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Disrupting the workforce

The gig economy is transforming professional life, though not always for the better
July 16, 2021
By Samantha Rideout, GrDip 10

Like many city dwellers, Nura Jabagi, MBA 14, PhD 21, relies on the ride-hailing Uber application to get around. As a researcher at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, she’s not only thinking about this form of transportation from a passenger’s perspective — she’s also curious about the experience of the drivers.

“When I saw how everything is automated by a digital platform, I started asking questions,” Jabagi says. “I got to hear about what it’s like to be managed by this app that’s sort of barking orders at you.” As people who earn an income without formal employment, Uber drivers are part of a growing trend in the labour market.

According to Statistics Canada’s latest estimate, more than eight per cent of Canada’s workers now go from one gig — a short-term task, contract or assignment — to the next. Gig workers are a diverse group ranging from dog walkers and freelance photographers to high-earning independent business consultants. What they all share is a lack of access to benefits such as paid time off, minimum-wage protections, sick leave, parental leave, prescription-drug insurance or job security.

For some, this is a worthwhile trade-off for autonomy, flexible hours and work-life balance. Yet, many gig workers do not enjoy those perks, either. As businesses rely increasingly on external labour to control costs and maintain flexibility, the gig economy is expected to continue growing.

Knowing this, Concordia researchers are investigating ways to improve the experience of gig work.

The autonomy paradox

Nura Jabagi, MBA 14, PhD 21

For her part, Jabagi is focused on gig workers whose experiences are mediated by digital platforms such as websites and smartphone apps.

Examples include DoorDash, which employs food couriers, Handy, which offers housecleaning and home repair services, and Upwork, which mediates desk work such as accounting or graphic design. 

“The gig economy offers a lot of opportunity,” Jabagi says. “And many people who lost their jobs [because of the COVID-19 pandemic] turned to it to keep themselves afloat.” In spite of this, however, Jabagi feels that most digital platforms have plenty of room to improve when it comes to worker management and experience. 

Her recent PhD thesis at Concordia explored how app designs and algorithms can influence workers’ intrinsic motivation, their perception of organizational support, their sense of being treated fairly and their sense of whether the organization supports their autonomy. 

“Autonomy is one of the big reasons why people are drawn to the gig economy,” she says. “But ironically, many platforms — especially those that are mediating lower-skilled work — break it down into little pieces and scrutinize it. They micromanage people, in other words.” Uber’s app, for example, tracks, rewards and penalizes drivers’ speeds, braking habits, exact routes and acceptance rates of customer hails. 

Jean-Philippe Warren

Jean-Philippe Warren, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, came to a similar conclusion while writing a book about the history of taxi drivers, including Uber drivers, in Montreal. 

“Drivers are now connected to a computer that dictates their job,” Warren says. “GPS steers them almost like a coachman steers a horse.” Plus, they typically need to work long hours to make a living wage. 

“Proud of their independence, they nevertheless feel like prisoners,” he writes in Histoire du taxi à Montréal (Éditions du Boréal, 2020). “They can stop working whenever they like, yet they work unceasingly.” 

There is one notable difference between taxi drivers and their ride-hailing-app counterparts, according to Warren. “Most Uber drivers work part-time or for a short period,” he says. “Ninety-five per cent of the people who register to become Uber drivers are gone after a year. They don’t feel as much like prisoners as regular taxi drivers do, because they don’t intend on making a living out of this occupation for long.” 

One of the many steps companies could take to enhance gig workers’ sense of autonomy — and perhaps also retain them for longer — is to offer them meaningful choices, Jabagi suggests. For example, instead of merely threatening to deactivate a worker who doesn’t initially perform as well as hoped, an app could echo what a human trainer would say, such as: Here are three areas where you have room to improve. Which one would you like to focus on? Here are some strategies that might help. 

“This is an example of what we call user-centred gamification,” Jabagi says. “There’s more agency in it.” Jabagi recognizes that even the most thoughtfully designed app wouldn’t always make workers feel adequately supported. “An algorithm can only go so far,” she says. “There has to be a way for workers to meaningfully reach a human being when necessary.”

Despite its current shortcomings, Jabagi sees hope for the future of the digitally-mediated segment of the gig economy. “The reality is that these platforms are not hard to reproduce,” she says. “The technology is easily copied, and then it’s a matter of getting a critical mass of users. We’re already seeing platform co-operatives that are growing.” 

She points to the Montreal-based driving co-op Eva as a local example. Eva’s drivers take part in company decision-making and bring home a larger share of its income. “I think there’s room for socially conscious options, even though customers might have to pay more,” Jabagi adds. “A lot of the dominant companies are operating on models that are hemorrhaging money. They’ve cut prices so much that the only place to get more money is out of workers’ pockets. I don’t think it’s sustainable to keep treating workers like they don’t matter.”

Supporting freelancers during turbulent times

Mostafa Ayoobzadeh, PhD 19

Another important segment of the gig economy, namely freelancers, has been on the mind of Mostafa Ayoobzadeh, PhD 19, an assistant professor at Université du Québec à Montréal and a former John Molson School lecturer. Examples include freelance programmers, actors, writers and cosmetologists. Unlike workers who receive a stream of potential clients through an app, these must find and negotiate their own gigs.

The pandemic has intensified the employment instability that many freelancers face. However, certain career competencies make them less likely to struggle. For a 2021 study, Ayoobzadeh examined the influence of “knowing why to work” (passion and motivation), “knowing how to work” (expertise and skills) and “knowing with whom to work” (professional relationships) on freelancers’ confidence in their ability to seek out new opportunities. The first two resources had a clear positive effect on job-search efficacy, while contacts did not.

“Professional networks were helpful for some participants and not others,” Ayoobzadeh says. “One possible explanation is that people kept receiving bad news about others losing their work. This wouldn’t be good for your confidence during times of crisis, even though a large network is probably helpful under other circumstances.”

According to Ayoobzadeh, the organizations that hire freelancers could do more to help them develop their careers. “Full-time employees often have access to training, mentoring, supervision and feedback,” he says. “Meanwhile, freelancers are on their own. Businesses [that rely on freelance work] could give back to the community by initiating skills-development programs. I’m not asking them to invest billions of dollars. For a corporation, that investment is nothing, but for a freelancer, it’s a gesture that could make a meaningful difference.”

Educational institutions also have a role to play: they can equip students to navigate the freelance market by honing abilities such as leadership, networking or negotiation. “This would help them to be successful with virtually any project in any industry,” Ayoobzadeh says. “It would also increase their motivation: research has shown that when people see themselves as more competent, they have more passion for what they do.” Concordia currently offers resources of this kind through CU at Home and the Student Success Centre’s FutureBound program.

Like Jabagi, Ayoobzadeh is optimistic about the future of gig work. In part, that’s because freelancers offer a type of service that is truly needed. “We don’t want all of them to give up and take traditional jobs instead,” he says. “There are good reasons for everyone — universities, governments, corporations — to help them feel like they’re supported, and not alone.” 

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