Only about 20 percent of drivers are full-time or near, but they handle a large proportion of rides taken. The majority of drivers, who are casual part-timers, give Uber flexibility, and the drivers are happy to get some spare cash. But the existence of this reserve pool gives the platform owner a buffer against the demands of the more dedicated workers. If the regulars ask for higher pay or better conditions, Uber can just tap into its reserve of extra workers. As Rosenblat puts it: “The availability of part-time earners reduces pressure on employers to create more sustainable earning opportunities.”
Stephen DeWitt has had the kind of career that used to end with a gold watch, a comfortable retirement, and a slow decline into old age. He’s held senior positions at HP, Cisco, and Symantec, and took Cobalt Networks through one of the highest flying IPOs of the late 1990s. But instead of retiring, in early 2015 he took the position of CEO at Work Market, a fast-growing platform that is reimagining the relationship between labor and business.
Backed by legendary investor Fred Wilson, New York-based Work Market helps large enterprises create “labor clouds” that connect skilled workers with tasks companies need to complete. The platform integrates all types of workers — contractors, full-time employees, and vendors — and parameterizes tasks and workflows against any number of data points and business rules. In short, Work Market hopes to instrument a wholesale rethinking of how work gets done in our society — from a world of traditional corporate employment to a world where every skilled worker can act as an enterprise of one.